Feels On Wheels: Why Roller-Skating Is Like Therapy
If you wanted to have a thought-provoking, mature conversation about mental health and community, where would you go? Twitter? Probably not. A local support group? That might be a better bet. Or how about a glitter ball-bedecked retro-style roller skating disco in Tottenham, north London?
Not the most obvious choice, but it is where MR PORTER finds nine enthusiastic young men and women sitting round a table on a Wednesday lunchtime, discussing said topics with intelligence and humour. The club is usually shut at this time (Monday nights, we hear, is where it’s at), but it has opened so we can shoot this lively bunch of skaters doing their thing while trying out a selection of T-shirts exclusively designed for our Health In Mind initiative. Sales will be used to support men’s mental health.
Everyone here knows each other from skating in various car parks and actual parks across London (there is a strong Stratford, east London, contingent) in different, overlapping crews, espousing, but not exclusive to, specific skating disciplines – from jam skating (dancing fused with skating) to speed skating to street skating. The atmosphere is so convivial, we are reluctant to introduce a Dictaphone and, to use the appropriate parlance, ruin the vibe.
“It sounds cheesy, but I actually have friends now,” says Ms Serena Wright, who has some idle time between her fitting and make-up. “I’ve never known this many people.”
She tells us how she started jam skating two years ago in lockdown to escape the confines of the small boat she lives on. “I’m an only child,” she says. “It’s nice to have this community outside. I realise people go out to drink to have fun, but when you have a hobby like this, you have that outlet and release. Different crews do different things, like speed skating, or you’ve got The Next Chapter, which is influenced by America. We’re all connected.”
Mr Vando Varela is cursing his phone. He wasn’t home for an important parcel and now it’s missing. Some new skates, of course. The ones he is wearing, he tells us, are converted ice skates and perfect for a man with larger feet such as him. Born in Lisbon, where he started his own skate community, he’s been skating for three years and appreciates how diverse the London scene is. “Me and Johnny have a crew called Afro Caribbean Skaters – me, him and two other girls. We dance, skate and do other stuff. Jam skating, basically.”
Originally from Spain, Mr Johnny Montero has called London his home for a few years now and agrees there is great variety in his new city. “I have a dance background,” he says. “I try to fuse the two together. It’s my way to bring my unique skill into skating.”
For him, it’s all about connection and release, too. “I get a sense of having a family,” he says. “It’s almost like therapy, right? You can have a lot of problems, but you go out, put on your music and you’re cruising. It’s a way of enjoying the view, the city, in your own world. It makes me feel free.”
At various points, some of the group return to the same central topic of their debate – the nature of their changing community and their roles within it. Some of the more experienced skaters are keen to impress upon us just how much the activity (it is not yet recognised as a sport – something they are working on) has blown up recently as a result of lockdown and social media platforms such as TikTok. They feel great personal responsibility as role models to ensure newcomers, who might not know all the rules and etiquette, and older members knit together harmoniously for the benefit of the scene. There is no hostility, only an interest in safety, fun and growth.
“We’ve been skating for quite a while, for like 10 years,” says Ms Renee Castello, a skate teacher who has been skating for 13 years (her mum got her into it). “The community has grown out of nowhere in the past two years. We were skating when it wasn’t cool. I was pushed over. We were called mall rats by the police. We’re talking about the difference between us coming in and the intake now. We’re talking about what their experience is like. We didn’t see people on social media. We are OGs. We were singular entities and moved into the pattern and the newcomers created their own pattern. So we need to get together and make it work. It’s about being considerate to everyone and being in a space together without there being silly problems. People might not know you can’t come out the ring like that.”
Spaces are important for communities to flourish – a consistent, welcoming, accessible meeting place for members to work on a common goal together – but their availability is often taken for granted. The fact that this group can meet somewhere such as Roller Nation is important. Because of the technical, expansive nature of skating, official places to meet, practise safely and hang out are hard to come by and local authorities are not necessarily always on the skaters’ side. Which explains why they also get together unofficially in car parks across the city.
“This is one of a few places,” says Mr Chandler Walters, who has been skating for nine years and considers himself a street skater. “We don’t have a lot of spaces. We get kicked out of places. We make do with what we’ve got. There’s a lot more skaters and investment, places are popping up. We’re trying to keep the culture up. It’s unfortunate, but you have to make do with what you get. When I started I would skate in Stratford. They used to let us in the older shopping centre there on a Friday night. There would be a bunch of people, a DJ. We’d be there till 4.00am just skating around. There was no money in it. We looked out for each other and taught each other stuff. Community has always been part of it.”
This sense of a shared, irreverent activity connecting outlier participants is clear, but when you ask the simple, direct question, why some of these guys skate, something more individual, pure and innocent reveals itself.
“Why do I skate? That’s a good question,” says Castello, moments before joining her friends on the roller disco floor, which is now a dizzying blur of mind-boggling tricks, dancing and laughter. “I don’t know. I need to get to places. I just like it. It’s freeing. People came to it over lockdown because they felt trapped. All of a sudden, they can go where they want, how they want, the speed they want. That’s the biggest thing for most people. The tension eases out of their body. I know when I see some skaters I’m like, rahhh, my body doesn’t move like that! I can put my hands in the air, but I can’t do it like that!”
For more information on how to get into skating, follow the skaters on Instagram. Or search in your neighbourhood for local groups