If your Instagram feed has transported you from the four walls you’ve been confined to since March to a sun-soaked SoCal, where people in halterneck tops and booty shorts soar down palm tree-lined streets, smooth beats soundtracking their fluid moves, then you’re not alone. You might even have bought a pair of skates yourself, wanting to leave the temptation to doomscroll through Twitter at home and instead tap into the uninhibited joy you remember from the roller rink birthday parties of your childhood.
Between social isolation, an inability to plan for the future and general global anxiety about where this pandemic will leave us, many of us have sought solace in nostalgic pursuits, and roller skating has taken centre stage. Globally, Google searches for the sport more than doubled between March and May and Pariss Cozier, marketing executive at Rookie Rollerskates, one of the UK’s original skate brands, tells me that they have "seen an influx in sales and people sharing the love with us online." TikTok has been credited with casting a spotlight on the scene this summer, as beginners and pros alike use the platform to show off their skills from empty parking lots the world over.
"I’ve been skating for five months and, like most other new skaters, TikTok was where I got my inspiration," says California-based Marician Dedeaux Brown, whose posts on the app receive up to 400k likes. "Everything is closed, so the great outdoors can relieve that pent-up feeling we all have in lockdown." Marician’s feed is swimming with dreamy, light-leaked videos of her gliding across deserted basketball courts in sunshine yellow crop tops and cut-off shorts, headphones positioned carefully over her space buns. The skate obsession has reached London, too, where R29 journalist Jessica Morgan has been hitting the tarmac. "I bought my skates three weeks ago, after I saw loads of videos of young female skaters flood my social media," she says. "It just looked so cool and – dare I say – easy to do, so I thought, Why not?" Bestselling author Candice Brathwaite has also taken up skating for the first time. Posting a photo of her bubblegum pink Rookies ("TikTok has a lot to answer for"), she’s been sharing her progress with her 191k Instagram followers.
For the uninitiated, the surge in roller skating may feel like a throwback that’s thrived in lockdown but seasoned pros will tell you that the eight-wheeled pursuit never went away. Skates have been around since the 1760s when, the story goes, Belgian inventor John Joseph Merlin attached two wheels to each of his shoes and cruised into a dinner party, smashing into a full-length mirror in the process. One hundred years later, the American inventor James Leonard Plimpton made the whole affair much easier by patenting four-wheeled skates which could be steered simply by leaning to the left or right. By the turn of the 20th century, roller rinks were flourishing – from Madison Square Garden to virtually every major city in Europe – as the sport became a major pastime for adults and children alike.
It’s not all wholesome scenes of smiling families gliding in unison, though. Skating has a chequered past, as highlighted in 2018’s United Skates, a Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler-directed and John Legend-produced Storyville documentary now streaming on BBC iPlayer. A love letter to the sport which explores how it has served America's Black community over nearly 100 years, there’s breathtaking footage of skaters repping styles unique to their states at Skate Jamz. Talking heads from Coolio and Salt-N-Pepa highlight the musical importance of rinks, too: rappers and hip-hop artists who were shunned by mainstream radio and MTV, including Queen Latifah, Dr Dre and Eazy-E, cut their teeth at rinks like LA's Skateland. The film also shows how style and skating are inextricably linked: people dismissed uncool hire skates and upped their foot game by attaching metal brackets and wheels to customised sports and dress shoes, from Timberlands to Air Jordans to Converse All Stars. TikTok's statement skaters have picked up on this DIY style today, Cassandra Napoli, digital media and marketing strategist at trend forecaster WGSN, tells me.
While the documentary is celebratory, it also draws direct lines between racial divides and the rapid closure of rinks across the US. During segregation, the Black community was unwelcome at rinks, with Klansmen violently attacking protestors who fought for their right to skate. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, many white people refused to skate at reintegrated rinks so owners came up with specific sessions for Black folk using extremely coded terms: "Martin Luther King Jr. Night", "Soul Night" and "Gospel Night" all appeared but "Adult Night" stuck and is still used up and down the country today. This discrimination was just another way to segregate the community but in the '70s and '80s African American culture thrived in these hard-won spaces and the jam, hip-hop and rhythm skating that was born out of this scene led to mind-blowing regional skate dance styles which remain hugely influential, from Chicago’s James Brown to Washington DC's Snap and Detroit’s Open House Slide. Sadly, despite roller rinks providing joy and safe spaces for Black communities across America, United Skates documents how the scene is under threat from a racially charged police presence, clothing and music restrictions ("No baggy clothes, no rap music") and rising rent prices.
Yet there is hope. Activism remains alive and well in the skate community – Cassandra highlights how, during the recent Black Lives Matter protests in LA, "skateboarders and roller skaters united for a protest led by the group Skate For Justice, its hashtag gaining momentum on TikTok" – and as lockdown and the global surge in skate sales has proved, a new generation is being drawn to life on eight wheels. "While stuck indoors over the last few months, roller skate content offered respite from the monotony of everyday life," she notes. "Viewing roller skate influencers on TikTok freely glide along the pavement became a cathartic experience and a welcome escape from the present tough realities we were enduring inside our cramped homes."
Berlin-based Oumi Janta may well have been the influencer to put skating back on your radar. Her video, now with over 2 million views on Instagram, set the internet alight and for good reason: don’t you, too, want to wear a ‘70s-inspired yellow co-ord while jamming on wheels to some vibey house music at golden hour? Oumi made skating look deceptively effortless but she also gave us a glimpse of a carefree life. Isn’t that exactly what we need right now? Having picked up her skates six years ago, Oumi says this joyfulness is key to her sticking with the sport. "It’s so much fun you don’t even realise it’s a sport," she tells me. "It looks easy but it’s hella hard. But when you’re skating it’s like you’re on drugs; you just space out, you don’t think about the bad stuff, and you just embrace that very moment."
The breezy escapism of these viral videos is key to our piqued interest in skating but we can’t overlook the importance of aesthetics. Oumi’s penchant for cropped tees, shirts tied at the waist, retro running shorts and tube socks is the archetype of roller girl style, rooted in the 1970s and California beach culture (think Boogie Nights' Rollergirl). Cassandra says: "References include a combination of beach, sport and disco influences, with key items including retro gym shorts, lots of cropped denim and flared jeans, jumpsuits, crocheted halter tops, bikini tops and striped tube socks which peek out of colourful four-wheeled skates. Looks tend to be topped off with [bum bags] and scrunchies to further enhance the retro nostalgic feel. It’s about durable fashion that’s easy to move in, that’s comfortable and breathable and, in many cases, flashy enough to stand out in a sea of skaters on social media." After months of loungewear, when the idea of jeans feels so alien, isn’t durability and comfort exactly what we’re looking for in our post-pandemic wardrobe? With many of the scene’s best moves formed in rinks to the sounds of 1970s disco, funk and soul, it's no wonder the skate aesthetic is frozen in time. "Nostalgia for the ‘70s is so strong because the era was such a unique time where groove really found its way into the mainstream," says Toni Nicole, who dons corduroy flares, ringer tees, halternecks and striped tank tops while she skates. "Everyone unapologetically expressed themselves as they pleased – it’s the carefree element of that time that draws everyone in, myself included."
This ultra cool ‘70s aesthetic is largely why Ana Coto’s viral skating video sent the internet wild: 2.2 million people on TikTok have now watched her gliding along a boulevard at sundown in high-waisted trousers, a slogan tee tied at the waist, hoop earrings and tinted shades. Once again, skating painted a picture of a woman living her best summer life in the face of all the troubles 2020 has thrown up. "Roller skating is fantastic for the mind, body and spirit in my opinion," she tells me. "It offers an escape, a safe space. A community." Ana says she’s "gotten over heartbreak at the rink and fallen in love there too," something Shove, who has been skating for three years, echoes. Sharing her skate life with her 42k followers on Instagram, Shove credits the sport with saving her life after a toxic and controlling relationship. While she, too, turns out some excellent ‘70s-inspired looks – think baby pink boilersuits, flared denim and tube socks – it’s her brighter, bolder outfits that have captivated her audience, from rainbow-striped and leopard-print shorties to American flag-print bodysuits. "I love fashion no matter what I’m doing but while on skates I feel like a flying superhero! The confidence you learn in endlessly falling and getting back up tends to flow into other parts of your life, like fashion," she says.
The appeal of the ‘70s skate aesthetic is undeniable, honouring as it does the scene's roots, but what’s exciting about the 2020 spotlight on quad skating is that there is no one way to look. "Now, more than ever, people are putting certain stereotypes and forms of gatekeeping in the trash, as they should," Toni says. "Wheels are for everyone!" The biggest misconception, Shove says – which your Instagram explore page might well have you believing – is that to skate "you have to be a white, skinny, cis woman and wear booty shorts. The community is filled with all sizes, ethnicities, genders and non-genders, trans, queer and every kind of person in between." Much like cycling – another wheeled trend to emerge in lockdown – skating is the antithesis of spin classes and intensive HIIT workouts: it’s great for your health but the end goal isn’t maintaining a prescribed body type. It’s about going outside and getting out of your own head. In 2019, Jonathan Van Ness was praised for posting videos of himself, like Bambi on ice, trying to master tricks while learning to ice skate. He showed a far more realistic journey, one peppered with falls, scrapes and fails, than we’re usually privy to on social media. The skate scene’s most accomplished influencers are doing the same thing, making it all the more inviting for rookies worried about starting. "Falling is a part of skating and when you get really good at skating, you also get really good at falling," Ana says. "You will fall no matter how good you get and that’s okay because it doesn’t matter how you fall, it’s how you get back up," reiterates Shove.
For those looking to take up skating (eBay and Gumtree are your best bets until new skates arrive in store), Toni says: "My biggest tip is to listen to your body and don’t compare your progress to others. Be patient and have fun!" For Oumi, initial motivation can be found in skate movies, while Ana says that investing in wrist-guards is a number one priority: "And remember, where your nose goes, you go – so don’t look down!"