Just roll with it

The revival of roller skating

“Next skate, all skate.” The announcement in roller rinks across the country — introducing a time of opening the floor after a couples’ skate, a limbo contest or other popular game — hasn’t changed for generations, but skating itself continues to evolve and is riding a wave of popularity across the country and throughout Illinois. It should be no surprise, given roller skating’s diverse appeal and its ties to the Prairie State.

“Roller skating is at the highest point I can remember,” says Jim McMahon, executive director of Roller Skating Association International, an Indianapolis-based trade group made up of rink owners, businesses and individuals who work in and cater to skating.

McMahon also is owner of Illini Skateland, a Danville family entertainment center anchored by a roller rink. “I’ve been in the business for almost 50 years, and I’ve never seen so many television commercials with roller skating, so many music videos and so many social media influencers pushing roller skating,” he said.

Popular culture has always been important in promoting roller skating. The “skatesploitation” movies of the 1970s and early ’80s brought skating into the mainstream through films like “Xanadu,” “Roller Boogie” and even “Rollerball.” Today, skating is trending on social media platforms, especially TikTok and Instagram, showing up in commercials, music videos and on television.

Even celebrities are rolling into skating. Music icon Madonna and country music’s Tyler Hubbard both recently took a spin around a rink in New York’s Central Park. Hubbard even did laps on skates in a video for his 2022 song “Baby Gets Her Lovin’.” It was his idea and he wore his own skates, ones he had since high school. Reality TV star Joanna Gaines wore skates on the cover of Magnolia magazine last summer, and roller skating plays a key role in the soon-to-be-released “Barbie” movie.

Roller skating almost defies description. It is a recreational activity, a form of exercise and the basis for a number of sports ranging from figure and competitive skating to speed skating, from roller hockey to roller derby. In its purest form, roller skating is simply a mode of personal transportation, too. McMahon said some estimates are that as many as 48 million people laced up skates in the United States alone in 2021, many taking cues from pop culture.

“It’s similar to what we saw with Michael Jackson,” McMahon explains. “With all of the social media influencers roller skating, there is quite a push.”

Health benefits

People have realized that roller skating — even taking leisurely spins around a rink — has some significant health benefits.

“We’re about 10 times safer than almost any other sport that gives you the same calorie burn per hour,” McMahon says. “You can burn up to 600 calories an hour skating with almost no resistance or impact to your body. It seems almost effortless.”

He said many health associations, including the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association, have endorsed skating as one of the healthiest sports. Just 30 minutes of skating results in a heart rate of 148 beats per minute, and the activity both builds strength and increases muscle endurance.

What goes around, comes around

The appeal of roller skating has a sort of timeless quality to it, says Jeff Scott, third-generation owner of Scotties Fun Spot in Quincy. “It’s just something fun,” he says. “A lot of parents did it when they were in junior high or high school, and it is something they’ve passed down to their kids. Plus it’s social — something you can do with your friends.”

Roller skating got a boost — believe it or not — from the COVID-19 pandemic. “Skating right now is very hot; it is something people are bringing back into their lives. When COVID hit, everyone was looking for something to do outside, and roller skating just really took off. When things started settling down and we were able to open our doors again, it was ‘full swing,’ and we’ve been there ever since,” says Tonya Mathews, owner of Emery Brothers Skating Rink in Marion.

Mathews has worked at the Williamson County rink in one capacity or another since she was 16 (and skated there regularly even before that). She and her husband Tim bought the rink, which first opened in 1957, just over a dozen years ago.

“Skating is just fun,” she adds. “You’re able to do something active; you can enjoy the music. You’re skating with friends, your kids or your spouse, and it’s not just skating in a circle. There’s so much more.”

According to Roller Skating Association International, the growth in skating cuts across the entire sport. Speed skating, competitive skating and roller hockey are all finding new audiences. The interest in skating has been so high in the last few years, equipment was hard to find for consumers and rink owners alike.

“For the first time in memory, we couldn’t get quality roller skates,” McMahon recalls. “Manufacturers, suppliers, everybody was out of skates. There was about a nine-month period where we just couldn’t get skates.”

Roller skating ties to Illinois

The shortage of skating equipment was no surprise in one Illinois community. Montgomery County’s Litchfield is home to Roller Derby Skate Corp., one of the world’s largest manufacturers of roller skates. Although most of the company’s products are made overseas, the company headquarters are in Litchfield.

As the name implies, the company got its start from the high-impact sport of roller derby, where two teams of jammers and blockers try to earn points by lapping one another on an oval track. The sport grew out of a variation of roller-skating speed and endurance races which began in the mid-1880s. Chicago promoter Leo Seltzer added contact and a team aspect in the 1930s, giving roller derby as we know it now its start.

Seltzer’s brother Oscar saw an opportunity and founded the company in 1936 to make equipment for the growing sport.

“He was seeing roller skating take off and become more popular as people were taking up sidewalk skating and other forms of skating,” explains Erica Gibbel, marketing director at Roller Derby Skate Corp. “The story is that they landed in Litchfield because of a Brown Shoe Company factory here. They were looking for a place where people knew how to make shoes and boots.”

The company, still owned by Seltzer’s family, produces more than 100 different models of roller skates, as well skateboards and high-end roller skates for competition, roller derby (of course), roller hockey, rental skates for rinks and other sports products including ice skates, surfboards and diving fins.

“We pride ourselves in having a roller skate for almost anybody,” Gibbel adds, saying skating is popular both indoors and out, especially with the growing popularity of bicycle and jogging trails. “With a lot of those green spaces and trails, there are opportunities for people to go out and skate for a length of time and not just go in circles.”

Memories old and new

There is a nostalgia factor in roller skating’s appeal, too. Many of the trappings of roller rinks are the same: snack bars, arcade games, couples’ skates, limbos, four corners games and the Hokey Pokey. Parents who skated now are taking children and grandchildren to rinks, Mathews says.

There are newer aspects to roller skating, too. Scott offers Hoverboard nights for fans of electronic skateboard-like devices. Many rinks hold theme nights with music to fit particular tastes ranging from country to Christian. A new industrywide agreement with Disney allows customers to skate along to songs from the company’s popular films and television shows.

Not only has technology brought roller skating attention, it also has improved skating itself. Long gone are the steel-wheeled, clamp-on skates that barely rolled. Skates today feature precision bearings and come in a variety of styles, from those with ratcheting wheels to help children learn to inline and speed skates. Rinks themselves have evolved, too.

“Rental skates have improved tremendously, but the biggest thing is the rinks in the last 20 years,” says McMahon. “The sound systems are so much better, and rinks have almost become total restaurants. Used to be you’d get a hot dog, some chips and a soda and that would be date night. Now you get almost anything.”

The skating surfaces are perfectly smooth now and much quieter thanks to water-based polyurethane, he says. To help younger skaters, many rink operators provide skating lessons. Skate trainers — imagine a kid-sized, triangular PVC walker on wheels — help novices learn as well.

“Those started in the ice-skating industry, and it didn’t take us long to realize that we could put wheels on the bottom and apply them to roller skating,” McMahon says. “With the trainers, people are less likely to fall as they build their confidence. Skate trainers help teach people to stroke the skate at an angle and learn to skate without falling.”

Outreach efforts like Rockford-based Skatetime School Programs introduce students to the sport by renting skates to students.

“We offer five days of skating classes to students,” explains Steve Taft, regional manager with Skatetime. “We not only provide a physical activity, but it’s more of a lifetime activity.”

He said for many schoolchildren, the week of skating is their favorite gym class subject all year.

McMahon says it is a favorite activity for many teens and adults, too, and he likes the way roller skating is rolling right along. In fact, he said, he regularly fields telephone calls from individuals and community leaders wanting to open rinks in their communities.

“I’m 70 years old and I’ve never seen as much of the adult population roller skating as I do today,” he says.