Roller skating is everywhere. With people itching for something to do outside the house during the coronavirus shutdown and skating videos going viral on social media platforms like Tik Tok and Instagram, the retro pastime is having a moment.
But for long-time skaters like Hasley Joseph, roller skating is so much more than just a passing online trend.
At a protest in Boston earlier this month, Joseph joined dozens of other roller skaters in a skate rally from Cambridge to Allston in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We are skaters and we love skating,” said Joseph, a Boston resident. “We want to show people in the skate community that we stand behind this movement and we skate together.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen protests and roller skating join forces. In fact, it’s how modern roller skating really got its start.
“With the civil rights movement happening while roller skating was getting that first amp, a lot of it did cross over, that people don't really know about,” Joseph said.
During desegregation in the 1950s and '60s, many roller rinks fought to keep Black skaters out. In response, the skaters staged protests and sit-ins. This evolved into rinks holding specific nights for white skaters and Black skaters, and those Black skating nights are where modern styles like jam, hip-hop and rhythm skating were born.
In the 1970s, '80s and '90s, those styles were popularized by Black skaters at roller rinks like Chez Vous in Dorchester, where manager Derick Foster-Toney first learned to skate.
“We have a unique look and way that we skate because it’s a product of our environment, and what we have to face on the outsides of these rinks, where we have to come in and form our own little tribe,” Foster-Toney said. “That’s our trademark way of how we express ourselves on skates.”
Foster-Toney’s family has run Chez Vous roller rink in Dorchester for decades, and the rink itself has existed since 1933. Foster-Toney grew up at the rink, beginning to skate at nine months old and watching history being made in real time.
“It was almost like you were at a cookout, everyone knew each other,” he said. “When you came in here, it was predominantly Black people, and it was such a scene to see, like wow, this is powerful. This is one of the main spaces we had to be able to do that and do so safely.”
And it still is. Foster-Toney skates at rinks around the country, where he says rules still exist to keep Black skaters from feeling welcome: things like no baggy pants, and no baseball caps.
“Maybe they’ll chase me down on the floor and tell me to take my hat off, little things that. You’ll think in your head, well, why is this necessary?” Foster-Toney said.
You won’t find dress code rules at Chez Vous, where skaters of all colors have always been welcome. But even as roller skating is gaining popularity online, historically Black roller rinks are closing across the country due to the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. For now, Chez Vous is hoping they’ll survive the coronavirus pandemic shutdown and reopen their doors, this time to a whole new generation of skaters.