Hip-hop is rap; hip-hop is breakdancing; hip-hop is graffiti; hip-hop is scratching; hip-hop is…roller skating? I’ve lived in Los Angeles my entire life, raised with hip-hop heads, and I never knew of the immensity of the underground roller skating scene.
We have filmmakers Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler to thank for bringing this lesser-known subculture to light. Together, they deliver a fun look at the nationwide love of roller skating within many black communities and a so-so argument as to why its fading presence is a cause for concern.
The film focuses primarily on adults who skate in the evening, frequently called “Adult Nights,” where there is usually a DJ who plays hours of hip-hop and R&B. These skate sessions often include different forms of dance, gymnastics and even acrobatics. Kentucky Throws, Baltimore Snapping, Texas Slowwalk, Atlanta Jackknife, Ohio Stride – these are just some of the signature moves you’ll find at roller rinks across the country.
Watching these passion-fueled skaters roll dance on two wheels, swing through each other’s legs and back handspring across the floor is awesome entertainment. Not everybody can pull off the flashy tricks, so the less-skilled skaters hang out just outside the boards to admire and applaud. But everyone participates in rolling around the rink, and they’ve all got pep in their strides, big smiles across their faces and a glow in their hearts.
Skate events like these formed during more segregated times then evolved, reaching their peak during the ’80s and ’90s, about the same time rap and breakdancing emerged from the underground scene. Ever since then, events have been dying off, with rinks closing at a high rate.
It’s a tough reality to face for people who largely come from the rugged inner cities. For them, the rink isn’t just a good time; it’s a place that offers escape from crime, where even rival gangs roll in peace.
United Skates shows the good and the bad, mostly through the perspectives of three different people: Phelicia, a mother of four from Los Angeles; Reggie, a dance instructor from North Carolina; and Buddy Love, a rink owner in Chicago. All have skating in their blood and all try to keep the roller-skating culture alive in their own way.
Love allows entry into his rink for only $5 per person; Reggie offers his experience and expertise with Jam skating to a dying business; and Phelicia passes her beloved passion down to her sons and daughters. With only an 89-minute runtime, these three viewpoints are not so much stories as they are highlights to complement the story of roller skating as a whole.
They offer a close look at the impact skating has on personal and family life. Credit is due to editor Katharine Garrison for piecing together footage that spans several years in order to give life to Winkler’s story.
Skates is a small film that features interviews with surprisingly big hip-hop stars. The likes of Coolio, Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa and Vin Rock (Naughty By Nature) all chime in on the dope times they had on skates. Their inclusion helps show the world just how big of a deal roller skating was (and is) to both children and adults. Combine these big timers with some slick camera shots of skaters gliding across the wood and flaunting their remarkable dance moves, and now the film has really got our attention.
Brown and Winkler smartly utilize celebrity voices and lively entertainment to get to the more important telling of social injustices toward historically black communities. For this argument, the film could have used stronger examples from the Phelicia, Reggie and Buddy narratives, as well as more examples from skating’s early days.
When I was a skateboarder in my early teens, I always thought that if, I ever struck it rich, I would build skate parks in the rough neighborhoods of Los Angeles to help keep kids off the street.
United Skates draws that same parallel to roller skating. They’re totally right, but without strong support, a drama becomes a melodrama. Thankfully, there are enough stellar dance moves and happy times to keep us entertained, and at the very least, it’s always a treat when a documentary exposes the world to something that may otherwise be unknown.
Skaters, go ahead and roll on over to the theaters. After you watch United Skates I guarantee you’re going to grab your iPod and hit the rink. And if you’re a hip-hop head like me, then this documentary is worth checking out to gain some insight on the many-sided genre.