Photos by Brittany Zendejas
It’s an unusually warm day in Oakland, California. Everything shines when it catches the light of the sun. On the basketball courts, small wheels sparkle as they zigzag across the blacktop. Funky music is blasting through the old school boombox parked in the middle of the courts, the neon spray-painted letters blistering your eyes if you look too long. In the middle is Beto Lopez, a Bay Area native who has rhythm in his blood. He glides on his wheels, sometimes he even walks, moving so effortlessly that he captivates not only his students but those enjoying a day out in the sun.
Lopez has been rollerskating since he was five years old, 1979 to be exact. “We went to rollerskating rinks for my birthday party,” said Lopez. “That became a tradition.” Pretty soon he was living at the rink, never missing a day or month or year without putting on his skates and doing what he does best… vibing. He evolved from indoor rollerskating to outdoor skating. Then he was jumping over cars, creating new moves, and competing in competitive competitions. Outdoor skating evolved as rollerskating became popular but that transition was hard for some skaters to follow.
However, since the pandemic began rollerskating has become a new “phenomenon” amongst the younger generation. TikTok has become the prime source of marketing for Impala skates and a yearning for a time that many people thought had disappeared. Lopez is here to remind us that roller skating has been alive and well.
“There are still a lot of people who haven’t seen it [roller skating] like this,” said Lopez. “Now they are seeing it on social media and how fun it is.”
In 1760, John Joseph Merlin played the violin while skating around at a masquerade ball. But, he was no good at it and had not mastered the suave technique that Beto and seasoned skaters are accustomed to.
The very first modern two-by-two roller skates were invented by a New York City furniture dealer, James L. Plimpton. Although he patented the skates, several changes were made regularly to the design until 1866 where leather straps and side braces were added. This creation was meant for “sophisticated ladies and gentlemen”, or at least that it was Plimpton wanted.
Today, and for many years, roller skating has represented freedom and equity in the Black community. The push for desegregated roller rinks involved peaceful protests in the ’60s. Many rinks designated only one night a week for black skaters. Ledger Smith, a.k.a “Roller Man” skated 685 miles from Chicago to D.C to attend the March on Washington. He wore a sign around him that said “Freedom”. He persisted, skated days with shaky legs because he was on a mission.
Because rinks were the hardest to segregate during the ’60s, the culture that evolved within the Black community as a result of continued segregation. Black skaters were able to listen to the music they wanted and create their own style of roller skating which we now know as roller dance. Roller rinks also became one of the main stages for hip-hop to thrive, Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Peppa and Ice Cube have performed at roller rinks.
With the closure of roller rinks in the early 2000s becoming more common, the switch from inside to outdoor skating became popular for those who lived it. Many, like Beto Lopez, never stopped skating and made the transition to skating on concrete. Inline skates are best for measuring the type of outdoor skater you want to be.
Not only has roller skating persisted since the closure of so many rinks across the nation, but it truly has transformed.
Today, skaters from Los Angeles have met up in Oakland at Mosswood Park for a pop-up event. The DJ is playing “What You Won’t Do For Love” in the background and people are grooving across the basketball court.
Since the rinks have closed, that transition to outdoor skating has become very popular and that is where the word “revival” has come from. But for long-time skaters, the need to skate has not been bound by a rink or outdoors, they simply have a desire to get out and skate because it’s all they know.
“Even the young ones aren’t brand new to it, especially in the black culture because roller skating has been around for a long time,” said Lopez.
Lopez started teaching classes because he noticed that new skaters were lacking a general knowledge of the sport and its history.
He teaches everything from beginners to advanced and ensures that his students know the foundations and history of roller skating.
“Once you learn and create your own style, you’ll stand out from the rest,” said Lopez. “It’s not easy to teach but I’ve found a way how to teach people to flow and feel the music. Once you adapt to the music and connect… You can become one of the best skaters.”
The hot sun beats down on the skaters as they find their rhythm. People are laughing, talking amongst old friends and new, it’s a euphoric feeling that has seemed so distant this past year.
Since the pandemic, roller skating has offered a way to let off steam and join in community. It’s a way to dance, let loose, and be free.
“When we’re skating, we’re in our own world,” said Lopez.
During a time when the world is turbulent, rollerskating has brought together old and new generations, but it’s always been there, you just needed to know what skates to buy.
Brittany Zendejas is a freelance journalist. She is dedicated to telling stories about the Latino community which helped shape her into the writer and person she is today. Brittany is currently pursuing a Masters in Journalism at the University of California in Berkeley.
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