When Saletta Coleman puts on her roller skates, she’s transported to another reality. No matter the setting, moving around to the rhythm of music with eight wheels underneath her feet is all Coleman needs to feel what she calls “a wonderful high.”
In a time when people need an escape from the harrowing reality caused by a global pandemic, roller skating has provided an outlet. National publications, from the New York Times to Vogue, documented the surge in roller skating participation this summer and the worldwide shortage of roller skates due to the increased demand.
Skaters have become TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube stars, and subsequently inspired others to pick up the activity. Skate shop owners have been fielding orders from beginners looking to buy their own skates, and it can take weeks, if not months, before skaters get their hands on the right pair.
Coleman, 41, lives near Alexandria and is heartened by the spike in the interest in roller skating, but wants people to know one important thing: Roller skating has always been popular in the Black community. And even before the pandemic shut down businesses and large group gatherings, she noticed that the activity, which she dubs the “official sport of quarantine,” had been making a comeback of sorts.
“Pre-pandemic, there was already some buzz about skating, and social media has done some of that, TikTok has done some of that,” says Coleman, a Howard University graduate. “But roller skating has existed on the internet for years. For years. There’s been video content of roller skating on the internet, but it was Black people, it was urban. It wasn’t seen as a fashionable thing to do until we got into the Instagram and TikTok periods. Whenever TikTok exploded, that was one of the first things to get cute on the internet.”
In 2018, HBO released the documentary United Skates, which explores the importance of roller skating rinks for African American communities. They served as a launching pad for hip-hop artists and DJs and have provided a safe social space that’s often overlooked by the mainstream. But over the years, rinks nationwide have been shuttered because of rising rent costs and a lack of public investment, including in D.C.
No indoor roller skating rink currently exists in the city. Local skaters have to travel to surrounding suburbs like Lanham and Temple Hills in Maryland or Manassas in Virginia to skate. Coleman, an associate producer for United Skates, and other skaters in the D.C. area hope the momentum from the interest in roller skating during the pandemic can change that.
“I’m optimistic about the future,” she says, “because what was underground is now being acknowledged.”
Loud music blares from the speakers and the bass pulsates the walls as Gerald Chase walks into the Temple Hills Skate Palace on a recent Sunday night. It’s 8:40 p.m., and a line of a dozen or so skaters are still waiting to get in. The rink is hosting one of its “Adult Skate” nights for skaters 18 years and older, and the flyer for the rink’s fall schedule advertises the weekly Sunday evening session as “Old School Music like 102.3.”
Chase, 69, and his wife Mary, 75, are celebrities here. The couple met in 1984, when they both skated at the Alexandria Roller Rink, which closed in 1986. Gerald is considered by many, including Coleman, to be an amateur historian and archivist of roller skating in the D.C. area.
On this chilly September evening, barely a few minutes go by before another skater in the lobby greets the two. Mary is responsible for the decorations on the walls, and Chase handles maintenance work for the facility.
“A lot of people here I’ve known since elementary school,” Chase shouts above the music. “Some weren’t even born yet.”
The dozens of mask-clad skaters take their time mingling with each other and putting on their skates, and the rink remains empty when Chase pulls out a thick binder he carries around whenever he wants to educate someone—reporters, kids, anyone who shows interest—about roller skating. Inside are photos of his old roller skating club, magazine and newspaper clippings of roller skating articles, tributes to late skaters like D.C. legend Howard “Honey Boy” Williams, and lists of facts he’s printed out.
“He has too much information,” Mary says with a laugh.
Chase was born off Benning Road in Northeast D.C. and graduated from Anacostia High School. He started skating at age 9, after he watched some neighbors skating down the sidewalk in old steel skates. One of their siblings had an extra pair of skates, which they let Chase borrow, and he joined them, forming a line and holding onto each other as they rolled down the sidewalk.
“Like a caterpillar,” Chase explains.
He’s been skating ever since. At that time, D.C. had several skating rinks, including the National Roller Skating Rink off Kalorama Road NW in Adams Morgan, which closed in 1992 and is now a Harris Teeter grocery store. Instead of DJs, the rinks used organists.
And as documented in United Skates, many skating rinks across the country were segregated.
“Back in the ’50s, the area skating rinks were predominantly White, and the Blacks could only skate on Saturday,” Chase says. “And you could not wear jeans or tennis shoes … You had to go to these skate rinks like you were going into school or to church. No jeans or tennis shoes were allowed. If you came to the door with it, they wouldn’t let you in. And the Blacks were allowed to skate on Saturdays only. And the White people came on from Sunday to Friday. And then later on in the ’60s, around ’62 or ’63, it started to integrate a little bit.”
Currently, the only large roller skating rink in D.C. is at the Anacostia Park Skating Pavilion, an outdoor venue. Chase recalls that there used to be five indoor roller skating rinks in D.C. alone. They have all since closed or been converted into something else. In addition to the one off Kalorama Road NW, there was the Uline Arena (later renamed the Washington Coliseum) and Riverside Stadium at what is now the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Chase adds that the Booker-T Theatre on Georgia Avenue and the basement of the Lincoln Theatre on U Street NW also allowed roller skating.
When those rinks disappeared, generations of area residents felt a void.
“It’s the kids that lose out on things, like when recreation centers close, the kids lose out on it,” Chase says. “They lose out on having fun … If you close down the skating rinks, the recreation centers, the bowling alleys, and movie theaters … If you close down things of interest to the children, there’s nothing to do. It’s a thing of being bored, then you got the hanging out in the streets. That’s what you don’t want to have.
Jayla Briscoe grew up skating in Charles County, Maryland. In elementary school and middle school, she’d skate every other weekend or at least once a month with friends. When she got to high school, the activity didn’t seem as cool, so she stopped.
It wasn’t until this past April that the 25-year-old started again.
“I was just kind of tired of sitting in the house doing the same thing like everyone else,” says Briscoe, who lives in Silver Spring. “I was on Instagram, YouTube, and even TikTok, I noticed a lot more Black women skaters were skating, and I got really inspired by that. And I was just like, wow, this would be really cool if I could pick up my skates.”
First, though, Briscoe had to find skates. That proved to be harder than she had anticipated. She messaged roller skating Instagram accounts for any leads, and was told the Derby Star Pro Shop in Frederick, Maryland, might have some. Within a week, Briscoe went to pick up her new skates—the first pair she’s owned—but the wheels that came with her skates were sold out. She ended up ordering temporary outdoor wheels from Adrienne Schreiber, the owner and operator of the Department of Skate online skate shop.
Now Briscoe skates every week, often multiple times. She goes to local parks and tennis courts, and typically skates by herself.
“It’s almost like meditating while you’re just rolling on wheels,” Briscoe says. “It’s so peaceful to me.”
Coleman senses a hunger for roller skating like she hasn’t seen before, from returners like Briscoe and newcomers alike. Last November, Coleman helped organize the Capital Skate Fest at the D.C. Armory. The event came about after Angie Gates, the director of D.C.’s Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment saw a screening of United Skates. Gates questioned why D.C. wasn’t featured, Coleman recalls.
Her response? Because there hasn’t been a skating rink in D.C. in over 20 years.
Coleman says that 5,000 people from all over the East Coast attended the event. Her dream going forward is to have a public-private partnership to create a roller skating rink in D.C. The demand, she believes, is clearly there.
“We have an opportunity now,” Coleman says, “to create a whole new generation of roller skating in the city.”