Juliana Zaharevich discusses roller skating's recent comeback and its history
Social media has been swarmed with videos of people cruising down city streets and beachside boardwalks, and it’s revived the art and sport. Skates of all styles seem to be out of stock as everyone straps in and laces up. We all know and love the videos of the past featuring everyone from waitresses to hardcore racers (and of course iconic sitcom scenes from That ‘70s Show and Parks and Rec), but where did this all begin? Let’s review the groovy- and hilarious- history of skates.
Multiple reports describe wheels attached to ice skates and shoes in the early 18th century, but the credit for the invention is often given to John Joseph Merlin, a Belgian who was able to attach two wheels, one at the toe and one at the heel, to a pair of boots. He featured these in 1760 at a masquerade party where he wheeled through the ballroom while playing the violin. Unfortunately, he hadn’t solved the issue of how to turn, much less how to stop, and collided into a mirror. This event is broadly considered to be the first public use of roller skates, although similarly designed contraptions had been used in theatre plays to mimic ice skating prior to Merlin’s stunt. A Frenchman named M. Petibled received the first patent for his version of the roller skate in 1819. He maintained the in-line style but instead attached three wooden or metal wheels to a wooden block, which could then be strapped to an ordinary shoe. However, he still hadn’t figured out how to turn and stop easily, an issue that wouldn’t be solved for over fifty years.
Skating didn’t become widely available until 1863 when James Plimpton of Medford, Massachusetts broke the in-line wheel tradition by putting two small wheels towards the front of the boot, and two on the back. This was the first inception of the quad style that many are familiar with, which is typically used for rhythmic and artistic skating. Plimpton also solved the issue of steering by mounting the wheel pairs on trucks (springed carriages) and gave them each independent axles. This design allowed the skater to turn by shifting their weight, hence the original name of “rocking” skates. Three years later, in 1866, the first roller rink was built in the dining room of the Atlantic House Hotel in Newport, Rhode Island. From that point on skates were in wide recreational use, but didn’t become a cultural sensation until the 1950s with the advent of diners and drive-ins where waitresses would skate through the tables and out to cars to take orders and deliver food.
Variations to wheel formation, as well as boot height and cut, have been made to accommodate for ease of movement, so it’s a good idea to think about what kind of skating you’re interested in before buying the first pair that becomes available. We will see this as we explore the differences between sport skating versus artistic skating.
Speed skating as a sport has been popular since the creation of roller skates. Speed skates can be used for both jam skating (an artistic style) or for racing. Inline skates were brought back into popularity in the 1990s when speed skating as a sport became increasingly widespread, though many speed skaters still choose to wear quads. Roller derby, much different from roller disco, is a contact sport dating back to the 1930s that is more similar to rugby than to gymnastics.
Roller disco began to combine skating with dance and gymnastics and rose to immense popularity in the 1970s. This allowed for more artistic forms of skating to flourish, and it is here that we can trace the roots of artistic, rhythmic, and jam skating.
Artistic skating is similar in its appearance and execution to ice skating and has just as many genres within itself. The three main categories are figure, free, and dance. Figure focuses on maintaining a running edge on a circle while performing specific turns in a sequence and is judged on precision and quality of the edge one turns along. Free is set to music, involves both jumps and turns, and is judged based on difficulty, quality, and artistry. Dance is even further stylized and generally conforms to a predetermined genre, but differs from figure and free in that it can be competed in by a solo performer, pair, quartet, or large group of sixteen or more. The key in large group performances, in addition to difficulty, quality, and artistry, is the synchronization of movement between all of the performers.
Jam skating is most closely linked to roller disco, as it is a combination of dance, gymnastics, and skating. Jam skates are much different from any others as they have a low- top boot and no toe stop, merely a much shorter “dance plug” which can come in handy for some moves but won’t help the skater to brake. Jam skating has been influenced by modern dance, artistic skating, and break dancing. Jam skating is more free-flowing than artistic or speed skating and generally does not have a competitive component. It’s most suited to flowing individual expression, supported by its wide variety of influences, and therefore endless possibilities.
Rhythm skates are the middle zone between artistic and jam skates; they have a high- top boot for ankle support like an artistic skate, but a dance plug in place of a toe stop like jam skates for a greater variety of movement. Shuffle skating is a smaller genre that crosses between jam and rhythm, and often includes moonwalk-esque moves that a traditional toe stop would inhibit. Rhythm, like jam skating, is more free-flowing and expressive but has close movement and cultural ties to rhythm and blues music, hence the “rhythm” name.
Roller skating is an incredibly versatile activity, as it can be done recreationally or for competition. While it began as a means of transportation, I’m sure Merlin and Plimpton would be overjoyed to see everyone skating in their own unique way. I, for one, am very glad one of the grooviest means of expression is making a comeback.