Culture

From TikTok to the parking lot, why 2021 was the year of the roller skating renaissance

Folks across the country are lacing up — here's where they're going.

Folks across the country are lacing up — here's where they're going

It's not always easy to find a place to roller skate, but Canadian enthusiasts have gotten creative over the pandemic. Where there are wheels, there's a way. (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

In February of 2020, Renelle Collins had never laced up a pair of roller skates, but somehow she knew she needed them. "To be honest, I just thought they were the most beautiful things I've ever seen," said Collins (no relation to this writer), a Toronto resident who ordered herself a pair that same month. 

As impulse purchases go, it was a prescient bit of retail therapy. By March, well, we all know what happened. And in those first few months of COVID-19 lockdown, the world was already pining for freedom, escape: an elusive feeling that was captured in just about every roller-skating video cropping up on TikTok.

How else to explain the roller-skating boom of the summer of 2020 — or rather, the boom in roller-skating content, especially as it proliferated on social media. On Instagram and TikTok, roller dancers including Oumi Janta and Ana Coto saw their followings swell — in Coto's case into the millions. The latter slid into a music video with Dua Lipa, a pop star whose disco-revival style had been channelling roller-rink esthetics since the Before Times. And indeed, there had been hints of a resurgence of the sport pre-pandemic. Harley Quinn and co. were skating circles around the baddies in Birds of Prey's climactic battle royale (February 2020) and the kids on Euphoria weren't too cool to hang out at the roller rink (2019). For quad-wheel enthusiasts, however, roller-skating culture wasn't something to get nostalgic over; it had never truly faded away, especially within the Black American community. The HBO documentary United Skates covers that history thoroughly (and was nominated for an Emmy in summer of 2020). 

Back to Collins for a moment, and the thought that was running through her mind in the early days of the pandemic. For whatever reason, she was on the same mission as a lot of folks. She wanted skates and a place to use them. And because the only thing more fun than roller skating is roller skating with other people, she would have to recruit some like-minded pals. Collins whipped together a Facebook group and labelled it Roller Skate Toronto — so named because it's the first thing anyone in the area might peck into Google. 

"I was thinking it was just going to be me and maybe, like, 10 other people," she said. As of publishing, there are more than 3,400 members, and through the last several months when there's been relatively little to do in downtown Toronto, you could at least find a place to roller skate — thanks in no small part to the information being shared through that group. If the world was desperate to own skates in 2020, it was 2021 when people finally gave them a spin. 

According to Renelle Collins (fifth from left), this photo was taken in June 2020 at the first Roller Skate Toronto meet-up. (Roller Skate Toronto/Facebook)

Where's everybody skating?

Through word of mouth, unused hockey rinks and other patches of unclaimed concrete have become open-air roller palaces in Toronto. A sheltered rink at Greenwood Park is one such example, as is a ring of pavement at College Park, a high-traffic spot where roller skaters share space with skateboard kids, preschoolers on scooters and any number of bystanders trying to navigate the melee on their way to Marshalls.

Beyond those DIY alternatives, roller skaters also had the option of hitting up the Bentway, where Retro Rolla, a shop run out of a shipping container, was renting colourful quad-wheel skates by the hour this summer. (They plan to return in spring of 2022.) In August, the Galleria Mall parking lot was transformed into the Dusty Star Drive-in Diner, a pop-up event that boasted carhops and roller disco. Tickets sold out, and organizers staged a second edition near Kipling Station in late September. 

Even the City of Toronto launched a roller-skating initiative this year, earmarking nine public sites for free drop-in programs. According to a city rep, it was a response to the activity's growing popularity. And while the last official session of the summer was on Sept. 11, the fun kept on rolling. As part of OpenStreetsTO, there was a skate party, complete with DJ, at the Humber Bridge parking lot Sept. 26.

Skaters at The Bentway in Toronto. During the summer of 2021, a pop-up shop called Retro Rolla offered skate rentals on site. (Brock Wunderlich/Retro Rolla)

Of course, that's just a slice of what's happening in one city. People are roller-skating just about everywhere. In many cases, they're doing it outside — pushed outdoors by the pandemic, if not the general scarcity of covered rinks. And if the summer of 2021 is remembered as that time when roller skaters conquered the sidewalks, it's because a lot of those folks waited an entire year to finally have fun on eight wheels. 

Worth waiting out a worldwide shortage

Of all the pandemic-related supply issues, the "worldwide shortage of roller skates" attracted plenty of attention in the summer of 2020, and you can bet Canadian shoppers were on waiting lists for candy-coloured quad wheels to call their own. Specialty retailers across the country couldn't keep their recreational skates in stock. Coffin Skate Shop in Halifax; Retro Rollers in southern Ontario; Toe Stop Derby Shop and Bad Girlfriend Skates in the Edmonton area; Nerd Roller Skates in Calgary; RollerGirl.ca in Vancouver: all of those stores told CBC Life their sales surged in the spring of that year, with most reporting unprecedented highs.

"At the end of the month of March, it started to pick up — and then it just kept picking up," said Claudia Garcia, owner of Toe Stop Derby Shop. Like the other retailers, shortages stalled her sales for a time, and yet 2020 was her best year ever. (This far into 2021, she said she's on track to triple that record.) In nearby Morinville, Alta., Lesley McDonald, owner of Bad Girlfriend Skates, said business has been so strong during the pandemic that she helped her brother open his own shop elsewhere in the province (Hinton's Tzzz Roller Skates). 

It's the first time that [I've] run into other roller skaters at our local parks, and it's awesome!- Dani Peddigrew, owner of The Battery Skate Shop

And as all that coveted gear made its way onto the feet of consumers, something incredible began happening on Canadian streets. Dani Peddigrew operates The Battery Skate Shop in St. John's. "I've been involved in my local roller-derby league for seven years now and I've never seen anything like it," she said in an email. "It's the first time that [I've] run into other roller skaters at our local parks, and it's awesome!"

Stephanie Coffin, co-founder of Coffin Skate Shop in Halifax, said she's placing larger orders than ever to stay on top of demand, and in summer 2020, her business launched a couple of new ideas while waiting for long-delayed shipments. To serve all the local newbs who were clamouring to try the sport, they now offer skate rentals. And the store also began teaching classes, something Garcia's tried in Edmonton too. "It's … a direct response from people coming into our store and asking for lessons," said Coffin. "It's not even a subtle thing. People purchase their skates and they say, 'OK, now what? Now what do I do?'"

Now what? Learn to skate!

For most people, their lessons start online. Search "roller skating" on your platform of choice and you'll turn up someone like Michka Moon (aka @retroroller), a Toronto-based skater who began making TikTok tutorials during the pandemic.

As of writing, her community there has grown to more than 200,000 followers. At first, TikTok was a means of documenting her progress: she'd record herself roller-dancing on the spot in her bedroom, on her porch, on a favourite ice rink in her neighbourhood. But the platform also opened up a new side hustle: teaching. 

Throughout the summer, she was leading in-person classes for the Retro Rolla pop-up at the Bentway. (The fact they share extremely similar brand names was pure coincidence, she said.) And all summer long, her classes were sold out. "There's so many more skaters now, and I see roller skating all over," said Moon. "Even when I'm driving down the street, I'll see a roller skater, and it makes me so happy."

Martina Emard said she's watched the same thing happen more than 2,500 kilometres away in Lethbridge, Alta. Emard — or Cherri Blaster as she's known in roller-derby circles — founded Roller Skate Lethbridge in 2016 (then called Learn to Rollerskate YQL) and she's been teaching classes and organizing roller-dance parties in the city since then. But she's witnessed a special rush of interest during the pandemic. "What I'm really seeing is a lot of new faces, like a lot of people that are messaging me: 'I just got my roller skates; I want to learn,'" she said.

Cherri Blaster/Martina Emard (left) dances with Abigail Reimer at the End of Summer Skate Party in Lethbridge, Alta. The event was held at Casa Lethbridge on Aug. 28, 2021. (Cassandra Navratil, Salt + Birch Photography)

And students are coming to her from beyond southern Alberta. Earlier this year, she began leading virtual lessons through a Vancouver Island-based club, Roller Skate Victoria. "I have people from Cuba and the U.S. attending my classes," she said. "If you would've told me 10 years ago that I'd be teaching roller skating online, I'd be like, 'What?! That's crazy!'"

For the most part, though, Emard teaches IRL. When restrictions were in place, she moved her classes outdoors, something she plans to continue next summer, regardless of whether the pandemic requires it. "It is just really nice to skate outside," she said. "You get that air flowing through your hair. It's just lovely." But in a lot of circumstances, skating outdoors is simply the only option. 

Skate somewhere ... anywhere!

Even pre-COVID, finding an indoor rink was tough, said Emard. She's rented alternative venues in the past — a dance studio, a warehouse. "Everyone's always looking for that permanent space," she said. 

Garcia is on track to open an indoor roller rink in Edmonton this fall, but she said she's found it tricky to organize outdoor meetups in the city. And though her shop was able to stake out some pavement for summer lessons (a parking lot at the Telus World of Science), most public ice rinks — the obvious option — are off limits. Many are grown over with grass, she explained, and there's one in her area that's been filled with sand for beach volleyball. As for the tennis courts, local bylaws state that those are for tennis only. 

Other places are a little more amenable to folks on wheels. In London, Ont., the ice-skating trail at Storybook Gardens got a summer-weather makeover, reopening in July as the Humpty Dumpty Roller Rink. That same month, a group of roller-skating seniors in small town Tillsonburg, Ont., made local headlines when they successfully petitioned their town's rec department to throw a roller disco in a freshly paved parking lot. And then there are the municipalities that hardly need persuading: when the pandemic's officially over, the mayor of Guelph, Ont., wants to throw a giant skate party (or so he tweeted).

Make room for more dancers

In Calgary, the quest for concrete has forged a thriving skate scene. "The Calgary roller-skate culture is ridiculously awesome right now," said Emard, rattling off the names of several online groups and DIY organizations bringing skaters together: True North Skaters, Calgary Roller Skate, Fresh Rollers and more. And yet the city doesn't have an indoor roller rink. In 2018, one classic local venue (Lloyd's roller rink) shut down after 53 years in business. It's where Olivia Walker got hooked on roller dancing six years ago. 

"I just fell in love with the music, the lights, the people, the sound — the sound of wheels rolling around on the floor," she said. Since then, she's travelled to the U.S. and the U.K. to learn more about roller dancing, and she's brought those international moves back to her students in Alberta. 

"With the rink closing down, it's kind of brought the roller-skate community here closer together," said Walker. "We've had to find venues and, like, come together and figure out a way where we can still skate." For her part, she'll try almost anything that involves a pair of quad wheels: path skating (roller skating on outdoor trails); park skating (roller skating in skateboard parks). She'll pass on roller derby, however. ("I'm more of a lover," she said, laughing. "I don't like to be aggressive.") But according to her, if you want to roller skate in Calgary, "There's something for everybody."

And the sport is still growing. "When I go out now, I pass by dozens of people on quad skates," said Walker, and she wants to see the scene get stronger, especially when it comes to roller dance. Back in Walker's newbie days, when she first started frequenting Lloyd's, she knew there had to be something more to the sport that skating around in a loop. In search of new moves, she'd spend hours on YouTube. That's when she stumbled on footage of Soul Skate, a long-running party out of Detroit.

"I was like, 'I want that!… I want to be in a community like that!" said Walker. As she dove into researching the history of roller skating in the States — and the ties to Black music and culture — what she learned was a revelation. 

With the rink closing down, it's kind of brought the roller-skate community here closer together.- Olivia Walker, roller skater

"I actually would love to see more BIPOC people on skates," she said. "I am a person of colour myself." And ultimately, her goal is to nurture a local skate community where everyone — people of all ages, abilities and cultures — get dancing. "That is something that was not part of the rink culture here," she said. "Here it was more shuffle skating — going around in a circle. There was really nobody dancing in the middle when I started going to Lloyd's." 

Walker said that's why she teaches. "More and more people are doing dance routines and dancing together … but I don't think we're quite there," she said. "I want to help build that."

'It isn't from the latest TikTok video'

As more people learn how to do the moonwalk and electric slide on their roller skates, Alisa Luke wants newbies to consider where those moves originated. "It isn't from the latest TikTok video," she said. And that's why her Vancouver-based crew, Bad Bounce BIPOC Skaters, has made education part of its mission. The roller-skating content that's booming on social media — the techniques, the music, the style — it all owes a debt to Black roller skaters across the United States. "We absolutely want to share that and want people to learn from that and realize that this isn't just a cool new thing that happened overnight," she said. "The reason why you're enjoying doing this today is because this community kept it alive." 

On social, Bad Bounce shares plenty of memes about roller-skating history. Luke was new to the sport when she learned those lessons herself, and the knowledge was empowering. She's roller-skated for nearly a decade, and it's roller derby that first got her on wheels. It's a sport that's proud of its inclusive culture, she said. "But that inclusion is very much [about] body positivity, gender and sexuality," she added. And in all the years she played, it was rare to meet Black skaters like herself. 

But then Luke heard about jam skating, an often acrobatic genre of roller dancing that emerged from Black roller-skating communities in the '90s. "In my downtime, I used to watch a lot of videos online of jam-style dance skaters, skate parties," she said. "And I quickly realized that … roller skating itself had always been a source of joy for the Black community through all the struggles and strife. … Knowing that it was so steeped in history — I mean, it was a beautiful thing." She started immersing herself in whatever she could learn about Black skate culture online. "Like, this is my happy place!" 

Roller skating itself had always been a source of joy for the Black community through all the struggles and strife. ... Knowing that it was so steeped in history — I mean, it was a beautiful thing.- Alisa Luke, co-founder Bad Bounce BIPOC Skaters

But the reality she found in Vancouver was anything but. Luke talked about hitting up a local roller rink with some buddies in the Before Times. Their first impression of the place was meh; the music was undanceable. But that was nothing compared to what they witnessed next. The party was a costume night, she recalled. "Some people [were] prancing around wearing afro wigs, and other people had blackface," she said. "I felt like it was a hostile territory."

Incidents like that convinced Luke she'd have to make her own "safe space" to skate, and by June of 2020 she and three friends (Jessie Wilson, Mariana Menendez and Katya Isichenko) co-founded Bad Bounce with the mission to make skating more welcoming and accessible to BIPOC folks. The Black Lives Matter demonstrations were at their height. Roller skating was fully trending on social — alongside posts calling out appropriation of Black culture. The least they could do was open their crew to some new pals. Luke estimates they now have around 80 members who come out to dance at regular meetups, which they hold in different spots around the Lower Mainland. And if beginners can't get access to equipment, Bad Bounce will hook them up.

The founders of Vancouver's Bad Bounce BIPOC Skaters. (L-R): Jessie Wilson, Alisa Luke, Katya Isichenko, Mariana Menendez. (Courtesy of Alisa Luke)

In Calgary, Walker described a similar pay-it-forward ethos among roller skaters. "You want to give back and turn more people onto the love of skating. So you share your knowledge," she said. "I like to think that it's a community of people who just want to meet up and see each other as well."

Why's it worth risking a broken tailbone?

For a solo sport — one that grew while the world was in solitary confinement at that — there's something oddly social about roller skating. And for a lot of beginners, that's what makes it a hobby worth busting your tailbone to learn. 

Joshua Harper is something of a local celebrity around Guelph, Ont. Last June, he was grooving by himself outside city hall, too caught up in a carefree skate session to realize the mayor was posting video to Facebook. The clip wound up making local headlines, and people loved it. "I would skate around town, and people would stop [me]," said Harper. "'Oh, you're the guy from the news!" But he was still a relative novice when that moment went viral. He had only started roller skating at the very beginning of the pandemic, egged on by a cousin and eventually a crew of friends. To fend off the lockdown blahs, they challenged each other to level up their skills. 

"There's always something else you can learn [about roller skating] — you can always get better," he said. "And then I can share it with my loved ones and I can teach people. It was honestly perfect."

By that summer, Harper and his friends took their skates out of the house and started hunting for any skate-able surface within driving distance, from Pier 8 in Hamilton to a roller rink in Napanee. More often than not, though, he's making a trip to Toronto. "I mean, downtown Toronto? It's a city made of concrete," he said.

"Sometimes I wonder if the pandemic didn't hit, would I have skated? And honestly, maybe not, no.… It was kind of the perfect time, right?"

Skate for life

Skating has been a bright spot during Emmie Tsumura's pandemic as well. The Toronto-based artist has only been on wheels for three months now, but she loves to practice at Greenwood Park. "As soon as I bring my speaker out and put music on, all the kids come out and start skating too," said Tsumura, who's also connected with a lot of new roller-skating buds via Instagram, where she's been dutifully charting her progress. 

Artist Emmie Tsumura, all laced up and ready to roller skate at Toronto's Greenwood Park. (Emmie Tsumura)

"It's brought a lot of people together in my small world," she said. And it's brought her a lot of joy too. This time last year, Tsumura was undergoing cancer treatment. Now in recovery, roller skating is adding much-needed fun to her physio routine. Sure, she's had a few wipeouts along the way, but they've been worth it. "It's good to know that you can fall and get back up again," she said. And she has every intention to keep her "green apple-licious" beauties laced up through the winter — though the snow will probably drive her practice sessions inside her apartment. 

Sometimes I wonder if the pandemic didn't hit, would I have skated? And honestly, maybe not, no.… It was kind of the perfect time, right?- Joshua Harper, roller skater

Roller skating doesn't stop when summer ends, and some folks aren't shy about sub-zero conditions. "I don't let weather stop me, usually, from getting my skate on," laughed Walker. If her favourite skate park is iced over, the folks in her circle will clear it themselves if they have to. "People have snowblowers; people have propane torches," she said. "We do skate all year round."

And maybe by the summer of 2022, there will be even more new skaters on the sidewalk — wobbling like baby deer in suede high-top boots. 

Said Harper: "I never plan to stop skating for the rest of my life, to be honest. It's my new lifestyle, and I just plan to continue to get better."

Clarifications

  • This article has been updated to specify when Alisa Luke of Vancouver’s Bad Bounce BIPOC Skaters was introduced to the history of roller skating. 
    Oct 25, 2021 1:30 PM ET

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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