Once a feel-good retro hobby, the popularity of roller skating has skyrocketed since the pandemic put a premium on outdoor, socially distanced fun. Here, Brooklyn’s reigning skate queen Lola Star shares all her tips for getting up to speed
By Lola Star
Photos by Lauren Silberman
Roller skating is pure magic. It is my church, therapy, gym, and social club all rolled into one dazzling experience. When I lace skates onto my feet, an ecstatic sense of freedom and empowerment instantly washes over me. And once I get going, I feel as though I’ve just taken flight. There is nothing else like it, and my goal in life is to spread that roller disco joy across the world.
My love of skating began at age seven in the basement of my childhood home just outside of Detroit, MI, playing dress up in my grandmother’s fringed flapper dress. I would roller skate alone for hours, ’80s jams blasting out of my pink boom box from the Sears catalog, dreaming of being a roller disco superstar in N.Y.C. And whenever possible, I’d find a way to spend a Saturday afternoon at the local roller rink. As soon as I stepped onto the dreamy fluorescent blacklight carpet, I was transported from my stifling Catholic school life into another dimension where I could live out my MTV fantasies surrounded by flashing lights, pulsating beats, and airbrushed unicorn art. In this heightened state of roller rink reality, I’d blissfully skate with rainbows embroidered on the back pockets of my jeans and matching pink pom poms on my skates, never wanting to leave.
This was how my future career took shape. Today, I design roller disco apparel, and I’ve been hosting epic parties at my very own Dreamland Roller Disco in Brooklyn for over 10 years—truly a dream come true. But in the last year, the entire pastime has experienced a revival unlike anything I have ever seen before.
Ever since COVID-19 turned the world upside down and made gyms suddenly unsafe, roller skating has exploded in popularity—and for good reason. Skating works most major muscle groups, it’s incredibly fun, and it’s free after you purchase your skates. Skating also causes 50 percent less stress to your joints than jogging, and it’s much safer than cycling. Sounds good, right? Clearly, roller skating is the perfect socially distanced activity for spring.
If you haven’t tried it in a while—or ever—this article has everything you need to get started. I’ve put together a few fun facts about the history of this glamorous pastime, some how-to tips, a roundup of great online teachers to check out, links to my fave indie skate wear designers, the handles of folks you can add to your feed for some sweet Insta inspo, and a perfect playlist so you can feel like you’re at one of my Dreamland Roller Rink parties wherever you are.
History and Culture
Roller skates were invented in the mid-1700s by a Belgian man named John Joseph Merlin for a theater production, but skating didn’t really catch on in the U.S. until 1863 when American inventor James Plimpton patented four wheeled quad skates (two wheels in front and two in back), opened the first roller rink in Rhode Island in 1866, and started marketing skating as a wholesome activity Victorian-era men and women could do together. The fad reached a peak in the 1940s during WWII when it served as an escape from the horrors of war. Live organ music provided the soundtrack at rinks, making the ’40s the “golden era” of roller skating.
Roller rinks proliferated across the U.S. in the ’50s and ’60s to amuse the children of the post-war baby boom. And in the ’70s, disco music, club culture, and flashy fashions took over. Organs were replaced with turntables, dance club sound systems, and neon flashing lights. Seventies songbird Linda Ronstadt wore roller skates on the cover of her 1978 album Living in the USA, and then, in 1980, pop star and actor Olivia Newton-John kept the trend alive with her roller disco musical film Xanadu. Sadly, as interest in disco music waned in the early ’80s, many rinks closed. And many more that survived the death of disco were later shuttered due to that decade’s weak economy brought on by the 1979 oil crisis.
With the scarcity of rinks, in the ’90s, attention shifted from quads to inline “roller blades,” which were great for street skating. Then, in the 2000s, a new kind of punk, DIY, feminist skate culture emerged out of Austin, TX, that brought four-wheeled skating back. Riffing off a briefly aired, sexism-fueled, all-women’s TV show in the late ’80s, in which women raced in skates around a track as a way for producers to show off their scantily clad bodies, modern roller derby was reclaimed as a full-contact female amateur sport. From 2000 to 2006, over 130 all-women’s leagues cropped up across the U.S. and there are now over 1000 leagues worldwide. This phenomenon was immortalized by the 2009 film Whip It, directed by Drew Barrymore.
But rolling along right beside this white history of skating has been a vibrant Black legacy that never faded. During the civil rights uprisings of the 1960s, segregated rinks became flashpoints for protests, and Black-owned rinks and Black skate parties at otherwise white skate centers evolved, out of necessity, into community hubs in underprivileged neighborhoods. Known by different names, including “Adult Night,” “R&B Night,” and “Soul Night,” designated Black skate nights at roller rinks have nurtured a legacy of creativity and innovation that continues today. Highly individualized traditions coalesced around urban rinks coast to coast, with each geographic area developing their own skating styles and musical preferences—hip-hop in Compton; James Brown in Chicago—as revealed in the John Legend-produced United Skates, a 2018 HBO documentary about the battle to keep Black roller-skating culture alive. Ultimate trendsetter Beyoncé even set her 2014 video for “Blow” at a Black rink party.
These days, most rinks are closed due to COVID-19. As a result, skaters are taking to the streets, with open paved areas becoming impromptu, socially distant skate parties. The visibility of these on social media has re-ignited a passion for skating among many looking for pandemic-safe fun. Only time will tell how indelibly the COVID crisis will change the world of skating. But if the long waiting lists to purchase skates online are any indication, this trend is showing no signs of slowing down.
As a roller disco party-throwing queen for over a decade, I’ve watched many guests at my events try to skate for the first time. Some people put skates on and have the illusion that their feet will magically just know what to do. But skating, like all sports, requires basic knowledge, practice, and perhaps some falling down while you learn. You wouldn’t put on skis for the first time and immediately launch yourself down a black diamond hill. Likewise, you should take time to learn the basics before launching onto a rink floor or busy street. Here are a few simple things that you can do to help you get going as soon as possible.
- Don’t be an upright stick figure! Stick your butt out and bend your knees.
- Skate in a V Shape and shift your weight from side to side. (Don’t step—it’s not like walking.)
- If you feel like you are going to fall, lower your center of gravity and put your hands on your knees. Although your impulse may be to raise your center of gravity higher to resist falling, this is the worst thing you can do, and could cause serious injury. Solidify and steady yourself by getting low.
Pro tip for looking good at the roller disco:
Sweeping arm movements will make you look like a better skater than you are! Take the attention away from your novice feet as they shuffle along by moving your upper body and arms to the beat.
Pro tip for outdoor skating:
A common mistake I see beginner skaters make is trying to skate outdoors with indoor wheels. Most skates on the market come with hybrid indoor/outdoor wheels. If you plan on skating primarily outdoors, especially on rough surfaces, it is worth the investment to replace your wheels with outdoor wheels. This will make the experience so much more enjoyable. Hard wheels on outdoor surfaces are no fun!
Find a Teacher
If you are looking for a skilled skate instructor who exudes positivity and inspiration look no further than Tanya Dean and her Skaterobics Zoom and IRL N.Y.C. classes. I also love the Instagram tutorials from professional skater Kim Manning Space Queen. She condenses an astounding amount of clear, expert instruction into short videos which range in skill level from very basic to more advanced skate dance techniques. There are also tons of new “Learn to Skate” videos cropping up on YouTube, but until about a year ago, one of the only people doing it right on that platform was Dirty Deborah Harry from the Dirty School of Skate. She’s a no-nonsense gal and her videos feature blunt, direct, roller-skating wisdom from her decades as an avid rink fixture. One of the best of the newer roller-skating content creators on YouTube is the colorful and fabulous Rebel from Queer Girl Straight Skates. Be sure to also check out her Etsy shop for super cute accoutrements (etsy.com/shop/CheersToTheQueers).
More than ever before, there is so much roller-skating eye candy on the Internet to enjoy. The amount of inspiration is literally endless, but here is a list of skaters on Instagram that I personally enjoy, along with their picks for the best gear to get you rolling.
I believe that fashion is an essential component of the roller-skating experience. All of my roller disco parties have a dress-up theme and guests are encouraged to come in costume. But even without a specific theme, skating provides and excuse to bling it up, rock your most colorful outfit, bust out those sequined hot pants, and parade around in a bedazzled crop top and colorful hair accessories!
Gorgeous by Gorgeous
One of my favorite designers of roller disco attire is burlesque superstar Mr. Gorgeous (yes, he totally lives up to that name). His line (etsy.com/shop/gorgeousbygorgeous) features Xanadu-worthy rink apparel, such as dazzling hot pants for men and rainbow-colored bodysuits, and will make you feel like a warrior of joy as you skate. We collaborated on an exclusive Gorgeous + Dreamland line of skate covers, hot pants, and arm tassels (dreamlandrollerrink.com) along with some other fab roller disco tees.
No roundup of skate wear designers would be complete without Abbey Roadkill. A lifelong skater, she literally grew up at her family’s roller rink, and loves skating so deeply she was married in skates on the roller disco dance floor. Her must-have line of rad gear features all kinds of roller skate accessories including fringe, glittery toe-stop covers, and every color of laces you could possibly imagine (etsy.com/shop/rollerstuff).
I Want To Go To Paradise
True to her name, Marawa the Amazing routinely rocks dazzling high-heeled roller skates on the burlesque stage while wiggling inside over 200 hula hoops (simultaneously!). This 12-time Guinness World Record holder for hula hooping creates sexy, functional, super cute roller-skating apparel—including socks, T-shirts, and leopard print everything (iwanttogotoparadise.com). She also did a collab with vegan skate company Impala and designed a pair of eye-popping rose gold quad skates just for them.
The Perfect Playlist
Of course, good tunes are an essential accompaniment to roller skating. I created this feel-good mix to both connect you to the roller disco days of yore and to launch you into a future filled with skate magic. Let the socially distanced good times roll!
“Into the Groove” by Madonna“
This is my number one go-to song when I need some pick-me-up dance floor inspiration to pull me out of a negative funk. I shake off whatever is holding me back and “get into the groove!”
“Dancing On My Own” by Robyn
I love skating with friends, but I’ve also always loved going to clubs, shows, and roller rinks alone. There is something so beautiful about being by yourself, immersed in the beat, without any distractions. And it’s liberating to remember you don’t need anyone except yourself to have a one person skate party!
“Stand Back” by Stevie Nicks
This song is one of my absolute dancefloor faves. The beat makes you feel like you are being carried effortlessly through the air by an enchanted Pegasus over rainbows while your feathered ’80s hair trails behind you in the wind.
“Rhythm of the Night” by DeBarge
When I was a kid, I decided that the video for this song was my vision of what my adulthood would be like—dancing through city streets wearing fabulous outfits. I learned the hard way that this isn’t always true, but I listen to this song whenever I need to be transported back into this utopian dream of “leaving your worries behind.”
“Freak-A-Zoid” by Midnight Star
This song will get you out of your inhibitions and make you move how you really want! Feel the liberation take over every luminous, glittering cell in your body and be the amazing, unique, Freak-A-Zoid you were born to be.
“The Bomb! (These Sounds Fall Into My Mind)” by the Bucketheads
Perfect for an outdoor skate session, this song is like a blast of instant sunshine that will make you want to get down inside that delicious break.
“Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll” by Vaughan Mason & Crew
There is an international roller disco convention in Barcelona called Skate Love. This song brings me back to skate dancing on the beach there alongside the most passionate, beautiful skaters in the world. When I hear it, I envision a global coalition of roller disco love radiating into the stratosphere.
“Set It Off” by Strafe
This classic from 1984 takes skaters deep into a hypnotic, rolling trance. When the DJ spins this track at my parties, you can instantly feel a different vibe envelop the dance floor, beckoning everyone deeper into the intoxicating groove.
“I Feel Love” by Donna Summer
For a hit of ultimate dance floor transcendence, you can’t get much better than this. I’ve owned a shop on the Coney Island boardwalk for the last 20 summers alongside a tremendously diverse array of other businesses all blasting music into the salt-water air. Fascinatingly, although each soundscape is drastically different, this is the one song on almost every playlist.
“Fantasy” by Mariah Carey
This is a great last song to play as you’re coming down off the magic of your skate session. I believe that the first and last song of any skate are crucial. “Fantasy” sends you back out into the world, transformed by roller disco, and ready to tackle whatever challenges life brings your way.
Photos: Lauren Silberman (Lola Star, Shannon Dsouza of the LA Roller Girls, Brooklyn Skates skater); Library of Congress / 2005694682 (1880s rink); Library of Congress / 2018694600 (trade card); Library of Congress / 2017788790 (Savoy Ballroom); Brent Lavelle (Texas Roller Derby League); Christopher Vanderwal/HBO (United Skates); Mario Ruben Carrion for Butter Roll (ButterRoll); Katarina Flick (@neonkeon); Miguel Ramos (@estrogen); Marco Stark (@larollergirls); Ellen Stagg (Mr. Gorgeous); Jo Duck (Marawa the Amazing)
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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