Black Angelenos take LA roller skating culture back to rinks and streets
The following article is republished thanks to a collaboration with KQED Arts.
Chinwe Oniah’s story
Kamry James had just had a bad breakup when she decided to try roller skating in 2019. It was love on the first roller. “I would dream of rollerblading,” she recalls. “I would wake up and go to work and think to myself, I just want to roller skate.” Soon after, she moved from Seattle to Los Angeles, where she began skating on the city’s iconic beach boardwalks, surrounded by the OG skaters who made the LA scene legendary.
Over the past year, roller skating has become a safe and relatively accessible pastime in the era of the pandemic, with its international popularity bolstered by people recording their faltering progress on social media. The skates have been sold for months and the skaters have become major influencers on Instagram and TikTok. But longtime skateboarders like the community James found in LA are quick to remind everyone: this isn’t a fad.
“It’s our culture. It’s our way of life, passed down from generation to generation, ”says Raquel “Roxy” Young, a third generation skater. For Angelenos, roller skating is more than just roll down the block. Drawing inspiration from break dancing and other skate scenes across the country, they developed their own style of dancing.
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Much of this style was refined at Venice Beach, where OG jam skaters with boom boxes in hand claimed the boardwalk as their outdoor rink, showing off acrobatic freestyle moves, flips, and choreographed routines. In 1978, the mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, even declared Venice “the rollerblading capital of the world”. Among the stars drawing huge crowds was the legendary Bad Boyz crew. But with the crowd came excessive policing. In the early 1980s, many OGs were arrested for playing loud music and being pushed off the ground by the police.
“They struggled to get their skate haven in Venice,” says Alicia Reason, a professional skater and OG Skaters Venice mentee.
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While outdoor skating is a spectacle anyone can watch and boosts the visibility of the dance, local rinks are just as important to the LA skating scene. Inside, the action is hectic, with skaters scouring the edge of the rink doing tricks, flips, slides and dips. “In an ice rink, every evening, it is lit,” explains Lily Ruiz, who has skated since her childhood. “There are people who go there religiously. To be fair, they probably go to the rink more than they go to church.
There is a sense of community in the rinks that cannot be replicated outdoors, she explains. It’s less a meeting of friendly strangers, and more of a family reunion. You will find skaters of all ages, from 80 to 14 months. “If you can walk, you can skate,” says Ahmber Azali as she teaches her one-year-old daughter.
It got me through a lot of dark nights and a lot of emotional experiences. I say it saved my life.
Raquel “Roxy” Young
Like the Venice Beach GOs, the Black Rink skaters have long fought for their skating space. In the early 1950s, rinks often discriminated against or prohibited black skaters. Today, ice rinks have rules that primarily affect black customers, such as banning fiberglass micro-wheels (which make sliding easier) or stopperless skates, styles preferred by black skaters.
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Ironically, the new popularity of skating comes against a backdrop of ice rink closures as skating communities struggle to exist. In Los Angeles County, popular ice rinks like Skate Depot and Flippers are shells of their former glory. Perhaps the most heartbreaking closure is World on Wheels, the iconic ice rink that rapper Nipsey Hussle helped reopen in 2017 after it was first closed. In November 2020, it closed permanently.
“It’s very devastating. And we tried to fight it,” said Young, who is also Nipsey Hussle’s cousin. For her, skating is therapy. To do without it is an unfathomable proposition. “It got me through a lot of dark nights and a lot of emotional experiences. I say it saved my life,” she says.
When the pandemic closed the rinks, she tried skating in her living room, but she needed the full experience. “I called some friends and threw a little outdoor skate party,” she says. In July 2020, she hosted the first ROXY’s Backyard Sk8boogie, now a monthly event attended by up to 1,500 skaters of all kinds. Young invited small black businesses to become salespeople. “We needed this,” she explains.
This community drive inspired others to create spaces and groups for black skaters. Ruiz – a leading critic of those who benefit from a culture created by BIPOC skaters – created the Instagram account Black skaters casting. The goal is to bring visibility and opportunities to talented skaters that might otherwise be overlooked by brands capitalizing on the popularity of rollerblading.
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Likewise, James, herself a TikTok star, established SISTA skate at the height of the racial calculus of 2020, using the Instagram account to connect black and brunette women and non-binary skaters.
The pandemic was not the first threat to LA’s skating scene, meaning the community was determined to meet the challenge head on. “Roller skating is just something black people will never stop doing,” says Ruiz. “And that’s the one thing you just can’t take away from anyone.”