by Beverly Aarons
Four wheels, five, three, and even two — inline, quads, or whatever suits you. Choose a rink and pump some tunes — the roller skating craze is in Seattle, too.
When I first heard that roller skates were on back order and hard to find, I chuckled. First there was a run on toilet paper and now skates too? The pandemic gods have a great sense of humor. But then I began to remember some of my fondest childhood moments: Friday nights as a 1980s preteen rolling around the wooden floor of a local roller rink in Chicago. I felt a deep sense of nostalgia as I recalled the remixed and pumped-up James Brown songs that accompanied my wobbly skate legs. And I wondered: How has one of America’s most beloved pastimes fared 150 years after James Plimpton invented the modern roller skate and 50 years after its disco heyday?
I interviewed two Seattle-area skaters: Tiffany Mason, the founder of Roll Around Seatown and speed skater and musician Maurice Hall (52Kings) about their love of the sport and how skating continues to impact the lives of its enthusiasts.
Tiffany Mason laughed at the idea that roller skating is making a resurgence. “Really there isn’t [a resurgence],” Mason said during our telephone interview. “It’s the people who are not in the skate world who think that.” Mason insists that skating never really lost popularity — at least not in the Black community. And that assertion seems to be true. The documentaries United Skates and 8 Wheels and Some Soul Brotha’ Music explore roller skating history and its long-lasting popularity in Black communities around the country. The skate party — local and regional skating events primarily organized by Black roller skaters — is featured prominently in both films. And Mason, born and raised in the Seattle area, is a fixture in the skate party scene. She’s been skating for nearly 37 years, and before pandemic restrictions shut down large gatherings, she attended 12 to 15 skate parties a year — nationally and internationally.
“The skate party is definitely a Black activity,” Mason said. And they’ve been around for at least 25 years, she added. Skate parties don’t happen in every state, but they do happen in cities with a strong skate community. They have their own skate music and the DJs who understand the musical preferences of the region. Seattle doesn’t have any official skate DJs or a skate music style — not yet.
“It’s about the sport,” Mason said of skate parties, which are typically two to five day events that last from midnight to six in the morning. “It’s about the relationships; it’s about the fellowship. It’s about just vibing and learning from each other and just having pure fun.”
Maurice Hall isn’t part of the skate-party scene but he certainly has fun on his wheels. He’s been speed skating professionally with the National Speed Skating Circuit in Tacoma, Washington since 2015, and he integrates roller skating into his music performances because performing on wheels allows him to move freely and quickly around the stage.
“I like to look good, clean, and cool,” Hall said of his skating style. “But looking like I’m in control. That’s what it’s about. It’s almost like I’m not skating — they’re just my feet and [I] just happen to have wheels on them.”
Both Mason and Hall began skating as kids — a few years before they became teenagers. Mason taught herself to skate in a pair of white quads with metal wheels and red and blue stripes. Her mom purchased them from a Sears catalog after Mason begged for a pair for her birthday. She practiced in her front yard on blacktop and even taught herself to skate backwards. Hall’s first time on a set of wheels were inline skates he borrowed from a cousin who was also his babysitter. He was bored and there wasn’t much to do at his cousin’s house. He had three choices for entertainment: bike, Nintendo, or skates. He wanted those skates. She gave in to his pestering. They were three sizes too big, but Hall didn’t care — he would skate around the neighborhood and eventually at the skating rink during school fundraisers.
The skating rink has been a central figure in America’s skating obsession. During roller skating’s golden age (1940’s and ’50s) there were an estimated 5,000 roller rinks in the U.S., but today there are only an estimated 1,000, and every year more rinks close.
“We’ve lost four [rinks] within a year, just here in Seattle — all of them within 30 minutes from each other,” Mason said. “It’s not that skating is dead or has died, it’s our facilities. We are losing facilities all across the country. And pretty soon we’re going to be like Europe. Europe doesn’t have rinks. You go to London, they don’t have any rink in the inner city of London. You have to drive almost three hours out to get to a rink in Barcelona. I skated there. They have an outdoor skate festival — they don’t have any indoor rinks. Unfortunately, we’re following that trend. And that’s sad because we still need a place where we can come together and have a good time.”
United Skates underscores the importance of indoor skating rinks in Black skating cultures. In many cities that still have roller rinks, Black youth depend on roller skating as one of the few indoor activities that the entire family can enjoy. As both Mason and Hall made clear during my interviews with them, skating isn’t a sport that requires strength — it only requires skill. Young and old, strong or feeble can enjoy roller skating, which makes it a unique sport. In 8 Wheels and Some Soul Brotha’ Music elders in their 70s and 80s rolled around rinks with ease, doing skating tricks and interacting with younger generations. Skating is a bridge — something that Mason continuously emphasized during our conversation. But the loss of America’s roller rinks continues, and there is no sign of it slowing down, especially since the pandemic.
“My goal is to get with the City of Seattle — not only the parks department but our government officials — to see if we can have an outdoor skate rink here in the State of Washington,” Mason said. Her organization, Roll Around Seatown, currently skates at Judkins Park, but the amount of space and terrain is not comparable to a skating rink. There is one proposed skate park under design review for Rainier Beach but it’s an outdoor skate park designed primarily for skateboarders.
The struggle for space to skate has historical roots. Even during roller skating’s golden age, Black skaters were banned from accessing white-run roller rinks. United Skates documents how Black skaters picketed and protested just to get one night a month. Eventually, Black skaters received one night a week — often called Soul Night (or similar names). Today it’s called Adult Night. And while it is technically illegal to exclude anyone from a rink or any other public facility because of their race, United Skates makes it clear that rink restrictions on playing R&B music and the type of skates and attire worn prevent some Black skaters from accessing roller rinks outside of Black communities.
Hall said his mother was happy when he took up skating because he was beginning to get into “situations” at his school in Virginia which he said “was not [good] a place for dark-skinned individuals.” So when his speed skating coach, Kelly Springer, invited Hall to continue his training four hours away, his mother moved the entire family. The rest is history. Hall, who describes himself as the speed skating Dennis Rodman in his single Gripping, went pro in 2005 and is known for his colorful hair and his ability to leverage an opponent’s mistakes to his advantage.
Like Mason, Hall sees skating as a community and an opportunity to connect and help others, especially youth. “I’m more of a coach and mentor,” Hall said. He teaches young speed skaters public speaking and marketing so that they know how to sell themselves and secure potentially lucrative sponsorships. He wants young skaters to “use speed skating as a tool” so they can contribute to their households and secure their personal futures.
And what would a skater’s future look like without skating?
“My everyday life involves skating in some way …” Mason said. “I’m either outside skating or I’m inside skating or doing something for the community that supports skating. So I couldn’t imagine my life [without skating]. I think I’d be really, really depressed and lonely, because it gives me so much — it gives me so much joy.”
Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration as well as a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations.
📸 Featured Image: Community members skate during a 2020 Juneteenth celebration held at Judkins Park. (Photo: Jake Gravbrot)
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