How learning to roller skate helped me connect with a piece of black LA culture
Some have turned to leaven. Others have become parents of plants. My favorite quarantine hobby? Roller.
In the early months of the pandemic, roller skating was suddenly all over TikTok and Instagram, bite-sized clips of gorgeous, carefree skaters gracefully gliding through the palm-lined streets, overtaking my feed. But it was the video of the Berlin skater Oumi Janta that pushed me to the limit.
In the 50-second viral video, Janta is grooving on skates to house music effortlessly and without any discomfort. Watching the clip over and over again, I realized that I had do that too. Or at least try to learn. After being locked up for months, missing out on my favorite dance studios, and feeling utterly disheartened by the state of the world, I was in desperate need of something joyful in my life.
So, in early July, I embarked on my roller skating journey – and I quickly learned that during the pandemic, the first obstacle in learning to skate was finding them.
The popular outdoor skates – Moxis, Impalas, vibrant, multi-colored Sure-Grips – have been sold online and out of stock for months. Long Beach-based Moxi has temporarily suspended sales of its most popular adult skates to catch back orders.
After stumbling across a tip for checking out local stores, I started frantically calling around town before finding a pair of my size at a skate shop in South Gate.
Excited, I picked up my skates, went home and tested them almost immediately, skating in circles in my apartment garage. It didn’t take long for garage circles to get boring. YouTube became my guide as I embarked on tutorials on the basics of stopping, skating on uneven surfaces, conquering hills, dancing specific steps – all tutorials.
I wasn’t starting from scratch. One of my earliest memories of skating was going to Spice Girls and Coolio’s âGangsta’s Paradiseâ on a New Orleans rink in grade school. In college, one of my favorite summer activities was going to the skating rink in my suburb of Houston. And a few years ago, I rediscovered my love of skating at World on Wheels in LA, which made me feel like I had fallen into the universe of the 2005 movie “Roll Bounce”.
Social media eventually led me to Sista Skaters, a Los Angeles-based black and brunette women’s group that offered virtual lessons through Zoom. For a few weeks every Sunday morning, I made the 10 foot trip from my apartment to my garage, awkwardly positioning my phone on the floor so the teacher could look at my form and offer advice on skating basics like skating. bubbles – the first step in backward skating – crosses and balances on one foot (while desperately hoping that a neighbor does not appear).
Classes gave me a little self-confidence and I quickly started playing detective, looking for bigger outdoor spaces – skateparks and empty parking lots – where I could practice and get a bit closer. of my dream of being able to put on music and freestyle without falling.
My skateboarding adventures weren’t always a victory.
There was the one time I showed up in a North Hollywood skate park, decked out in purple tie-dye with my roller skates slung, only to find that the park was full of skateboarders, which was totally intimidating. . I was too nervous to put on my skates. Another time, as I was working on spins on a basketball court, my body swerved in the wrong direction, all of my weight crashing onto my right elbow.
The more I skated, the more I became fascinated with roller skating culture in Los Angeles. And as the uprisings continued across the country, I began to pay more attention to the juxtaposition of joy and protest. On social media, there were black skaters educating their supporters about the art form’s whitening and skaters channeling their pain to organize Black Lives Matter meetings and solidarity protests.
I wanted to deepen this unique story of black skaters.
For some, the idea of ââroller skating conjures up an image of old-school white hippies drifting off on a bohemian beach promenade. But much of the culture of roller skating is uniquely black.
In the 1960s, black skaters protested against segregation on the rinks with âskate-insâ. In 1963, Ledger Smith, 27, nicknamed “Roller Man,” skated from Chicago to Washington, DC, for 10 days, carrying a sign that read “Freedom.” He skated nearly 700 miles to attend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The Oakwood section of Venice, until the 1970s, a predominantly black community, was once the only neighborhood in the Westside to accommodate blacks.
By the mid-1970s, Venice Beach became a haven for iconic skate dancers, a predominantly black group of performers who have entertained crowds for decades with their mix of skating, break dancing, and sophisticated footwork. and original choreographies.
I met James Rich, one of Venice’s first skateboarders, at an outdoor skate meet in the Westside. Rich, whose nickname is “BuckWild”, began skating with the Venice group as a teenager around 1980.
âI came from the neighborhood, I was born and I grew up. I was going to gangs, I was going to drugs, âhe told me. Rollerblading “is what saved my life”.
The group practiced almost every day, finally gaining Hollywood attention in the mid-1980s. Roller skating took Rich around the world and landed him in commercials and music videos. But Hollywood depictions of the skate dance scene, like in the 1980 movie “Xanadu”, were often whitewashed.
The group – whose story is at the center of the 2017 documentary âRoller Dreamsâ – persevered in gentrification in Venice and continue to meet regularly today.
In the 1980s, ice rinks like Compton’s Skateland and Mid-City’s World on Wheels became a hotspot for up-and-coming hip-hop artists including Queen Latifah, NWA, and Dr. Dre. The rinks were also havens from gang violence in southern LA
But these historic indoor rinks are shrinking. Their fate and that of the other black rinks is recounted in the 2018 documentary âUnited Skatesâ. Skateland closed in 1988, World on Wheels briefly closed in 2013, reopening four years later with financial support from rapper Nipsey Hussle.
Roxy Young, who has been skating for 12 years, said the Cerritos Skate Depot was her refuge until it closed in 2014. She told me that in California, indoor skaters are known for dancing, skating. in pairs and their Stacy Adams boots equipped with small wheels. , which aid glide and maneuverability – perfect for performing complicated movements.
During the pandemic, Young, like many other indoor skaters, had to move outside.
Seeking to build community and pursue his own form of skate therapy, Young began hosting outdoor skate gatherings for adults and children in an empty parking lot in Bellflower.
Rich and Young said that while social media may make it look like roller skating is “back,” it’s far from the latest trend. For many black skaters like Young, whose grandmother, mother, and now children skate, roller skating has never gone away.
As a transplanted to Los Angeles, learning to skate and spending time with black skaters in particular made me feel more connected to this city and to a unique culture and style – which was popularized by social media. but whose origins are not always correctly recognized.
âWe didn’t go,â said Rich, who has skated for over 40 years. âWe’ve been skating in Venice since day one. We have never stopped doing it. â
It’s hard to say why exactly rollerblading became so popular during our forties. But if I had to guess, it’s an inclusive and joyful activity that’s perfect for those tough times. For the most part, it also feels like a safe outdoor activity. Health officials may shake their heads, but many skaters attend meetings without a mask. (I always hide outside, unless I’m skating alone.)
Rich and Young enjoyed seeing all the newcomers find a love for skating during the pandemic, but they hope renewed interest will help save the rinks or get more attention to the black skaters who have been doing the job since. years.
Passionate about skate education, Rich also hopes beginners take the time to learn in person from experienced skaters, rather than relying exclusively on online tutorials.
It’s a lesson I learned while trying to conquer a movement called the Downtown, a roller skate line dance loosely similar to the Cha Cha Slide. At a basic level, the movement is simple vine, but made much more complicated by balancing on eight wheels.
Online tutorials teach movement with an exaggerated step, a step back, a push, a push – but it is nothing like the bands of smoothed versions of music. I was struggling to transition between awkward steps until I went to an outdoor meeting.
Seeing that I was having a hard time, two skaters turned around and tipped me. Mesmerized, I watched their feet over and over again, until something clicked.
I was almost ready to join the group.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.