If at FIRST, You Don’t Succeed...
ROLLERSKATING. The word immediately conjures up little-kid memories of slipping socks into musty old rented skates, hobbling onto the rink clutching the rails, letting go, and promptly sliding out and crashing painfully onto my butt. Then, in a beautiful and cliché metaphor for life, I (and probably you as well) got up and tried again. And again. And again. Until finally, we were gliding gracefully around the rink with the best of them.
For many young women (myself included), rollerskating is a creative outlet like no other. It is expressive, joyful, and extremely freeing. It is tough and nitty-gritty, yet so incredibly graceful. As a young girl, it allowed me to show off my bruises and battle scars and embrace my blossoming womanhood all at once. (What other pastime does that?)
Unfortunately, in recent years, America’s rinks have been largely disappearing due to gentrification and a waning pop culture interest in the sport. Yet, perhaps rollerskating is returning to American popular culture in a new way. Social media sites are littered with enthralling videos of young women gliding down empty streets to upbeat tunes. Aesthetically appealing brands like Moxi (female owned by Michelle Steilin “Estro-Jen”) and Impala are sold out of their signature candy-colored, outdoor skates. It seems like this may be the beginning of the outdoor, solo (socially-distant) rollerskating renaissance. When the 2020 pandemic’s shelter-at-home orders appeared to create a resurgence of the pastime, many were quick to credit TikTok and certain content creators with its revival. However, the sport and its distinct culture have actually been here all along.
Rollerskating has its roots in feminism from the Victorian era to today’s feminist roller derby revival. It is also inextricably bound to Black American history, having served as a tool of empowerment and community from the first Civil Rights sit-ins to the invention of dance-skating and roller rink culture.
With the recent craze on social media, it has become essential to learn about the roots of the popular trend in order to engage with the pastime knowledgeably, responsibly, and respectfully. And you're in luck, because the history is as interesting as it is rich.
The Early Years
First, a bit of history. Belgian inventor and eccentric, John Joseph Merlin, famously debuted a pair of inline skates (lacking trucks, and therefore a method to steer) at a London masquerade party in 1760. Merlin got everyone’s attention by rolling through the door while playing the violin. He continued to roll straight into a full-length mirror, shattering it, breaking his violin, and seriously injuring himself. Needless to say, they didn’t exactly take off from here - but in 1863, the magic happened.
An American named James Plimpton created a new skate design (with trucks) and invented the 4-wheeled quad skate. For the first time, skates could turn. In order to give his skates the posh reputation he desired, Plimpton rented them to an elite clientele of young Victorian couples rather than selling them to just anyone. Although originally elitist, Plimpton’s marketing strategy had one overarching positive effect - the birth of the beloved skate rink! The first official public rink was in the dining room of the Atlantic House, a resort that Plimpton’s New York Roller-Skating Association rented for the occasion.
Though a man had invented modern roller skates, it was women who embraced them. At the time, young women were very strictly restrained in dress, action, and manner, and were seldom allowed any freedom without an elder chaperone. Rollerskating offered these young women an opportunity to escape the close scrutiny of their conduct, to dress more freely, and experience some independence for the first time. Though you might not expect to see roller skates paired with Victorian-era frocks, it was a pretty chic look back in the day.
Imagine how freeing rollerskating must have been to these young women who were accustomed to the constraint of a corset.
Young women found they could take to the rink to liberate themselves from the control of their parents and pursue their own interests for once. In fact, rollerskating was even credited with creating a mini sexual revolution! Incredibly, rollerskating was already becoming a key to female liberation.
Needless to say, the young women (and men) of the 1800s jumped wholeheartedly into the fun new pastime. From there, rollerskating took off. As early as the 1880s, quad skates were being mass-produced and sold, and rinks were opening all across America and the world. Soon, every small town had its own rink.
DERBY Phenomena TAKES OFF
The next female-empowering skating phenomenon occurred in the 1930s with the creation of roller derby. You may know of derby as the iconic feminist sport it is today, but things didn’t exactly start out that way.
Like skates, derby too was created by a man but embraced by women. During the Great Depression Era, promoter Leo Seltzer read that 90% of Americans owned roller skates at some point in their lifetimes and decided to capitalize on the trend by turning it into a sport. Though derby initially began as a speed race, it immediately became apparent that audiences (and players) were in it for the blood, guts, and gore. Seltzer began to revamp derby as a contact sport and ended up with separate teams of men and women racing around a slanted track at incredible speeds and doing everything in their power to knock the other team off their wheels.
Though male derby was popular, the female derby was decidedly more celebrated. Perhaps this is because it began in a time when women were not allowed to participate in most professional sports. Additionally, it was one of the only sports of the time in which both genders played by exactly the same rules. Even today, female sports are often toned-down versions of male sports, in which much less contact is allowed (e.g. lacrosse). Derby also stands out as one of the first female contact sports. Punches, brawls, and broken bones were
the norm, despite the societal expectation for women to be generally demure and mild-mannered.
For many female fans, the most extraordinary part of the sport was that women were encouraged to be aggressive and assertive with their bodies.
These radical, athletic, and commanding derby women became a model of female empowerment in a predominately male-oriented society. An example of one of these strong women is early derby star Midge “Toughie” Brahsun. At age 18 and 4’11” in height, her strength, speed, and skills challenged the male-centric view of what women could contribute to sports. Her famously aggressive play showed that women can be just as tough and athletic as men, and “‘that a point was just as important if it was scored by a girl,’” (Ken Monte, Derby Memoirs “Toughie Brasuhn). Once again, rollerskating served as a powerful tool for female empowerment.
The Vibrant History of Black American Rollerskating
Unfortunately, the history of American feminism is fraught with the exclusion of women of color. In today’s narrative, the romanticizing of white female rollerskating on social media largely whitewashes and erases the rich history of Black female (and male) rollerskating.
In the mid-20th century, when rollerskating was a popular American trend, Black Americans were systematically excluded and oppressed in all forms of American society. Roller rinks were no exception. Even after legal segregation “officially ended” with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there was typically only one (heavily policed) night per week on which Black skaters were welcome to patronize rinks. This night was usually indicated by racist or offensive names such as "'Soul Night' or 'Martin Luther King Jr. Night,'" quote from New York Times article, "And the Beat Goes On." Rather than being tyrannized out of the joy of rollerskating, the Black skating community fought back by reclaiming and revolutionizing the sport.
In many places, this one night a week became a center of community and camaraderie on which new styles of skating were developed and refined.
Rinks were a popular hub for kids and teens as well as adults, something which, unfortunately, is now being lost as rinks close. Dance skating to early hip-hop and rap music became popular, and new “micro” wheels were invented to make dancing on skates easier. Different regions even developed their own styles, like the “JB” (James Brown) style in Chicago, the “fast backwards” in Philadelphia, and the “stride” in Ohio. As regional skate communities blossomed, many early hip-hop artists like Dr. Dre and Queen Latifah started out by DJing and performing at their local roller rinks. Additionally, one of the first Civil Rights protests was held at Chicago’s White City Roller Rink, dubbed a “skate in.” Famously, roller skater Ledger Smith skated nearly 700 miles from Chicago to DC for the March on Washington, wearing a sign that read “freedom.”
For many Black female (and male) skaters, rollerskating is not a pop-culture fad, but rather a crucial part of a thriving community that has overcome incredible adversity just to be able to exist. Like how derby created a space for women to be aggressive with their bodies, some see rollerskating as having created a space for Black women to assert themselves and their bodies in a society built on their marginalization. Note: Check out the Teen Vogue article “These Black Women Were Roller-Skating Way Before TikTok,” which explores what it is like to be a Black female roller skater today through the lives and thoughts of five phenomenally talented young Black female skaters.
DISCO DAYS into the 2000s, Derby Death and REVIVAL
Sadly, by the late 1970s, roller derby as an official sport fizzled. In the 70s and continuing into the 80s, rollerskating adapted to the times by becoming roller disco, and dance skating styles created by the Black rollerskate community became all the craze. Like today with dance-skating on social media, white America adopted dance-skating from Black skate culture and often ignored or erased its origins.
With derby dead, once the disco era faded, rollerskating as a pop culture phenomenon experienced a decline.
However, in 2001, a group of super cool feminist gals called The Texas Roller Girls finally helped female derby make a comeback! Master Blaster (or Molly Stenzel) is the president of this new derby platform, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. Contemporary flat-track roller derby is safer and less violent, but it is still colorful, crazy, and chaotic. These newer derby girls are known for their fantastic costumes, makeup, and pun-laden nicknames which defy masculine stereotypes of the ideal athlete and sport.
Flat Track Derby is a distinctly feminist sport that encourages women to be assertive with their bodies no matter what shape or size.
Today, the derby community prides itself on being open to all types of people from all walks of life, and has been considered a safe space for LGBTQ players. Additionally, the Womens Flat Track Derby Association states that any individual "may skate with a WFTDA charter team if women’s flat track roller derby is the version and composition of roller derby with which they most closely identify," (Women's Flat Track Derby Association Statement About Gender).
However, modern derby and its image remain predominately white. Similar to other feminist movements, women of color are often excluded, underrepresented, or ignored. Derby is one of the fastest-growing sports, but its marketing is predominately aimed towards white audiences, resulting in disproportional representation among new members. Additionally, many POC players have experienced racial micro-aggressions and lack of a framework to respond or seek help in the case of racial injustice. In order to become a truly inclusive and welcoming sport, derby must continue to actively work towards decreasing these and other barriers to entry that maintain its lack of representation.
The NEW ERA of Rollerskating
Rollerskating is evolving, but inequity continues today. Many rinks still discriminate against Black skaters and Black skate culture. This is often done discreetly through rules prohibiting things like micro wheels or playing hip hop music. While rinks may claim these rules have other motives, the intent to target a specific group of people is clear. Additionally, the recent controversy with Planet Roller Skate in which the voices of Black skaters were suppressed in an online chat board shows how discrimination is still a common occurrence in the skating community.
Social media platforms such as Tiktok and Instagram present a largely whitewashed view of rollerskating, despite its strong ties to Black culture. Style choices such as dance-skating to hip-hop music have been adopted from Black skate culture and then popularised by white skaters on social media platforms, often leaving the original Black skaters out of the narrative.
As white female skaters are in the spotlight, exceptionally-talented veteran Black female skaters are being pushed to the sidelines. Now, as rollerskating appears to be making a pop culture comeback, it is crucial to understand how the Black skate community has kept the vibrant tradition of skating alive and well, since long, long before it became a TikTok trend. Understanding this history and making sure it does not get erased or ignored is essential for these Black skaters to get the respect and admiration they deserve. (Some incredible roller skaters to follow on Instagram linked down below.)
BUILDING an OPEN COMMUNITY
With the intense feeling of liberation and joy it creates, it is no surprise that rollerskating has been harnessed as a tool of empowerment by multiple communities over multiple centuries.
There is a strange and very personal sense of euphoria created simply by coasting along the earth’s surface. Everything is intensely more fluid and graceful, up until the moment you come crashing painfully down onto your bum. You have to be much more mindful and aware to avoid this unavoidable outcome as much as possible, and retain a good sense of humor for when it inevitably occurs.
Rollerskating is beautiful because it has the power to bring people together and be joyful for everyone — age, size, and gender aside. With respect for all and an understanding of the sport's history and context, we can create an inclusive, welcoming, supportive, and global rollerskating community.
It is essential for us all to do our part to be mindful and thankful for the talent, passion, and dedication of all Black skaters, derby girls, and bold women rollerskaters who have shaped the culture into what it is today.
EXTRAS Rollerskating Findings
The first-ever skates were called “skeelers” (in the 1700s)
In 1818, a Berlin roller ballet used rollerskates to mimic ice skating on stage
The first predecessor to rollerskating “carhop girls” showed up in 1840 Berlin when beer hall girls started using skates to get around the long halls and deliver drinks
One of the very first Civil Rights protests was held in 1949 at Chicago’s White City Roller Skating Rink(called a “skate in”)
Roller rinks were so beloved as a community center that they were widely considered neutral territory during the LA gang wars of the ’90s
Madison Square Garden has been turned into a roller skating rink on multiple occasions.
In the New York Times circa 1971, Seltzer said, “The basic appeal of roller derby is noise, color, [and] body contact.”
Roller Derby matches were often compared to professional wrestling with “heroes and villains” of the rink, and fans often speculated whether or not matches were staged
In the mid 20th century, “carhops” on skates were young, costumed women who roller-skated fast-food meals to patrons in their vehicles
In the early 80s inline skates were improved and called “rollerblades,” which became popular for offseason hockey practice
Alanna's Rollerskating Playlist for Withitgirl
Black-Owned Rollerskate Brands
Shortlist Instagram Extremely Talented Rollerskaters Accounts
Documentaries: (and some shorts!) -check out our Letterboxd for all these films
Additional Photo & Graphic Credits:
Woman Roller Blading Outside: Photo by davidpc_
Roller Derby Orange: Photo by Oklarsson
Carhop: Photo by RV1864
Thanks to Savannah from IDEAL surf for helpful links to access graphics and media.
Alanna is an intern and writer at Withitgirl, she is a proud UCSC slug and loves getting out and about in the great outdoors.
If you have any feedback or rollerskating info you would like included, please don't hesitate to reach out!
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