By: Nercya Kalino, Staff Writer
Many groups of people who face challenges in society find community and solace with those who face their same issues and develop bonds over common interests. Such common interests can come in the form of geek culture, arts, or sports — like roller skating. Many of us have seen a music video or a show where people are roller dancing, and if you’re like me, you are amazed at how effortless this looks. But beyond that, there is an immersed history of community and liberty in roller skating. While roller skating is not exclusive to one racial group, Black people have had a significant impact on many roller skating styles in present day.
Roller skating in Canada dates back to the 1880s when the first roller skating facilities were opened in Toronto. In 1961, the Canadian Roller Skating Association was established, later to be renamed Roller Sports Canada in 1995. In the earlier years of roller skating, George Berry, one of Canada’s notable roller speed skaters, would lead as the winner of the North American championship and later be announced as the world’s champion. Artistic roller skater Kailah Macri, who started roller skating in grade school, is also recognizable within skating culture.
In Black communities, this sport has been adopted into many lives, and appreciated for its history. One of the first sit-in protests of the Civil Rights Movement “didn’t involve sitting at all — it was a skate-in.” Skate-in protests persisted throughout the ‘60s, both Black and white skaters organized boycotts and blockaded segregated rinks. The rinks functioned as rally points for racial equality, this can be dated back to the protests of segregation of roller rinks during WWII. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People played a role in arranging legal obstacles to segregated roller skating rinks in Flint, New Jersey, and Cincinnati among many other towns and cities. It was only later in the ‘60s that the roller skating rinks became desegregated.
Another influence that played a role in roller skating and its development in the African-American community was music. In the ‘50s there was a change in how music was played in the rinks: there was a switch from organ music to vinyl records to popular radio music. This coincided with the American musical revolution of the ‘50s, where rhythm and blues (R&B) became “the most popular music created by and for African-Americans.” During this period of time, independently owned radio stations were dominated by R&B vocalists like Etta James, Ray Charles, James Brown, and Fats Domino, the latter became “one of the most essential first-generation rock & roll stars.” The music industry in the ‘50s had a huge impact on roller skating as well as other areas of American artistic and social culture. This was a trigger for the emergence of “‘style’ roller skating” in the African-American community and the eventual wide spread of African-American culture to a white audience in a new era of racial tensions in the United States.
In present day, Black communities in Canada and the United States enjoy and commemorate its significance as part of Black history. Documentaries, music videos, and events alike continue to preserve and honour the rich history of roller skating in the Black community. Many might focus on the physical aspect of roller skating, but its true essence lies in the way it continues to foster a sense of community and connection among those who practice it. Its particular history tells the story of the people that came together through this sport. Many skilled Black skaters have gained recognition for both their abilities on the rinks and for promoting inclusivity in a sport that has had a positive impact on recreational opportunities for the Black community. Roller skating provided another moment of solace and empowerment during the rise of the BLM movement. When the movement faced violence and unrest in the midst of isolation brought by the pandemic, women of color led this nostalgic activity. The communities created through roller skating brought a “sense of escapism.”
Roller skating’s revived popularity is not limited to the United States — the sport has become a popular pastime in British Columbia as well. This year there have been events like the Van City Soul Skate hosted every Sunday by the Rolla Skate club, which have been dedicated to the BIPOC community. One of the reasons they did so was to give credit where it’s due, considering how prevalent portrayals of white people dominating the sport are in the media.
It’s not just the physical benefits of roller skating we should consider; for the Black roller skaters of Vancouver, it goes back to the community and history of the sport. It has a great span of cultural significance and history to the Black community, but you don’t need to be Black to enjoy it. You can look forward to summer in Vancouver; roller skating in Stanley park along the seawall with a group of friends, or with a community that aligns with your interests. We’ve all seen how roller skating is coming back into mainstream media, but it’s beyond aesthetics and fire shoes — it’s a lineage of Black culture.
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