Once considered an old-fashioned activity, roller skating is having a moment. There’s something inherently cool about roller skating: the knee high socks, the dangerously short shorts, the retro vibe that harkens back to diners and disco.
So it makes sense that during the coronavirus pandemic, after spending months at home stewing in our own existential dread, Americans have turned to roller skating as a means of escape.
‘It’s The Closest Thing To Flying’
Michelle Steilen, better known as Estro Jen in the roller derby world, is the founder and CEO of Southern California-based Moxi Skates, a young, style-forward brand manufactured by longtime skate maker Riedell. She believes roller skating as a pandemic pastime is a no-brainer.
“It’s the closest feeling to flying,” she said. “It’s really great to just tune out the world and it’s good for your mental and physical health.”
According to Steilen, sales at Moxi have grown astronomically since the pandemic began. The usual rate of growth for the entire Riedell brand house is 20% per year, while Moxi has grown at a rate of 50% every year since it was founded in 2008. “But since March, we’ve grown 1,000%,” Steilen said.
That success hasn’t been without some major growing pains.
“[Customers are] just not used to American-made manufacturing,” she said. Because all Reidell products are handmade in the U.S., it takes a long time to put together a quality pair of skates. And due to the high volume of orders for Moxi, they’re experiencing production issues.
“We’ve got backorders in the tens of thousands,” Steilen said. In fact, the company had to open up a second factory in Arkansas to try and keep up with demand. However, with inventory completely depleted, customers have been forced to wait months to receive their skates. And they’re not happy about it.
That’s put a lot of pressure on Steilen and the Moxi team to educate new customers about the production process and ask for patience during this unusual time. “Ninety percent of everyone is new ... we’re completely overrun by new beginners and a novice market,” she said. “It’s just really a chaotic feeling.”
Even so, Steilen thinks the recent growth of roller skating is a positive trend. “We’ve always aimed to be the shoes of the future ... I’ve always known that this was possible.” She added that unlike other male-dominated skating sports such as aggressive inline skating and skateboarding, roller skating has managed to serve a whole female market that’s never been catered to before. And she believes this is only the beginning.
A Haven In Hard Times
Terrance Brown, a 31-year-old personal trainer living in Santa Barbara, California, is one of those new skaters. Brown, who trains professional athletes, lost 80% of his business when the pandemic hit. “That was a dark moment for me,” he said. “But then I encountered roller skating.”
As a muscular, no-nonsense trainer, Brown never entertained the idea of getting into a sport like skating before. His mother, who used to skate in her younger days, eventually encouraged him to give it a shot.
All it took was two lessons at Skating Plus in Ventura and he was hooked. He loved it so much, in fact, that he started stopping other roller skaters on the street to join him. The small group of skating friends grew into a club, which Brown originally called SB Roll Bounce, a reference to the 2005 film starring Nick Cannon and Bow Wow about a group of young Black roller skaters in the ’70s.
“It’s predominantly white people here in Santa Barbara,” he explained. “So they didn’t know what the heck [“Roll Bounce”] was.” In fact, Brown is the only Black person in his club. He got tired of explaining the meaning behind the club’s name, so he changed it to SB Rollers.
Cohen Thompson, 33, has been skating practically his whole life. He’s an active member of the skate community in Philadelphia, where he says roller skating has always been a popular underground sport. But when the pandemic hit, many of the skating rinks were shut down. “The kids and adults and I had nowhere to go,” he said. “That was our place of freedom. That was our place of stress relief. If you take those things away ... crime is going to happen.”
That’s one of the reasons his nonprofit Skate University, which operates in west Philadelphia, has been such a blessing. Through the program, Thompson teaches kids and families how to skate, which he sees as a healthy outlet for the participants. “It’s a character builder,” Thompson said. “They develop more self confidence and self-esteem.”
Until recently, you probably wouldn’t have recognized Thompson from any other skater on the street. The surgical first assistant by day, who traveled to New Jersey earlier this year to help out along the medical front lines of the pandemic, is known for a now-viral video dancing in skates and scrubs outside of MetLife stadium.
When he’s not treating patients, you can find Thompson hosting family-friendly events at the skate park he renovated with his own money, where he provides music, food and skate rentals for free. He sees it as a way to bring people together during what is a tough time for many. “This is just my way of just trying to make things a little bit easier on everybody else,” he said.
Skate University has also played a key role in keeping local kids safe and out of trouble, Thompson said. Thompson recounted how just last week, a child was caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting while sitting on his porch. That’s why, he said, any time the local kids call him up looking for something to do, he’ll head straight to the skate park after work and open up the gates for them. “That’s what Skate University is all about.”
Skate Culture Is Black Culture
Take a look at TikTok, for instance, and you’ll find a sea of young white women with hundreds of thousands of followers who fawn over their ability to sexy-walk backwards on skates. The app’s #rollerskating page, which boasts more than 1.7 billion views, declares that “#RollerSkating is back.”
But long before social media highlighted slim, blond 20-somethings in bell bottoms and pastel skates dancing to Fleetwood Mac, there was a vast community of Black skaters. There still is. And to them, roller skating isn’t “back” ― it never went anywhere in the first place.
Roller skating is deeply rooted in Black culture, which is responsible for developing the many forms of dance and jam skating that exist today. There’s a unique style for just about every major city. In Chicago, for instance, it’s “JB-style.” In Philadelphia and South Jersey, it’s “Fast Backwards.”
Like so many trends to emerge from Black culture, the history of roller skating is marked by racism. Rinks were battlegrounds during the civil rights movement, when Black skaters who protested segregation faced violence by white patrons and police alike. “During those times, skating kept the Black community together,” Brown said. “Once you unlace those skates, it’s back to reality. But when they were skating, they bonded ... It was a foundation.”
In later years, segregation was coded as “adults-only” sessions or “urban night,” while many of the rinks that served primarily Black communities shuttered. Today, discrimination still echoes: It’s not unusual for white-owned rinks to institute dress codes that ban saggy pants and hoodies, as well as prohibit the micro wheels favored by advanced jam skaters. Owners contend that overly loose clothing is a safety hazard, and the tiny, ultra-hard wheels scratch the flooring. For Black skaters, though, it can feel like a ban on their entire subculture that’s responsible for making roller skating so popular in the first place.
Brown said he is thankful for the Black skaters before him who fought for their place in the rink. Without them, he probably wouldn’t be sharing his passion for roller skating as the leader of a club in a predominantly white beach town.
“It’s not a revival of roller skating ... I think ‘a resurgence in sales’ is appropriate.”
“Roller skating rink culture has always been a Black community that has kept roller skating alive since the very beginning,” Steilen said. “It’s important that the Black community is highlighted and acknowledged for their contribution to roller skating in all of these stories.”
Steilen also said that the newfound interest in roller skating shouldn’t be called a comeback. “It’s not a revival of roller skating ... I think ‘a resurgence in sales’ is appropriate.”
Thompson said he isn’t too concerned with who gets into roller skating these days, even if that means a lot more newbies who might not understand the history behind their new hobby. “It’s not a bad thing. We just don’t want it to be a fad,” he said.
To Thompson, skating is the glue that holds communities together, and he’s going to keep doing everything he can to make life better for others through skating. “I’m just trying to reach as many people as possible so I can go to heaven. That’s it.”