Health

Black Skaters Led the Way for Roller Skating's Explosion in Popularity

The skating community finds itself in an adjustment period, hoping for the best possible outcome: a measured, sustained growth of the same community they’ve loved for years, pre-pandemic and pre-TikTok.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, United States
October 26, 2020, 6:30pm
Black woman wearing roller skates gliding around corner
Peathegee Inc. via Getty

May was when Michelle Steilen, the founder of Moxi Skates, noticed a major uptick in orders for roller skates. Most of the country was two months into quarantine, headlines about Ana Coto’s skating TikToks (particularly, one in which she smoothly skates down a sunny street, lip syncing to “Jenny From the Block”) populated the internet, and stimulus checks were slowly making their way into bank accounts. 

Every complete set of outdoor skates on Moxi’s website is marked “sold out,” and has been for months. As the weather warmed and TikTok roller skating videos proliferated, roller skates joined the list of pandemic hot commodities—PPE, Lysol wipes, bikes, home gym equipment, hair clippers—that can’t match the sudden surge in demand. 

“We’re still trying to fulfill orders from May,” Steilen told VICE. Aside from just more orders, they added, the buying patterns were also changing. “The consumers that are coming into skating are not just buying one pair, they’re buying multiple pairs of skates.”

This confounding, new type of skating customer now represents “ninety percent” of Moxi’s market, Steilen said. They’re dropping upwards of $600 on multiple pairs of skates in different colors, seemingly to match outfits they plan to post videos in later. The TikTok/pandemic-motivated genre of roller skater is one interested in skating’s smooth aesthetics, which isn’t totally unreasonable. The TikToks posted by Coto and others are endlessly appealing: People glide freely along the pavement, usually in some California sun, and always to a few seconds of a catchy song. During a year of infinite time indoors, the videos are like pandemic ASMR (Coto, like many others, even takes song requests from the comments).

The second wave of headlines, after the initial round covering the trend of TikTok skaters, focused on the trend wafting out into the parks and streets. Roller skating emerged as an unexpected and cool way to exercise safely during the pandemic; the New York Times decreed it the “Summer of Roller Skates.” Longtime skaters started noticing a change in the uptick, too: The so-called “trend” of roller skating in 2020 was overwhelmingly white, and not representative of the existing, tight-knit community. 

Black skaters posted TikToks and YouTube videos calling attention to the longtime silencing of Black voices in the skating community. By August, Elle published a list of Black roller skaters “you should already be following on Instagram,” on which Courtney Shove, a skater who goes by @fatgirlhas_moxi on Instagram, appeared. “It's crazy, I think I had like, 10,000 followers before everyone started really paying attention to Black skaters,” Shove said. She now has more than 53,000. 

Shove noticed the uptick around Long Beach, California, where she and her girlfriend have been skating for years. She used to see other roller skaters every other day or so, but at one point in early October, she remembers seeing six other skaters out in the park. She’s seen skating grow steadily the past few years, but this summer is when she saw it boom, to both good and bad effect. 

“The downside of a subculture becoming mainstream is that you don't know who that opens the door for,” Shove told VICE. “The rollerskating community is very tight knit. Even though we're huge, we all agree, like, No fatphobia no homophobia, no sexism. And I'm starting to see like an influx of the, you know, all lives matter, and skaters with MAGA hats, and that's not really what our culture is about.”

The skating community isn’t new to whitewashing and racism. Shove mentioned the 2018 documentary, United Skates, which covers the decades-long history of Black rink culture across the country, and its current state of endangerment—as the documentary notes, in recent years, an average of three roller rinks have closed each month. Lockdowns during the pandemic have surely shuttered even more. When the documentary was released, the filmmakers told VICE the skate community was concerned about what a spotlight on Black rink culture would do. 

“They needed to have more people know about skating and hopefully be inspired and want to skate more,” Tina Brown, one of the filmmakers, told VICE in 2019. “But they understood the film would change it, that perhaps the community might lose the essence of what it was about initially.”

The skating community now finds itself again in a similar adjustment period, leaving skaters a bit on edge, hoping for the best possible outcome: A measured, sustained growth of the same community they’ve loved for years, pre-pandemic and pre-TikTok. Shove, Steilen, and other longtime skaters who spoke to VICE all emphasized the feeling of camaraderie and inclusivity in skating as a key factor that keeps them motivated and boosts their love of the sport. “That’s honestly one of the parts I love most, is that it’s very much a family,” Jasmine Moore, who posts skating videos as @justseconds on Instagram, told VICE. 

Moore learned to skate as a kid, but after she outgrew her first pair of skates, let the sport fall to the wayside. She picked it back up nearly two years ago, as a junior in college. “I realized that I wasn't taking time to do fun things anymore, I wasn’t taking time to get outside anymore,” Moore said. “So I decided to pick up roller skating again. And I really just haven't looked back since then. It was the best decision I made that summer.” 

“Sometimes I really don't even have a destination. I just put my skates on, I just start going somewhere.”

Moore understands the appeal of skating during stressful times, like we’re living in now. The aesthetic appeals of watching people skate—carefree gliding, dancing, good music, being outside—are just a taste of the actual feeling of it, as both Moore and Shove said. 

“I feel content, I feel freedom when I put my skates on,” Moore said. “I really just feel like I have the ability to go anywhere that I want to, as long as my skates are on my feet. Sometimes I really don't even have a destination. I just put my skates on, I just start going somewhere.”

Marician Deveaux Brown, a skater who posts under @oh.thatsreese_, is one of those beginners, and told VICE she was “definitely motivated by TikTok” and the conditions of the pandemic. She started skating just this year, and over the months, has used YouTube tutorials to learn how to dance skate. Unable to physically skate with people, due to the pandemic, she’s already felt welcomed by the community online. “It's a great community to be a part of, and people are working hard in our community every day to make it inclusive, and to make people feel like they belong,” she said

Aside from the feeling of community, Deveaux Brown said she sticks with the sport because of the way it makes her feel. “I mean it's sexy,” she said. “When I have my earphones and my skates on, I feel like I'm that woman, like all eyes are on me. It gives you this confidence to where it doesn't matter if that was the first day you put on those skates. It is empowering. I love that people will come under my photo and say, ‘I love skating, it created this confidence for me.’ Because that's what it does. It makes me happy. It makes me feel confident.”

Shove described a similar, nearly ineffable feeling. “There's something really empowering about… floating down the street,” she said. “You feel good, you have music, you feel the wind in your face and in your hair—it just feels great. Especially like if you find the right hill to just cruise down.” 

All of these feelings—confidence, the ability to just “go somewhere”—are more appealing than ever, amid a pandemic. All of this is why Shove understands the appeal of getting into skating now, even as the influx of new skaters momentarily rocks the community, but she’s wary of aesthetically motivated beginners who see skaters like Coto gliding effortlessly around on TikTok and mistake the sport as easy. As a corrective measure, and partial motivator, she said she regularly posts fall videos on her Instagram. 

“It's just like,  this aesthetically pleasing thing that's trendy; it's a sport, it's physical,” Shove said. “You will fall. It’s a matter of when.” 

While Moore said she rarely falls now, and it only really happens when she’s trying out something new, another thing that keeps her interested in skating is the idea that there’s endless room for growth. It’s a slow, patient process, there are always new ways to glide. “I've talked to people who've been skating for decades, and they're still trying to perfect their craft—it really is a craft,” she said. “It's not something that happens overnight.”

“When I have my earphones and my skates on, I feel like I'm that woman, like all eyes are on me.”

Even this can be appealing in a slow moving, seemingly endless pandemic. Steilen said that, even as their company continues to fulfill months of backorders, they remain focused on motivating new skaters to keep skating. That means changing business tactics, like the recent release of a discounted pair of skates (just $99, compared to the usual $299 for a complete outdoor pair) as well as social media-issued challenges to keep skaters growing and learning, amid the inevitable falls. 

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