'It will be fun!' If ever are four words in the English language to fill me with a sense of impending doom, it is these. It’s the over-confidence, the high expectation, no room for dispute. This phrase usually crops up around proposed organised group activities which I, the guest with zero get out clause, has little expertise in but will inevitably be in the company of extremely talented people. The threat of humiliation rarely ever feels fun.
My early induction into the teenage hall of embarrassment fame? Finding myself on a non-descript roller skating rink in Essex, in the mid-noughties, at someone’s birthday party. Sweaty hands tightly gripping the handrail as those around me seemed to glide effortlessly, enviably, on by. This was clearly, I told myself, not a hobby – unlike reading books or chasing boys – meant for me. Then again, time heals old wounds, and coming of age is nothing if not an exercise in having your ego bruised repeatedly (it’s what some people would call 'character building,' even).
And so, a decade later, I try again. Round two. This time out in the wild, in Brooklyn, New York. I feel free, it feels good, heck, I’m actually pretty good. Until all balance and confidence – which has thus far injected me with supersonic speed – is punctured, swinging into a street pole and then crashing down onto the people-filled pavement, before a stranger asks, 'are you OK?' No, I want to cry. No more.
Cutscene to a dark and damp evening in West London this month, the weather as depressing as my daily Apple News updates, surprisingly getting my (rented) skates on again, with my best friend and a niggly fear of being crap nestled away. Holed up inside the supremely slick Flipper’s Roller Boogie Palace – a former power station and a far cry from the bland rinks I remember of Y2K yore. It’s far, for lack of a better word, cooler. A 34,000sq pleasure emporium – featuring a state-of-the-art rink, blown-up retro photography decorating its huge walls, diner, live music venue and pro skating shop.
The guest list for its launch night reads like a who’s who of hip-hop legends, from Usher - a partner of the brand - to Dr. Dre. and Mary J Blige. 'Flipper’s is a hub,' says former 90s model and co-founder Liberty Ross, 'a home, for creative expression.' It’s a hub with a layered, and illustrious, history. The OG Flipper’s (owned by Liberty’s father, Ian Ross), which opened in the late 1970s in the heart of Los Angeles, was, for a beat, the epicentre of the city’s social scene, (before closing its doors in 1981). Cher, Jane Fonda, Diana Ross, Patrick Swayze and Prince all partied there. Actor Jaclyn Smith described it at the time as, 'Studio 54 on wheels.'
This pop cultural cache partly explains its charm today, for those of you, like me, who feel emotionally attached to iconoclastic eras they never experienced, living only vicariously through photographic archives shared across social media. Unpacking this with fashion and cultural historian, Laura McLaws Helms, she explains how the revival of roller disco is steeped in nostalgia for a vision of the 1970s as innocent, sexy, and glamourous. 'The innocence of youth unconcerned with the wider issues of the world, combined with the sweaty sexiness of skating ecstatically in tiny, glamorous outfits,' she says. 'By putting on our skates and hot pants, and skating on to the floor, we are leaving behind our problems for a song and just moving with the music—skating as an escape.'
'Movies like Roller Boogie, Xanadu and Skatetown USA vividly illustrate how roller disco brilliantly brought together disco music, fashion, sex and athleticism,' Helms adds. 'Roller skating became deeply unfashionable in the early 1990s—in a decade so marked by the horrors of the AIDS crisis, it seemed unfeeling, frivolous and uncool. Since the late 1990s there have been several brief revivals as new generations have discovered the freedom and aesthetic fantasy of the roller rink.' (PS: the documentary, United Skates, illuminates the rich history of American roller rink culture).
Like the fashion we covet, roller skating, I discover, was born out of, and taps into, a desire for reinvention. Seeking community and reclaiming a sense of joy, however briefly, during dismal (to put it lightly) times. A mood that has surely collectively permeated our lives the last couple of years.
'Both hip hop and skating were a subculture in the beginning,' explains Berlin-based roller skater and Bottega Veneta campaign model Oumi Janta. 'Especially in America, the skating Black community created their very own style.' Music is the biggest influence for Janta. 'It opens another world.' I remember early on in the pandemic, seeing a viral clip of her in a sunny two-piece on Viola Davis’ Instagram (possibly the most joyous account to follow), roller skating in a park in the wind to 'In Deep We Trust’s Ba:Sen' (Pool Party Dub Mix). It was aspirational content, but in a way that didn’t make you feel bad about yourself. This was movement as medicine; she looks so happy; she’s not trying to be perfect ('everyone is vibing' she captioned her original post, 'my foot hurts, can’t work on my toespin, just jamming is good for now.')
Really, the retro fuel is twofold, it’s so much more than surface-level attraction, which is not to omit the power and the pull of the pin-up stars, pre-social media. It plays a significant role in this story. Cher in the 'Hell on Wheels' music video in 1979. Jane Fonda and Jon Voight hanging out at Flipper’s in West Hollywood. Heather Graham playing Rollergirl in Boogie Nights. And yet, at its core, rolling around for an hour has the potential to act as a bridge to the playfulness of youth - something that we should strive to hold onto. 'I see the best proof of this in my own skate school, the Jam Skate Club, we have people who were kids in the 80s skating together with Gen Z and millennials,' Janta says. 'People feel taken right back to their childhood and suddenly have the courage to be goofy as soon as they wear their skates.'
At the Flipper’s rink, I’m still scared, warning my friend I’ll be terrible as I tie my laces, but this time I don’t care as much. Because there are people on that floor, as in life, also feeling a bit wobbly to begin with, still laughing, still moving. Dancing. Picking each other up if needs be. Holding hands with their date or friend or kid. Later breaking free on their own, finding their rhythm. At some point I hear the opening notes to Busta Rhymes and Mariah Carey’s 'I Know What You Want', happily gliding along, smiling at strangers, and it dawns on me.
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