Skate Culture and Black Women Rollin’

This post is part of our forum on Bounce Music.

Team skating at “Soul Skate,” Detroit, 2007 (Flickr)

Toes, heels, slides, and glides, it’s all about the beat! Black roller skating is intrinsically linked to dance, house/bounce music, and community. During the 1970s, two nightclubs introduced house music to the world—“The Warehouse” on Chicago’s South Side and “Paradise Garage” in New York City. DJs such as Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, and Ron Hardy developed the formula for house music, a combination of new technology such as reel-to-reel remixing, lively tempos, and extended breakdowns to create vibrant mixes that fused disco, soul, hip hop, and r&b songs with a pulsing beat. By the 1980s, technological advancements broadened the house sound. DJs such as Marshall Jefferson, Phuture, and Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley added drum machines and synthesizers to their repertoire. They created music that was committed to making people dance, thus creating bounce. The 1986 single “Triggaman” by New York rap group The Showboys popularized the bounce sound. It wasn’t long before house/bounce music became a global phenomenon and the heartbeat of night and skate life. Throughout the twentieth century Black skaters developed a distinct skate culture through their expression of ideas about identity, activism, and freedom. It is important to note that during the civil rights movement, Black skaters did not have the freedom to skate at any rink. Roller rinks held weekly Black only nights disguised as “Rhythm Night” and “Soul Night,” thus fostering the cultural movement we see today.

Roller skating is an art form that supports creativity and good mental and physical health. It also saves lives. Black skaters have expressed that “skating saved my life” because it gave them safe spaces to create, laugh, and learn. In March 2021, I began my own personal skate journey after coming across a collection of videos showcasing the skills of Black skaters. However, as a Black woman and artist myself, I was particularly interested in the phenomenal skill and talent of Black women skaters as they held their own in battles against men and women in the middle of the rink. This prompted me to further grasp a deeper understanding of the history, tradition, and culture of skating. It revealed: (1) how little there is written about Black women skaters in skate culture; (2) Black women’s response to patriarchy, racism, and sexism; and (3) the power of collective organizing and resistance. Skating further activated my feminism, protest, and creativity. I embraced the tradition of Black women skaters who have and continue to shape skate culture and turned to skating as a form of activism and expression.

My first adult rink experience began at Branch Brook Park Roller Skating Center (BBP) in Newark, New Jersey—home to some of the world’s best skaters! Here is where I learned about New York and New Jersey (NY/NJ) style, which is full of bounce. Each and every Sunday you can catch BBP’s most diverse and talented skaters at the rink. Skaters from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and even Maryland make their way to adult night to skate, connect, and enjoy. Whether individually or as partners, skaters execute pivots, spins, back-six, and reverse, all while moving in a figure 8. Partners anticipate each other’s next move by syncing their steps while integrating various combos to the beat. A BBP staple is the call for “Trains & Trios.” As soon as “Love is the Message” plays by MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother), skaters quickly organize into groups of three or more and hit the skate floor in unison, energetically weaving through each other to up-tempo house/bounce music.

To learn more about NY/NJ style and to be able to move and groove within a figure 8 or train, I first sought out lessons from Skaterobics owned by Tanya Dean. Offering services in NY/NJ, Dean is a beacon within the community who created Skaterobics to bring “all people together” by embracing the benefits of skating, self-confidence, exercise, and fun. Dean’s vision, encourages beginner, intermediate, or advanced skaters to start slow and enjoy the journey. Skaterobics teaches skate fundamentals, posture, control, balance, and technique. Dean declares, “my main message is that I created this to bring all worlds together and fun has no color, no ethnicity, no politics.” Although Skaterobics is for learners age 18 and older, Dean and her team hosts “Sunday Funday” throughout the summer months. This free event welcomes the entire community and all ages at St. Albans Park in Queens, New York. Dean has started a youth program to teach children how to skate while increasing access to roller skating and enhancing visibility for skaters. Dean also created Sisters In Motion, a multi-ethnic women’s skate organization who use “skating as a vehicle to raise awareness to different issues that women face such as, breast cancer, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and so many other things that affect women from all walks of life.” These women helped unify skaters, exchange style and technique, and enhance the rink environment.

As my journey and research continued, I grew fascinated with the range of Black women skaters in Chicago, the Mecca of JB (James Brown) style. I came across a collection of skate movies that captured the energy, inventiveness, and community of Chicago rinks. JB style is considered  a smooth groove that mimics “The Godfather of Soul,” James Brown. In 1971, Calvin Small and two friends developed JB style out of a desire to look cool. They created moves like, “The Big Wheel,” “Stan the Man,” “Bucket Walk,” and “Long/Short step.” By 1987, Chicago skater Twin (@liltwingiggs) created “The GaGa,” a notorious skate move that requires an interlocking motion on your toes and is traditionally done to “Make it Funky” by James Brown. These legends have taught the new generation the JB style, so that “it will never die.” Today, Inspired By Favor offers skate lessons taught by some of the best JB skaters, including Myesha McCaskill (@smoothgoddess_). McCaskill fascinated me with her smooth style and competitive middle work. I had the pleasure of participating in the Inspired By Favor experience and not only did I enjoy myself while learning core moves, but I also connected to the history and cultural experience of JB roller skating. We discussed the JB history and some of the different variations of JB that you see today. McCaskill is the first to offer a class outside of the rink that teaches JB to local, domestic, and international students. The Inspired By Favor has partnered and contributed to the 100 Black Men of Chicago college scholarship fair, partnered with The Long Walk Organization to serve our youth in the Chicagoland area, and developed a class that’s diverse. McCaskill states, “I’m reaching people from all over, not just African Americans, but I want to reach everyone because the world is diverse, and I feel like my class represents that.” McCaskill and the Inspired By Favor team has continued to build upon the JB legacy through a diverse environment with people from all over the world.

As I continue to deepen my understanding and love for skating, I can’t help but pay homage to all the incredible women skaters that flood the floors at BBP and others who have appeared in the skate magazine, The Session, which highlighted the talent and journey of an up-and-coming generation of skaters that includes Bria Nichelle, Mook Wince, and Ki’Tana. Next on my skate journey is to attend next year’s biggest annual skate event, Joi’s Annual International Sk8-a-thon in Georgia. Since 1996 thousands of skaters from all over the world attend a three-day event each year packed with skating, activities, food, and fun. Joi’s Annual International Sk8-a-thon partners with the National African American Roller Skating Archive (NAARSA) “to establish a permanent collection documenting the extraordinary story of roller skating in the African American community. This archive is proud to be a ‘first person’ account with most items coming directly from roller skaters themselves.” Black people have shown their commitment to the larger struggle for freedom and created spaces to build community, raise consciousness concerning social issues, and have a good time. I look forward to seeing how Black women continue to shape skate culture, use skating as a form of preservation, and to compete at these events. The media now says “skating is back!” But it never left and is taking over the world, one skater at a time.

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Lauren Rorie

Lauren Rorie is an instructor of history at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey. Her teaching examines the way Black artists addressed issues surrounding race, gender, sexuality, and class across the Black Atlantic in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries using; visual art, literature, film, and music. Her research explores: Black intellectual history, Black expressive culture, and Black internationalism. She has contributed to the peer-reviewed, online journal, Black Perspectives, and has an essay on Rosetta Tharpe in Women Who Changed The World: Their Lives, Challenges, and Accomplishments through History edited by Candice Goucher.