Few hobbies have captured the mainstream imagination in 2020 quite like roller skating. Jihee Junn explores the many reasons why.
Just down the road from Auckland’s Glenfield mall is the ActivZone Indoor Sports Arena, an inconspicuous-looking building which, many years ago, used to be a Chipmunks play centre. These days though, it’s the self-proclaimed “home of skating on the North Shore” where a large, grey oval rink – along with about a dozen ping pong tables – now occupy its central hall.
When I visit the arena on a late Monday morning, a beginners roller skating class for adults is about to start. It’s a small group of 10, but that’s because it’s mid-September and strict gathering limits are still in place. On any other day, according to Macarena Carrascosa, such a class would typically be double, even the triple, the size.
“The fact that I’m turning people down because I can’t fit them on the rink is just crazy,” says Carrascosa, a former competitive roller skater-turned-recreational coach. “In 2018, when I first started doing my adult classes on a Friday night, I used to get like six people. But at the end of last year, it really picked up and I was getting like 30 people every night. Then, at the start of this year, it just blew up.”
While coaching has long been a part of Carrascosa’s career, recreational skating is something she only started teaching in 2018 when she noticed its popularity among new adult skaters start to pick up. “I realised there were a lot of people wanting to start skating who were older. They kept coming to our classes but then just leaving because it was all kids [at the time].” Now, all her classes are primarily aimed at adults who just want to skate for a bit of fun, with students coming in from as far south as Ōtara and as far north as Whangaparaoa.
“In New Zealand, there’s only really club (artistic roller skating) and derby. There’s nothing that’s a little bit of everything, which is what I’m aiming for,” she says. “All my classes are recreational skating. They’re not for competition – they’re just for the sake of learning new things.”
Right now, recreational roller skating is back in a big way. While its popularity has been steadily growing over the years, the last few months has seen an explosion in growth. From March to May this year, web searches for roller skates skyrocketed to a five year high worldwide, particularly in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Not surprisingly, skate companies have seen an enormous surge in demand with brands like Impala selling at astronomical rates and the ever-popular Moxi having to open a whole new factory just to try and keep up.
In New Zealand, Wellington-based skater Tania Beckett, who runs online retailer Aotearoller, says she still has customers waiting for their Moxi skates to arrive since April this year, adding that outdoor wheels and certain helmets and padding have completely sold out as well.
“With supply struggling to meet demand, it’s making it increasingly difficult to run a small business,” says Beckett, who also goes by her roller derby name, Tino. “I’m faced with the possibility that if things don’t change I might not have anything to sell. It’s fantastic, but I only wish the gear was constantly available to sell so we can get more skates on feet.”
While the mainstream resurgence of roller skating throughout history is hardly new, it’s most recent revival has been widely attributed to 2020’s defining event: the Covid-19 pandemic. Stuck at home with little to do, people started picking up roller skating as an excuse to go outside and get moving in a way that didn’t involve running or squats. Conveniently, it’s also an activity well-suited for today’s socially distant era, especially since many large public spaces emptying out. And unlike a lot of individual sports like tennis, golf or swimming, roller skating doesn’t necessarily need a dedicated facility – anywhere with a smooth, flat surface can basically be turned into a rink.
Nostalgia has also played somewhat of a role in its rise. Not only are cultural trends from the 70s and 80s back in vogue (see: flared pants, disco pop, the mullet), but those eras also hark back to a seemingly less complicated time when smartphones, Covid-19 and a President Donald Trump didn’t exist. Indulging in nostalgia can feel comforting and reassuring, especially when it’s something like roller skating which is generally considered just a fun, wholesome thing to do.
Another crucial component in all this has to do with a certain social media platform called TikTok. With people spending even more time than usual online, TikTok’s growing wave of cool, fashionable, sun-kissed roller skaters have been privy to an amplified audience of millions worldwide. Arguably, the most famous of these skaters is 29-year-old Ana Coto whose vibe and aesthetics have struck an aspirational chord with TikTok’s young followers, many of whom have since been inspired to pick up skates for the very first time. And despite only having started posting videos in February this year, Coto has already amassed a following of more than two million fans – the sort of growth that didn’t go unnoticed by Carrascosa.
In March during alert level four, Carrascosa started posting roller skating tutorials on TikTok which she filmed from the balcony of her locked down home. While she’d never used TikTok before, she quickly picked up the basics and was soon racking up tens of thousands of views. To date, her most successful video – a short clip of her skating in a flowy jumpsuit to Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ – has been viewed more than 250,000 times.
“I saw how quickly people’s audiences were growing and I thought ‘I need to get on this’ because I knew this was going to make my classes grow,” a strategy which worked not only for her free online classes but her real-life paid classes as well.
“I have a bit of imposter syndrome actually, like ‘why are people coming to learn from me?’ But at the same time it’s very cool to see such a huge online community finding me on TikTok and actually coming to my classes. I’ve never seen that before.”
At the Monday morning beginners class, TikTok is mentioned by several of the younger skaters, including Madison Randall who tells me about how, back in April, she stumbled onto one of Carrascosa’s TikToks. Not long after, she purchased her first pair of skates and started teaching herself some basic moves from tutorials online. “I’ve been skating for a few months now but this is my first actual class,” she says as a playlist of 70s and 80s hits echo through the room. “It’s cool we get to learn from someone who went to world championships, you know?”
Closer to home, The Spinoff’s in-house designer Tina Tiller also took up roller skating over lockdown. She doesn’t use TikTok but she does use YouTube and says she watched tutorials from skaters like Dirty Deborah Harry to hone her skills. “I knew I wanted skates since I was, like, seven years old. I’ve skated before, but not on quads [since] I didn’t have the option – they weren’t as easy to find and they were expensive,” she says. “But then, when I started watching YouTube videos, I thought ‘fuck it, i’m just going to do it! I’m just going to grab them!’ So I went on North Beach and bought Impalas [in April]. They were on sale too so it was meant to be.”
For newcomers, it’s clear Impala skates are the roller skates of choice. Launched in Melbourne in 2017, Impala was started by a group of young women looking to bring back “the yesteryears of skate”. Since then, its brand of bright, retro and – most importantly – affordable quads starting at $150 has been credited with helping democratise the sport to a whole new generation of would-be skaters. In addition to Impala, which arrived in New Zealand late last year, is a brand called Gallaz which is stocked at Number One Shoes. Owned by the Globe International, which also owns Impala, Gallaz skates replicate its sister company’s bold, colourful aesthetic and are sold at an even cheaper price of $120.
“Impala has really made it mainstream,” says Carrascosa, whose vast majority of students also sport Impala’s colourful array of skates. “I don’t think you can solely say it was them, but they were definitely a factor because there have never been skates under $200 before. It’s a brand new thing to be able to have accessible, affordable skates at that mark. Nowadays people can go to North Beach and Number One Shoes and just pick them up because they’re on the shelf, and that’s never happened before in my lifetime.”
But, as with most things that come with a cheaper price tag, there’s a catch. Despite their attractive designs, numerous skaters have reported serious quality issues with Impala skates, namely to do with the heel of the shoe separating in a matter of months, even weeks, of use. Tiller, who purchased her pair back in April, says hers have already started falling apart.
“They’re so bad, the heel on mine is coming off already,” she says, adding that she’s currently looking to buy a pair of Moxi skates as a replacement. “I was helping glue [my friend’s] skates together just the other day and she got them after I got them. She’s been through something like two pairs of skates in the time that I’ve had mine.”
“The thing is, Impalas are a cheap skate that gets you into the sport, but they’re not made to last,” says Carrascosa, who says hers ripped after just two hours of use. “It’s a consumerism thing. They’re not making skates that are quality and are made to last – they’re making skates to sell and they don’t even sell parts or tools [for repairs]. They’re literally made for wearing and chucking out.”
Carrascosa admits that for her, the situation is a bit of a catch-22: although she’s loath to promote the brand, she knows its affordability is responsible for a large part of what’s attracted new roller skaters to her classes. “For someone who’s just starting out, you can’t tell them to spend like $600 on skates which, for years, was always the problem with roller skating, even for kids … But because I don’t have an alternative to offer right now, I’m saying ‘yeah sure, go buy Impala’ knowing that I don’t want to support them.”
That paradox within the skate community eventually led to Aucklander Mackenzie Hudgeon to start a local skate rental initiative called Crazy Eights as a less wasteful alternative. Hudgeon, who started skating last year after seeing Carrascosa perform at a disco party, had experienced first-hand how poorly Impala skates stood the test of time. “My pair had a plate mounted crooked and the boot started separating from the heel. They’re cute but not built to last,” she says. “I started Crazy Eights as a way to get people into roller skating without having to drop serious cash first or deal with crap skates. Rink rental skates are often old and poorly maintained too, so I bought a bunch of really high-quality skates that people can rent while they save up for their dream pair, cutting out that transition period of using dodgy skates that most people go through.”
Uniquely for a sport, roller skating in all its forms – artistic, derby and recreational – is dominated by women. There’s no definitive answer for why women are so prominent, but there are a few theories floating around. In 2018, the New York Times posited that roller skates in the modern age had become “an accessory of female empowerment”, a new form of “feminist uniform” encapsulated in films like Whip It and Boogie Nights.
“When on skates, women are encouraged to use their bodies in ways they’ve never been encouraged to do before, bucking patriarchal norms,” the article noted. “Women aren’t there to please men. They’re not there for the male gaze. They’re in gear that works on the roller rink or on the street. They’re looking good for themselves. They’re dressed for themselves.”
Meanwhile, Carrascosa offers a similar yet slightly alternative theory: “So many other hobbies and sports are male-dominated. Even with things like chess and video games, women have to fight for a seat at the table. So while there are men in roller skating, they’re not dominant, so it’s like the one thing [women] have.”
Over the last few decades, roller skating has generally been perceived as a safe haven for marginalised groups, including women, the LGBTQ+ community and, in the US, the Black community. In fact, the connection between African-Americans and adult skate nights is deeply linked to the country’s wrenching history of segregation which is explored in the HBO documentary, United Skates. That history is also touched on in this now viral TikTok from 20-year-old Black skater Toni Bravo reminding people that, despite the visible prevalence of white skaters on the platform, Black culture and roller skating share a long and storied history that deserves acknowledgement.
For Carrascosa, she has her own gripes with TikTok’s superficial bent. Pointing to her most viral video as an example, she says the most successful videos tend to be ones that look cool but technically do the least. “The things that go viral aren’t the ones that I put a lot of thought into. It’s just me skating around and doing nothing,” she says. “People talk online about how the simple dumb moves get the most likes and views and it’s those moves that the white people are doing because they haven’t been skating for as long as the Black community has. So they go viral and [the Black community] are like ‘we’ve been here doing this! we can do way better shit than what you’re doing!’”
Despite these issues, today’s emerging wave of skaters are a diverse bunch with no signs of slowing down. Tino from Aotearoller says the heightened interest in recreational skating has translated not just into an increase in sales, but also an increase in participation for her sport of choice: roller derby. “My local league is currently training up an intake of 20 people, and they haven’t had numbers like that since 2013,” she says, adding that at one event she recently helped run, she found herself coaching up to 80 people on how to skate.
“I think roller skating has been slowly making a comeback over the last five years, it’s just taken a Covid-19 to make it go boom,” she says. “I think the extra time and climate of the world has made people go ‘I’m gonna do that thing I’ve always been wanting to do’. In the last month, I’ve also received emails from people in their 50s saying ‘I used to skate way back. I want to pick it up again’.”
At the beginner’s class, one of the older women I talk to says it’s her first time skating in more than 30 years while another tells me she picked up skating not just because she wanted to try something new, but because she wanted to show her young son that really, if you put your mind to it, you can do anything you want, even in your 40s, 50s and beyond.
With borders closed and travel restrictions in place, freedom of movement is more limited now than at any other point in our lifetime, but that hasn’t stopped us seeking out personal freedoms on a more micro-level. There’s a simple, expressive joy to something like roller skating – it’s no wonder people have gravitated to it in times like these. Pandemic or no pandemic, life goes on.
And despite her reservations with certain skate brands and trends, Carrascosa says she’s thrilled so many new people have started embracing the thing she loves most, however late to the game they might be. “I’m super grateful that people are finding me now, but I’ve been here. I’ve been doing this for ages! But I’m glad people have finally caught on.”