Created in partnership with Clorox

For Black Women, Roller Skating Is The Ultimate Form Of Self-Expression

In celebration of Juneteenth, Clorox hosted a Glow & Roll roller rink at Refinery29 Unbothered's The Glow Up event in Atlanta, resulting in a truly spectacular night rooted in Black joy. On that note, we took a look at the history of roller rinks in the U.S., the significant role roller skating plays in the Black community, and how it's become the ultimate form of self-expression.
Growing up in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, the shadow of Empire Roller Skating Center loomed large over Shamecha Lywood’s childhood. “Empire was just the place to be,” she recalls. “I was too young for Teen Night, but I used to sneak in sometimes, depending on who was at the door. It was always a great time.”
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It was also at Empire that Lywood sustained her most serious skating injury to date, falling down and breaking her ankle after a mishap in the fast lane. “Unfortunately, my last memory [there] is being pushed out on the stretcher,” she says. “By the time my ankle healed, Empire was gone forever.” 
As a singular story, the timing of Empire Roller Skating Center’s closure in 2007 can be seen as an unfortunate twist of fate; one that deterred but didn’t derail Lywood’s skating journey. However, Empire’s demise is hardly an isolated incident. Over the last few decades, the shuttering of rinks across the country has made it increasingly difficult for roller skaters to gather and do what they love — especially roller skaters in predominantly Black neighborhoods. 
A number of these struggling rinks are depicted in United Skates, a 2018 documentary that highlights the richness of Black roller skating history and culture. Like so many other elements of Black life during the 20th century, roller skating was once a rigidly segregated activity in America. “There was a roller skating craze in the 1890s,” says Dr. Victoria W. Wolcott, professor of history at the University at Buffalo, whose research on the push to integrate commercial recreational spaces culminated in a book titled Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation in America. “There was protest against segregated roller rinks from the beginning, but they increased in tempo and in the use of nonviolent direct action by the 1940s,” She notes that the tactics perfected at these “skate-ins” were later used during the Civil Rights Movement. 
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But as the 20th century progressed and integration became the law of the land, rink owners found new ways to keep crowds racially divided (either because of personal bias or to not upset white patrons), deploying terms like “Soul Night” as codenames for what became de facto Black-only nights. As counterintuitive as it was, these nights allowed Black skaters to create their own approach to their artistry, says Jocelyn Marie Goode, an artist, UX researcher, and skater who founded the African-American Roller Skate Museum in 2021. “We were skating alone, without the white gaze, which led to a divergence of style," she says. "Then, when white people saw what we were doing, it became mainstream. That's what you saw in the ’70s, and later in the ’90s.” 
While Black skate styles vary by region, they share a certain balletic fluidity that rides the beat of any track worth grooving to. Often a multigenerational affair, the warmth and joy that goes along with roller skating feels akin to a family reunion for Goode. Though she recalls being fairly apprehensive on wheels as a child, she fell for skating wholeheartedly after attending a party at the tail end of 2020, a year marked by so much grief within the Black community. “To see Black joy, and people that looked like me just skating around and dancing…I was like, ‘Oh, this is it,’” she recalls. “The feeling of skating and even learning to skate was the feeling of falling in love. It turned out to be extremely therapeutic and healing.”
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The word “therapeutic” comes up when Lywood talks about skating, too. “It's the best way to spend time with myself. You realize how much power you have, to see yourself progress from not being able to do [a move] and now it comes to you like it's nothing," she explains. "It's a really empowering experience.” 
Despite both women’s deep personal relationship to skating, they also light up when talking about connecting with their fellow skaters. “I really love what the community of skate has done for me. I've learned so much from my peers. Partner skating is really becoming one of my favorite things to do,” Lywood effuses. "We all have that love and that passion, so everybody's energy is coming together, and it's out of this world.”
While every skate outing is an opportunity to create poetry in motion, the opportunities for self-expression go far beyond fancy footwork. “Skating offers people a chance to express their alter egos,” says Goode, classifying her own as a “rebellious vixen.” Whether showing up to skate in a head-to-toe costume, sequined shorts, or a mask, there’s always a great deal of thought that goes into how she shows up: “Having a look is intentional.”
For Lywood, who also loves street skating and is known by her neighbors for doing just about everything on wheels, including grocery shopping, her day-to-day style has become synonymous with her skate wardrobe. “I feel like sometimes I wear my best outfits to skate, to be honest, because I feel my best when I'm skating,” she says. “I definitely have a loud look. And my skates reflect that.”
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In order to keep her go-to pair of skates feeling fresh, Lywood says she plays around with different colored laces and charms that capture a variety of themes, ranging from fruit to galactic beams, every couple of weeks. “I don't dress particularly for skating," she says. "My skates are just a reflection of who I am."
Lywood’s social media presence (@skate.ting) is a showcase for her physical artistry, as well as the string of colorful looks she dons while perfecting her craft. (Likewise, Goode’s infectious energy and wheelwork has a home online @supergoode_.)
As for what comes next, Lywoood says she's "locked in for the rest of my life. At this point, my skates — whatever path they put me on, I’ll go there.” Skating has always been about the journey rather than the destination, as well as the freedom of expression and joy it creates — or as Lywood puts it on her Instagram bio, whenever you're on wheels, it "always feels like ‘Teen Night’ at Empire.’”
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