The sport has been a balm during a challenging time. “To a certain degree, roller skating definitely improved my mental health. I find that it’s a great way to take my mind off things and feel free from the heavy atmosphere the pandemic has created,” the 23-year-old said. It has also made transportation easier, she added. “The whole commuting system was heavily slowed in Minneapolis, and I do not have a car, so it was a good way to commute as well.”
With the novel coronavirus putting many jobs and activities on hold, Americans have found themselves adopting new hobbies, such as the oft-reported sourdough bread-making and “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” playing. A surge of TikTok videos (the #rollerskating page has more than 1.8 billion views) featuring swaying, sun-drenched skaters and a bevy of bold, retro skate brands have helped generate a renewed interest in roller skating, as well.
In mid-May, there was a spike in the search for roller skates on Google Trends that has since remained fairly consistent. And throughout the spring, retailers such as Moxi Roller Skates and Impala Rollerskates have seen sales skyrocket. “We released our new Pastel Fade skate during lockdown, which sold out in the same day,” Matt Hill, chief executive of Impala Rollerskates, said in an email.
Michelle Steilen, owner and founder of Moxi Roller Skates and Moxi Shop, has had to open a second factory to fulfill all of the back orders the brand has accumulated. (Moxi’s Lolly Completes are the skates that have been selling the most.) “Back in April, [we made] 12 times our regular sales. Now, it’s a lot more than that,” Steilen said. Even with the back orders, they still have protective gear in stock, which Steilen is thankful for: “Pads, we have a pretty steady inventory of, which is great, because all of these new roller skaters need protectors.”
Steilen attributes roller skating’s newfound popularity partly to people’s desire for an activity they can do outside gyms and yoga studios, which are operating at reduced capacity — if they are open — and which some members are reluctant to return to. “I believe people are interested in picking up skating as a real hobby because they’re not sure when it’s going to be, or if it’s ever going to [go] back to normal,” she said.
According to Tanya Dean, a certified personal trainer and the founder of Skaterobics, fitness classes that combine roller skating and dance, the biggest physical benefit of roller skating is that it’s a cardio workout. “Roller skating in an hour can burn up to 600 calories per session,” Dean said.
Dean said skating’s pluses include oxygenation of the blood, stronger thighs and hamstrings (“because you are constantly pushing off”), balance, control, a healthy heart and self-confidence. She also thinks the activity keeps people looking youthful. “If you ask the average roller skater their age, they’re going to look 10 to 15, even 20 years younger than their actual age because of the benefits of roller skating,” she said.
Since the pandemic started, Dean has been teaching classes virtually, which she says has helped “those who were getting depressed, those who were in the house by themselves, those who really wanted to learn how to skate and were scared to come out and move because they didn’t have the confidence.”
In some cases, skaters are returning to a beloved sport. Jenna Mahale, an East London writer and editor, started roller and ice skating at about 10 years old, and recently started roller skating again. “I think people like me are just sort of like looking into the pit of their interests and pulling up lots of things from their past,” said Mahale, 23. “I’ve spoken to quite a lot of people about how isolation has felt quite teenager-y in that kind of you’re trapped in your room, but there’s not a lot for you to do.”
Courtneigh Summerrise, an administrative assistant in the finance division for the New York City Council, also began taking lessons at an early age, and she attended skate parties and visited the local rink in Ohio as a child. “Roller skating is really big in black communities, and [my dad] dance skates and is really cool and fancy with it,” she said.
But, until the pandemic, Summerrise hadn’t picked up a pair of skates since she was a teenager. “I was like just working from home and sitting down all day, and I was like, ‘What can I do?’ ” the 26-year-old said. Deciding it was time to look for some skates, she fell down a rabbit hole on Reddit. “I didn’t even realize like roller skating was cool again, and these Reddit people were talking about how all these TikTokers were roller skating and how it was like becoming like a trend,” she said.
Actress and dancer Ana Coto, who has been skating for more than three years, has recently become one of the leaders of the hobby’s revival. Coto, who joined TikTok in February, garnered more than 1.5 million followers after a video of her skating to Jennifer Lopez’s “Jenny from the Block” went viral. She has also charmed spectators with videos of her gliding — often in Riedell skates — throughout streets and parks of Southern California to songs from Donna Lewis to Bad Bunny. “The reason why I started sharing [videos] on TikTok was because I had amassed this history, and I wanted to keep a sort of skate journal,” Coto said.
But she also sought to have a channel with purpose. “I want to have a TikTok, a space online, a presence online, that encourages people to have conversations about skating, about womanhood, about Latin culture, about black culture,” said Coto, who is from Puerto Rico. She also wants to talk about its history: “Skating is not really just a white person’s sport,” she said.
Coto believes the reason roller skating hasn’t always shown up in modern media is due to the fact that “it’s plenty of marginalized people that are really keeping skating alive, and have popularized skating. Skating venues are supposed to be safe places for the LGBTQ+ communities, also for children and black people.”
Roller skating has a history of racism that has often been overlooked. Black skaters created their own communities in the 1960s, when many rinks were segregated. The rise of skate culture continued into the 1970s and 1980s, becoming an incubator for hip-hop — something documented in the 2019 documentary "United Skates."
“Roller skating is what I do, what I’m made of, and we were around before this so-called resurgence,” Dean said. “It never went anywhere with us. [The black community] really [is] the reason for the resurgence.”
Some of the people who post on and research social media platforms say that racial biases found in algorithms contribute to the whitewashing of black content, such as skating videos. “The algorithm’s [goal], Facebook’s algorithm, Instagram’s algorithm,” Dean said, “is to promote white anything, . . . because those who created these platforms are marketing to their kind.”
Coco Franklin, a professional roller skating and yoga instructor based in California, said that although the combination of the coronavirus shutdowns and TikTok and Instagram has helped raise her profile and bring in new students, she, too, thinks black American skate culture has been omitted in the mainstream media.
However, she added: “With our current climate, people are forced to educate themselves, whether they would like to or not. And . . . I have a good feeling [that] things will be changing, for the best.”
Ilana Kaplan is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn. Follow her @lanikaps.