In April last year, as billions across the globe became extras in Covid’s pestiferous opening act, a 30-year-old actor in California unwittingly carved out an additional role for herself. Ana Coto’s 10-second TikTok clip of herself gliding blithely (and backwardly) along a suburban street to J.Lo’s Jenny from the Block has been viewed more than 16m times. Over the northern summer trend pieces popped up, noting a spike in sales and even a global roller-skate shortage.
The pandemic appeal of roller-skates is obvious, harking back to simpler times. They’re nostalgia on wheels, evoking exactly the kind of feel-good, kitsch glamour that a plague calls for. The outfits, the exercise, the online community; alone at home or at a safe social distance, it’s the perfect antidote to a world in chaos.
Ready to roll: Bowzer at Sydenham Green Skate Park in Sydney. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian
Like many new (or born-again) skaters, lockdown inspired Amanda Pecora to dust off her old skates and embark on a daily Instagram skate challenge. Watching Pecora’s posts as she chronicles her progress make even the bone-crunching aspects of the learning process look like pure joy. With her Hollywood smile, auburn curls and affable resignation to winding up contorted on the ground, the 23-year-old from Melbourne is like roller-skating made manifest: cheeky, cheerful and hard to keep down. More than 200 days in and she’s tackling skateparks.
While roller-influencers like Coto and Oumi Janta have brought the magic of roller-skating to millions, they are by no means pioneers of the sport. The first known roller-skate was created more than 250 years ago by eccentric and prolific Belgian inventor John Joseph Merlin. Originally designed to mimic ice-skating in a stage production, Merlin seriously injured himself on the skates, crashing through a mirror while playing violin as he attempted to showcase them at a masquerade ball in London.
Dozer of Brunny Hardcore at Brunswick Skate Park in Melbourne (left) and roller derby veteran Lim Lefeore at Melbourne Museum. Photographs: Doosie Morris
Melbourne brand Impala brought vintage skates back on to the Australian market in 2017. They have become some of the most recognisable wheels in the roller-renaissance, providing a lower cost and aesthetically irresistible option for the skate-curious. In 2020, their sales mushroomed globally. But they aren’t the only Australians dipping their toes into the booming skate market.
Central Coast brand Chuffed Skates launched on “stolen Darkinjung Country” mid-pandemic. “It was actually perfect timing,” says founder Sam Trayhurn, 33. So keen is Trayhurn to offer an affordable, high-quality product that Chuffed offers a financial relief option in the form of a $100 discount to would-be skaters in need. “It doesn’t make them cheap, but hopefully it makes them a bit more attainable,’’ she says. Aside from quality skates, the mission-driven brand sees protecting roller-skating’s fierce inclusivity and diversity as core.
Chuffed Skates founder Sam Trayhurn (foreground) with crew members (from left) Sophie Pizzuto and Suga Valbuena at Sydenham Green Skate Park. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian
Seasoned Melbourne-based skater Lim Lefeore gets it. Lefeore was recruited to a roller-derby team by a stranger in a supermarket more than a decade ago. “For the last 10 to 15 years, most people who have roller-skated in Australia have been part of the derby community, which attracts certain kind of people – it is very punk/rock, feminist and very accepting to the LGBTQIA+ community.”
Lefeore still plays derby but also enjoys the freedom and creativity of skateparks, streets and rinks and says that, like derby, the recent boom has brought together people who may have otherwise had no cause to intersect, providing opportunity for diverse friendships to blossom. “I don’t want to sound cheesy but I love it – they [new skaters] spread the stoke and the exchange is mutual. We can learn a lot from each other.” Lefeore is proud that roller-skating’s inclusive “no gatekeeping” culture is consciously cultivated from within – “we’re invested – if you’re on wheels, you’re our friend”, they say.
Sam Trayhurn in action at the Sydenham skate park. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian
Buoyed by the remarkably troll-free online community and welcoming IRL encounters, classes and meets are popping up around the world and attracting a new crowd. Self-proclaimed “rink-rat” Hayley Gray has been waiting for them. Gray’s love of skating was born in the glory days of recent Covid casualty the Laverton Rollerink. She pulled her skates back on in 2016 and has barely taken them off since. On the concrete concourse at Melbourne Museum, Gray teaches skating to students aged nine to over 60 and from all walks of life. Classic funk and soul jams flow as Gray takes students through their paces, most making it out without a scratch.
Hayley Grey (right) with a fellow skater at Princes Pier, Port Melbourne. Photograph: Doosie Morris
The Brunny Hardcore crew, also based in Melbourne, are a different proposition. They are diehard roller-skaters whose intense relationship with their local skatepark has resulted in multiple concussions, fractures and a prototype for some specialty hardware. Like all the skaters I met, they are down to skate with anyone who’s game.
This reclamation of the traditionally male-dominated arena of the skatepark is perhaps the most exciting aspect of roller-skating today. Seeing people of all ages, shapes and the full gender expanse gain the confidence to activate these, and other, public spaces alongside skateboarding’s old guard is inspiring.
Air apparent: Sugu Valbuena Sanchez at the Sydenham skate park. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian
Trayhurn recalls that as a younger woman she found the skatepark experience so intimidating that she “just couldn’t overcome” it on a skateboard. It’s a sentiment echoed by many women who, through roller-skating and its community, are finding it easier and easier to create safe public spaces to express their creativity and strength. Coming back to the park years later was different to Trayhurn. On roller-skates it just felt “easier to take up the space”.