The sun was setting upon the city of London to mark the beginning of various sophisticated balls. Women dressed in their finest gowns and men strutted after them in hopes to find the perfect dancing partner- except for John Joseph Merlin. Merlin rolled into the party on two unusual, wheeled shoes, zoomed across the dance floor and smacked face-first into a mirror. He made quite the entrance.
Merlin invented roller skates back in 1735. Little did he know they would roll their way into thousands of parties across America 200 or so years later.
Over time, roller skating migrated to the U.S. and became a popular recreational activity in the early 1900s. Skating went from being an enjoyable new sport, to becoming an act of escapism from World War I and II and then developing its own unique culture in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
If a glow-in-the-dark mini-golf course and a night club had a baby its name would be “roller rink.” The floor, made of shiny hardwood, shaped like the number zero and filled with neon lights and disco balls created a fun loop skaters didn’t want to roll away from. A live DJ played the newest tunes and people could sing and dance their troubles away.
Combining music and fashion with roller skating elevated the roller rink into a disco heaven. “Early on roller skating was always billed as a sport or a leisurely activity. That being said, roller skating became more than that. It had become a notable, historical phenomenon,” according to Groovy History.
Rinks across America were packed every night with skaters of all ages. People in tight bell-bottoms and t-shirts whirled around the floor into the ‘80s, where flares were replaced with leotards and disco switched out for hip-hop and high-energy pop music. The roller skating scene is portrayed in some contemporary movies and TV shows like “That 70’s Show,” “White Boy Rick” and “American Horror Story” season five.
Throughout history, skating was and still is more than a fad for members of the black community. The HBO documentary “United Skates” displays the community’s deep connection to the sport, where rinks were used for Civil Rights protests back in the ‘60s. Since then, roller rinks signified a safe-haven for black communities across the U.S., but today many rinks are closing which has become a cause for concern for devoted skaters.
Over time, many began to leave their skates at home and the number of roller rinks in the U.S. drastically diminished, with the rinks that are still running only opening their doors a few nights a week. The Church of 8 Wheels in San Francisco is beloved in the Bay Area with over 43,000 views on their Youtube video “The Church of 8 Wheels-Unexpected Nightlife Experience,” yet it only hosts open skate on the weekends. Water City Skate in Seaside similarly only runs free skate on Saturdays and Sundays. But this doesn’t necessarily mean roller skating is becoming less popular.
There are hundreds of roller skating videos circulating on social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok featuring skating montages and tutorials. TikTok user Fabian Land- also known as @f_land711- received 1.7 million views on his three-part tutorial to turn a pair of Vans into customized roller skates. Another user Rosemary Retro, or @rosemaryretro, is an avid roller skater and ‘70s fashion enthusiast who has over 480,000 followers and 16.5 million likes on her TikTok account. On Instagram, #rollerskating has accumulated 1.3 million posts. Although roller rinks are disappearing across America, the activity is not entirely fading away from society.
Luckily, roller skating isn’t dead. It seems to be in a reform of some sorts. Although the sport is less popular than it used to be in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it’s made a fairly good comeback, and skaters may continue to roll-on throughout the century.