In early April, I did something that felt both joyful and foolish: I strapped on a pair of roller skates for the first time in my life. My friend Alice had just started skating, using an empty parking lot halfway between our houses, so I impulsively purchased a pair to learn with her. After being deprived of pleasurable novelty for over a year, I was feeling giddy before I even pushed off for the first time. Then, I was hooked.

After 12-plus months of confinement, roller skating felt like freedom. First tottering, then tentatively gliding, I was present in my body in a way that had been missing during the pandemic, when I often felt like a brain trapped in an iPhone. The fresh air, the endorphins and the fun—sharpened by the fear of falling—all of it was exhilarating and addictive.

I’m not the only one with this newfound obsession: like baking bread and adopting dogs, roller skating has experienced a COVID-related boost in popularity. In Vancouver, the evidence is everywhere: gliding along the seawall, practicing in parking lots, carving bowls in skate parks.

Before the pandemic, “I would rarely see anyone on roller skates who I didn’t know,” says Lisa Suggitt, a lifelong skater and owner of roller skate supply shop RollerGirl.ca, which has been outfitting Canadian skaters since 2003. “Now everywhere I look I see people roller skating; it’s amazing.” The skyrocketing demand for roller skates led Suggitt to transform RollerGirl.ca’s retail space on Main and East 11th Avenue into a warehouse to keep up with sales, which hit an 18-year high in April.

roller derby
Credit: Nicolas Charest

Lisa Suggitt performs a booty block for her roller derby team, TCRG Terminal City All Stars, at the Big O tournament in Oregon.

The mass appeal makes sense as soon as you try it. “The thrill, the freedom, the wind in your hair, the sun on your face—it’s totally liberating,” says Suggitt. Carla Smith, co-founder of Rolla Skate Club, theorizes that it’s an effective outlet for pandemic pressure. “People need a release, they need something to charge their batteries. They want to get outside and learn new things,” she says. Smith launched Rolla Skate Club in 2018 with fellow derby player Lucy Croysdill to offer classes and events for women and non-binary skaters of all levels, though she mentions that men are also welcome to participate. Another skater, Vanessa Terrell, explains: “There’s just something about skating that triggers extreme glee.”

Terrell skated as a kid, and part of her motivation to pick it up again came from watching the 2019 documentary United Skates, which celebrates the vibrant history of roller skating in Black communities. “It’s a culture thing for me,” says Terrell, who found solace in skating amid last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. “Skating is a place where Black people could go and be free.” In recent years, many roller rinks have been forced out of business by gentrification; United Skates follows the efforts of Black skaters to save and restore these disappearing spaces.

Vanessa
Credit: Adam Blasberg

“It’s a culture thing for me,” says Vanessa Terrell. “Skating is a place where Black people could go and be free.”

No stranger to gentrification, Vancouver’s roller rinks have disappeared too. During the last roller skating renaissance of the late 1970s and early ’80s, the Stardust rinks in North Vancouver, Richmond and Surrey were packed every night. But interest waned (blame the surging popularity of rollerblades, which have a single line of wheels rather than the two sets of two you see on roller skates), and the last Stardust location—once called “the Studio 54 of Surrey”—closed in 2005.

“There are very few spaces like this,” says Smith of the Kerrisdale gym that Rolla Skate Club has called home since January 2019—and that’s now slated for eventual demolition. Pre-pandemic, their space hosted 300 skaters each week; now, they’ve pivoted temporarily to online and outdoor classes. “The Vancouver School Board and Parks Board won’t let any wheels in their gyms or community centres. The only option, if you can find it, is renting an ice rink in the summer.”

Post-pandemic, the booming skate population could use more indoor space. But part of what made roller skating an ideal pandemic pursuit is that you can do it almost anywhere. Tennis courts, parking lots and smooth side streets can all serve as a makeshift roller rink. The City of Vancouver, taking note of the growing interest, is also developing a Skateboard Amenities Strategy to build out skating infrastructure. (Despite its name, the strategy is inclusive of roller skates, BMX bikes, scooters and “other small-wheeled sports.”) As part of their planning, the City will also install a series of pop-up skate parks throughout the summer.

YouTube and Instagram are full of tutorials and tips for beginners, and social media also brings skaters together. Terrell found her crew, the Bad Bounce BIPOC Skaters, on Instagram; others are connecting with groups like CIB Vancouver and Rolla Skate Club, or forming  their own collectives. Many of these groups are explicitly interested in fostering a welcoming and inclusive skate culture, particularly for racialized people.

Skate park
Credit: Nicolas Charest

RollerGirl.ca owner and roller skating enthusiast Lisa Suggitt slays an “air to fakie” trick at the Hastings skate park.

“Roller skating consists of a lot of women, queer, trans* and non-binary people, and people of colour,” says the East Van Skate Crows (EVSC), a local group who chose to answer questions as a collective. “Many feel intimidated and bullied [at skate parks], especially as beginners. Being a visible minority in the skate park is difficult, and then being a visible minority on roller skates at the skate park can make you a target for harassment.” By documenting their activities and sharing their progress on social media, they’re helping to change ideas of who belongs at these parks, while providing safety and encouragement to new roller skaters. 

Skate crews also provide each other with something that has been missing during COVID: camaraderie. “We kept each other’s heads above water just enough to survive,” said EVSC. After a year of social starvation, we need that more than ever. So if you’re a new skater looking for a friend to cheer you on, you can join me at my local parking lot. I’ll be there all summer long.