The Satanics of Roller Skating II: Getting Over Your Self Out on the Floor

Whether in the predominantly white all-female revival world of roller derby or the predominantly African-American revival world of “urban” “adult-night” skating in neighborhood rinks, another inherently Satanic aspect to the world of roller skating in general is both the flamboyance and the purely recreational aspect of identity construction. In roller derby, this play with identity takes the form of camp costumes often involving goth, punk, and intensely femme aspects and elements, as well as the shameless puns adopted as names for assumed derby identities. As episode five of the UK reality television show Roller Derby Till I Die revealed in its profile of the London Brawler all-star skater dubbed “Raw Heidi,” these pseudonyms and costumed characters they adorn can at times begin to take on within the experience of individual skaters lives entirely of their own. In the underground world of urban night skating, there is a more serious aspect to the issue of identity that functions along the lines I’ve laid out elsewhere on the site, emphasizing the need for purely recreational constructions of personal identity and the propensity/ability of such recreational identities to break out of the cycle of corporate groupishness on some external basis and the skewed in-group/out-group values and inter-group violence it usually leads to. 

As detailed in the 2008 documentary 8 Wheels and Some Soul Brotha Music directed by Tyrone Dixon (who also produced the 2005 roller-skating comedic drama Roll Bounce), each region of the country where urban roller skating is active has its own distinctive and unique style of skating. 8 Wheels paid special attention to Chicago’s J.B. Style, named after the fact that it arose from skaters grooving to the music of James Brown. But there’s also the Stride Style associated with Ohio and a Fast Backwards Style associated with Philadelphia, PA. While these different styles may seem to constitute precisely the types of externalized identities I often inveigh against, they all actually arose from individual skaters on the ground in various locales across the country choosing their own unique ways to engage in the recreation of skating and sharing those ways spontaneously with others, who took them up in turn and further refined and embellished them. Over time, specific styles develop increasingly rigid form and become associated with geographic region, and that overall process does tend toward the externalized and even political. But since the styles are rooted in play and deployed in the service of friendly, informal competition by means of recreation and display, they tend to maintain a casual, rather than entrenched and militant, profile. And at any rate, one interviewee in 8 Wheels discusses at length how even within the single city of Chicago multiple skate styles are practiced, though often at separate rinks.

What’s more, in the heyday of gang activity in the Los Angeles County city of Compton beginning in the mid-1980s, the insides of roller rinks like Skateland USA became havens from polarized gang conflicts. Though turf wars raged outside and even in the rink parking lots often enough, inside, colors were banned and members of rival groups reportedly put violence aside in favor of sheer play. Eventually, the external conflicts drove some rinks to close, like World on Wheels in Mid-City L.A., which was situated at the confluence of three rival Crip gangs. Unlike Skateland USA, which has closed down for good in 1988, though, World on Wheels has since reopened and is still going strong today.    

One way to parse what happened to gang identity on the roller rink floor is to consider that when you’re existing in an intensely immediate-return environment, where investment of physical effort produces instant and pleasurable feedback tending even toward the creation of what Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the experience of Flow, the felt need to scour personal experience for some stable, lasting, and durable sense of self and externally given meaning evaporate. Your firm hold on time and an obdurate sense of self loosens, freeing you to recreate yourself moment-to-moment and forget past rigidities. Since Satanism is nothing if not a religion of immediate-return-ism and opposing past rigidities par excellence, I find the ways in which identity is (re)defined and (re)deployed on the roller rink floor ineluctably Satanic. 

What’s more, this changed sense of self through skating has the capacity to carry over the edges of the maple rink, spilling out into everyday life in enriching ways as well. For instance, I often note as I’m coming home from a busy skate session how driving on crowded city streets suddenly starts to seem like just another version of the session, like attempting to maneuver out on the packed rink floor. It somehow ceases to be purely a vehicular exercise in getting from place to place with as little impediment as possible, despite the impeding presence of other people in a shared space: that’s a recipe for frustration and anger if ever there was one. Rather, imbued with the recent experience of the roller rink, driving in traffic feels much more like recreation, like an exercise in shared fun while attempting to maintain your roll as smoothly and artfully as possible. Where once there was work and the negative emotions it often summons, now there is more play, more ease, less taking of things as personal affronts, and greater realization that autonomous individuals with varying skill levels moving in shared space all do the best they can for themselves. It isn’t personal. What is personal, though, is your ability to elevate your experience of it to play, recreation, even art. That takes skill, and skill takes practice, and roller skating, like modern atheistic Satanism as I’ve framed it, provides a perfect space and proving ground for that practice.   


Postscript

Please don’t understand this essay as advancing the pollyannaish notion that somehow simple recreation, like roller skating, has the power, all on its own, to undo and overcome the entrenched, systemic racism and socio-economic inequality that target and break apart communities and even families and ultimately drive the ugly machinery of gang activity. This is not meant as a feel-good local news piece about how the neighborhood playground is reversing the trend of gang violence for once and all. Whatever positive effects emerge from the rink are short-lived, and the documentaries and articles linked above amply demonstrate how institutional racism has contributed to locking African Americans out of even those beneficial aspects and spaces of roller skating, with black-owned rinks and rinks that cater in one way or another to African-American tastes and clientele facing greater risk of unmotivated police scrutiny, unfair zoning regulation, and ultimate closure on the way to gentrification. Yet since so much of racism and classism result from rigid corporate group formation and externalized identity, any practice that, like skating and Satanism, diminishes or counteracts those processes should be cherished and cultivated. Skate often, skate local, and, if possible in your area, skate black.      

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