The hottest fads of 2020 seemed to revolve around throwback trends and simple pleasures: going to the drive-in, taking up a new instrument, picnics in the park, baking, and walks around the neighbourhood to keep you from going insane.
But no trend was quite as cool as taking up the ultra-retro, athletically-challenging pursuit of roller skating. Thousands of wobbly beginners took to their driveways and cul-de-sacs to take part in the sport, and we wanted to know why.
We spoke to various skate clubs and business owners around the province to get their take on why roller skating blew up the way it did and what the future of the sport might look like in Vancouver.
Skates: get ‘em while they’re hot
Toilet paper, Lysol wipes, and baking supplies were maddeningly hard to get your hands during the pandemic. And as it turns out, so were roller skates.
Jacqui Streber, the administrator on a British Columbia-based Facebook group made to buy and sell second-hand roller skates, said the group’s numbers have increased massively in the past year.
“I was usually getting two to three requests a week, and now I’m getting between five and seven requests to join the group a day,” Streber told the Straight. “Which, you know, for our small little group is pretty impressive.” The group has 1.7 thousand members currently.
It’s not just second-hand purchases that are through the roof. Lisa Suggitt is the owner of RollerGirl, Vancouver’s only exclusive roller skate equipment store. She says the shop has been low on stock for the past year and a half.
“Sales started to surge within weeks of COVID being declared a pandemic,” Suggitt said. “We had good stock and were ready for the skating season to come, or so we thought.”
Suggitt and her team were taken by storm—working day and night to fulfill orders while constantly selling out of supplies and dealing with a national roller skate shortage.
“By early summer of 2020 it was no longer possible to source roller skates anywhere in North America. Every supplier was sold out,” Suggitt explained. The shop turned to sourcing and importing roller skates from the U.K., China, and Italy. But come 2021, there was an even higher demand for skates—a demand that the supply chain still wasn’t ready to handle, according to Suggitt.
“We no longer had access to affordable air freight, and sea freight rates had increased by three times—while taking three times as long to arrive,” she explained. “We ran out of stock in March 2021 and have been basically operating from one stock drop to another ever since. Stock arrives, we process it, and it sells out immediately.”
The next large drop is set to arrive within the next four or five weeks.
So, why has roller skating been so popular?
Carla Smith, co-founder of Rolla Skate Club in Vancouver, told the Straight she believes the athletic or physical benefits from skating were a huge draw for some new skaters.
“It’s not an easy thing, particularly when you’re just starting out, but even when you’re experienced; roller skating takes your focus and concentration, and you need to listen to your body,” Smith said. “It’s a joyful outlet for people to move their bodies, to improve or maintain their physical health by being active and doing something that challenges their body.”
“It also provides an incredible mental release—and that’s something that people have really needed,” Smith said, noting that part of why the sport took off may be because of the sense of escapism that it provides. “When you’re watching people roller-skate, the thing that jumps out, I think, is you feel their sense of joy and freedom. I think that’s what has subconsciously drawn people to roller skating.”
Rolla Skate Club has pivoted throughout the past year and a half, like most gyms and athletic classes, to offer both limited size in-person classes as well as online tutorials and zoom classes. The online program has over 500 members.
Besides the physical and mental benefits from roller skating, it’s also just fun, says Suggitt from RollerGirl.
“It just makes you feel good,” Suggitt said. “You lace up your skates and all your worries and problems disappear. You focus on the present, the wind in your hair, the sun on your face, the feeling of speed. It is exhilarating and so much fun!”
“It also doesn’t hurt that roller skating has style,” she added. “It looks good, and it makes you look good when you do it. This cool factor helped roller skating take off on social media. All these new skaters documenting their roller adventures on platforms like TikTok and Instagram caught the attention of the masses and took the trend to the next level.”
Don’t call it a comeback.
The sport, since its golden age dating back to the 30s, has gone through many phases of mainstream popularity. In the 40s and 50s, Vancouver had several rinks dedicated to roller skating, such as Skateland, Trianon Roller Rink and the Centre Gardens Roller Bowl. In the '60s through the '80s, the North Shore’s disco-rockin’ Stardust Roller Rink was the place to go for roller-fanatics.
Some 40-odd years later and roller skating seems to be the cool thing to do once again. Considering the huge increase in popularity now, one might even consider calling this a “comeback” for the sport. But seasoned skaters argue that’s unfair to say.
“It’s become an important conversation in roller skating within the community—to not call roller skating as having a re-birth or a resurgence,” Smith said. “Because that’s only the case for white folks.”
“At the beginning of the pandemic...there were some really popular TikTok videos of some white, Barbie doll-ish looking people with a lot of followers roller-skating," Smith said. "And there was a lot of backlash against the idea of roller-skating culture as being reborn—just because white people ‘discovered’ it again.”
Alisa Luke, a founding member of the BIPOC roller skate club Bad Bounce agrees.
“Roller skating has always been a part of Black culture,” Luke told the Straight. “Roller skating is representative of resilience and joy to the Black community…. Calling it a comeback diminishes the contributions Black people have made to this art form.”
Bad Bounce, which is dedicated to advocating for and championing BIPOC skaters in Vancouver, was founded by Alisa Luke, Jessie Wilson, Mariana Menendez, and Katya Isichenko. In reaction to the civil rights movements of the past year and a half, the troupe knew there needed to be a skating space specifically for Black, Indigenous and other people of colour.
“We were originally inspired to form after we had ventured out to dance [and] rec skate together and noticed how white-washed the existing skate scene was here,” Luke said. “Our objective is to hold that safe space for folks who may have felt discouraged to enter such a white scene. In doing so, our hope is to open people's eyes to the problems that are obvious to us yet are somehow invisible to so many.”
“After all,” Luke said. “This is a stolen pastime, from stolen people, that we all enjoy on stolen lands.”
Rolla Skate Club is also mindful about the culture which the sport comes from. In an effort to encourage diversity and accessibility in their programs, Rolla offers 85 percent subsidies to Black and Indigenous skaters who participate in its instructor training program. They also have a “Rollas Helping Rollas” program set up where members can contribute a few extra dollars toward their monthly memberships to support skaters of colour or facing financial need.
Smith of Rolla Skate Club predicts the rise in popularity roller skating is seeing may translate to a greater interest in roller derby come the fall. After all, the rough-and-tumble contact sport which already has a strong cult-following in the city.
“We haven’t seen it yet,” she said. “But I know from our three years of running our organization that some people will pick up their roller skates thinking they want to be the roller-disco-queen … and after joining us in our Rolla workout class or going to the skatepark, they will discover something inside themselves that they didn’t know was there. And they will go ‘huh. Maybe that roller derby thing is for me, after all.’”
Suggitt from RollerGirl agrees, asserting the sense of community that roller derby builds will be extremely appealing to those who’ve missed social-connection in the past year.
“Roller derby is all about community,” Suggit said. “When you join a derby league you inherit an extended family. I think people now really miss contact, community, they miss real interactions and engagements. Roller derby can provide all of that, and keep you fit too. With all these new skaters looking for fun, camaraderie, and new ways to challenge themselves, I think roller derby is going to boom.”
But whether or not the new fans of the sport enter derby territory or not, Smith says it’s a “joyful hobby” to continue pursuing.
“The freedom and joy you get by moving yourself under your own power, wind in your face—you know, that kind of feeling—there’s nothing like it,” she said. “Whether it’s skating at the sea wall or skating at a rink, or a party or event or in class, just the freedom of movement is really rejuvenating.”
So, to those who have picked up the sport during quarantine, and to those who’ve been gliding through Stanley Park for years, I hope you learned something new about roller skating you didn’t know before. Roller skating has a rich and diverse history behind it and has been a well loved, physically challenging, and liberating activity throughout the years. It’s no surprise people turned to it as a way to escape the doom and gloom of the past year. It’s an activity that everyone ought to try.
Piece of advice, though? Don’t forget your safety equipment. Wrist guards, in particular.