The 2017 documentary Roller Dreams details the emergence and ultimately downhill trajectory of the once thriving Venice Beach, CA, roller dancing scene. The film quotes its principal subjects, Mad (aka James Lightning) and Sally Piano (aka Sally Messenger)—among others, as noting that the hit 1979 rollersploitation disco films Roller Boogie and Skatetown USA, as well as the final skate sequence in the 1980 Olivia Newton John fantasy romance Xanadu, all got their inspiration and many of their moves straight from the Venice crowd. Yet each of these pictures featured almost entirely white casts and white leads. Indeed, Mad observes at one point that the producers of Skatetown USA wanted to use footage of his lower body performing on skates with the torso and face of a white actor superimposed over his top half. Following the pictures’ success, when an adoring public came flocking to the real Venice Beach skate scene to see the performers the movies had popularized, they grew upset at the stark reality that, in the words of Mad: “Venice is about the only beach that’s black.” Hollywood had whitewashed an essentially African-American skating movement. Yet, because so many never made the trek out to California, resting content to let the big screen fantasy forever define their impression of modern roller skating and roller disco, for them the whole phenomenon was seen as largely white. Never mind that the widely acknowledged “Godfather of Roller Disco,” Bill “Jamma” Butler, co-author of the hit 1979 book on roller disco entitled Jammin’, is African American. There is enormous irony in the fact that, as expressed in Roller Dreams, when the “gangsta” rap of N.W.A. and similar groups burst onto the scene in the bottom half of the 1980s, the Venice skaters rejected both the music and the gritty black culture it profiled as alien to their movement and personal experience. Meanwhile, N.W.A. got its start by performing at the Skateland U.S.A. roller rink in Compton, and the same aggressive tactics from cops that inspired the group’s 1988 protest song Fuck tha Police would eventually hound and harass the Venice skating scene out of vital existence, shunting it away from a once central position on the boardwalk to a tiny pocket of concrete also occupied by vagrants and the homeless. The tag line used to advertise the documentary was: “The dream didn’t fade, it was taken.”
Despite the sad story of Venice Beach skating, the final inherently Satanic aspect to modern skating and skate culture worthy of highlighting here stems from its tendency to push toward reverse dominance. 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), Bill Butler discusses how, when he was growing up in Detroit, the only roller rink in town, The Arcadia Ballroom on Woodward at Stimson, was a whites-only establishment most of the time. African-Americans originally had only one night a week, a practice that would eventually be emulated at rinks around the country under the codeword “Adult Night” as part of a system of de facto racial segregation. Butler notes with evident glee, however, that because the black community was so consistent and persistent at the Arcadia they eventually turned the tables on the white crowd, resulting in just one night a week remaining exclusively for caucasian clientele and the rest of the hebdomad opened wide for the “urban” scene.
Today, even as roller rinks shutter in communities all over the nation, black skating culture is going strong, if “underground,” as documented in Dixon’s film and the 2018 documentary United Skates that I’m still dying to see (Psssst, it’s coming to HBO on February 19th!). Roller skates were first invented by a Belgian, gained popularity in Europe before being exported to America, and remained in this country the exclusive province of Euro-Americans for many years, with both overt and more subtle racial separatist interests actively attempting to keep African-American patrons out of rinks by curtailing the times they could skate, the attire they could wear while skating, and the music they could jam to on the floor. Nevertheless, they persisted. In this way, the story of African-American roller skating in this country presents a mirror image to that of the emergence and development of rock-n’-roll music: what began as an exclusively white pastime and recreation was appropriated, refined, and ultimately reinvented by black individuals and communities rather than the other way around. 8 Wheels focuses early on in the film on the annual Joi’s Sk8-A-Thon event held over Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, GA, co-organized and run by an African-American Detroit native and Georgia transplant named Joi Lofton. Sk8-A-Thon is today a truly international event, attracting skaters from as close as Canada and as far away as Europe and Japan. Yet it also remains, after twenty-three years in continuous rotation, a celebration of a solidly black roller skating culture in this country and is, in fact, the largest single skating party in the USA today.
Meanwhile, talk about “nevertheless persisting”: the sport of roller derby established itself as unique early on in the twentieth century by being a popular athletic outlet where women could openly compete on their own right, often alongside and even against men. Then, after the popularity of the sport had long since waned with the general public and derby was considered largely a thing of the past, the 2000s saw a revival of roller derby in the United States, centering around Austin, TX. What’s more, as dramatized in the 2007 novel Derby Girl by Shauna Cross and the 2009 film Whip It adapted from it, this new breed of grassroots roller derby was an all-female affair. Yes, men were still involved in the sport as coaches, referees, and promoters, but the new incarnation of roller derby was, and remains, by and large a DIY women’s affair. From its humble Texan origins, all-female roller derby has since become an international phenomenon, with the 2013 British reality television series Roller Derby Till I Die documenting the on- and off-track lives of the London Rollergirls and their bouts in the UK, Europe, and America. Curiously, though, while roller derby back in the day had originally involved a decently strong African-American presence with athletes like Darlene Anderson breaking the color barrier in the sport during the late 1950s, the modern incarnation seems somehow overwhelmingly white…-ish.
Alongside the development of all-female roller derby, the 2000s also saw a grassroots female entrepreneurial takeover of sorts of modern skating represented by the brand Moxi created by Los Angeles transplant Michelle Steilen (aka Estro-Jen). Beginning in 2010, Steilen and Moxi played on nostalgia for Southern California’s rich roller skating history and used savvy marketing targeted specifically at women to quickly grow to such prominence on the skate scene as to account for twenty percent of all the roller skate revenue taken in by Moxi partner and manufacturer, legendary Minnesota-based skate brand Riedell. In a publicity video for the Moxi Girls Skate Team, members report how, when they first started showing up and skating at Long Beach, CA, skate parks, they faced an intimidating all-male crowd of skateboarders who regarded the women on roller skates with suspicion and derision. Soon, though, with their skating expertise and extreme moves on display, the women had carved out a niche for themselves on the scene. As a customer at the Long Beach location of Moxi’s skate shop reportedly remarked to an employee: “I like that you guys are about women’s empowerment. I’m about that, too.”
Of course, at $279 a pair and with an exclusive deal to sell skates in Urban Outfitters stores, it may be difficult for Moxi Skates to realize their stated goal to be “a brand that brought roller skating back to everyone.” At some point, this particular reclamation of roller skating begins to look a skosh more like gentrification. African-American roller derby player Kennedy Johnson (aka Sixx) makes a similar point about the paucity of people of color in the modern sport: “Economic barriers are real. As a pay to play sport, roller derby requires a financial investment right from the start. Gear, equipment and league dues make it hard for some minorities to play.” So there’s plenty more work for reverse dominance to do in the contemporary world of roller skating.