Fearing the Couple Skate
Who could forget roller disco of the '70s and '80s? The twirling disco light in the center of the floor, the colored rays of the strobe lights darting around the rink, the music pumping from speakers in every corner, the beep, buzz and hum of the video games in the background. Or the memories of roller skating that radio stations bring flooding back when they play '80s retro songs like Cyndi Lauper's "She-Bop" or Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night." Remember the obnoxious, gaudy -- yet oddly comforting -- carpet and that skating rink smell? What was that smell? It doesn't matter. We all remember that skating rink smell.The popular sport dates all the way back to the first pair of roller skates, probably invented in Holland in the 1700s. Roller skating began to mature during the 1760s, when John Joseph Merlin, an English fiddler and instrument maker, made a pair and rolled on them while he fiddled. Merlin overlooked one vital necessity, though -- the need to stop -- and crashed into a mirror on-stage.The quad skate (four wheels) was the first patented roller skate and was made by M. Petitbled in France in 1819. Parisians found skating to be an efficient method of travel even though the skates at that time had wooden wheels and rolled only in a straight line and stopping was risky."Until about 1863, all skates were all in-line skates," notes Susan Curtis, assistant curator at the National Museum of Roller Skating in Lincoln, Nebraska. "The French quad skate revolutionized skating. And it became popular. So with this it became a social thing."The man considered to be the "father of the modern roller skate" is New Yorker James Leonard Plimpton, who modified the roller skate in 1863 and made it possible to turn by shifting body weight. In 1866, Plimpton opened the first roller rink in Newport, RI, and he later organized skating societies and awards events. The wooden Plimpton skate closely resembled the metal skates we all remember strapping over our shoes to street skate as children.Skating turns roughPlimpton's modernized skates turned roller skating into an American pastime and family outing. "In one of the boom periods," Curtis explained, "the gentlemen wore suits and the ladies wore bustles and skirts. Roller rinks [later] started fighting an image of being a 'rough' place, kind of a gang/hoodlum kind of hangout. Starting in the early 1900s, rink owners started banding together to try to change that image to [one of] a family place again. We had kind of a second resurgence in the '30s to the '50s, and it died out again till disco. The Skating Vanities were a traveling live show from 1942 to 1956. They were like the Ice Vanities. They were a live production and traveled across the United States, Europe and South America. [They] had a huge cast and did a Las Vegas kind of production on roller skates."The Skating Vanities were very popular at the time, and some of its stars were idols of the '40s and '50s. Gloria Norde was one such star. A ballerina who skated for fun, she was discovered and recruited into the Skating Vanities. Norde even became a poster child for Camel Cigarettes, cheerily declaring, "I like everything about Camels: their full flavor and their grand mildness."Norde and the Skating Vanities were skating during the peak of the skate dancing era. Comparable to figure skating, skate dancing was performed for fun and competition. Instructional books like "Roller skate Waltz Instructions" were published and popular at the time."Now they only do it as pairs," Curtis said of dance skating, "but they used to do it as fours -- two couples that skated together. That was also done in the rinks in the '30s and '40s. If you were really sophisticated and cool, you knew how to dance on skates. They would call out the dances, and that's what you would do around the rink. Every rink published a newsletter and any new dance they would publish so you could study it and learn it. Rinks were very conservative and they were fighting that image of being a 'rough' place. Women would never be allowed to wear something like this on the skate floor," Curtis explained as she pointed to a tight-fitting competition uniform with a barely-there skirt. Curtis said that sort of uniform was not traditional skate wear and worn for competition only.The buzz of late has been about a resurgence of roller derby. "Ever since the '50s roller derby was big," Curtis said. "There's kind of been a following since then. Now it's being done on in-line skates on TNN. Their roller derby is going to be similar to the derbies from the '50s -- same rules, but with in-line skates. TNN thinks they have the following to make it into a popular sport."The birth of roller derby was accidental -- literally. In the early '30s, six-day bicycle races were popular, which were done on indoor tracks. Leo Seltzer, a big entertainment promoter, bought one of these tracks and changed it to team roller skating. He figured out the mileage from New York to Chicago, and had the competitors skate that many miles as a team. But then something happened at one race -- somebody got rough, and the crowd loved it. The promoters recognized the potential for popularity. As the aggression grew and the roughness of the sport grew, the crowd grew.Skating, particularly in-line skating, has branched out into other sports. Roller polo has become a popular sport. In 1994 a professional league of in-line basketball players was started. And roller hockey has been around for a long time -- in fact, it was through ice hockey that Rollerblades came into existence.Now that skating is enjoying such a resurgence, don't be surprised if you feel the urge to visit your local rink, lace up a pair of roller skates and take a whirl around -- for old time's sake.