Blades of glory: Inside Melbourne’s rollerskate revival
Whether it’s at a skate park, a rink or in a bar, rollerskating is back and it’s here to stay.
On regular Wednesday nights in Melbourne, anywhere from 50 to 100 skaters gather for a street skate hosted by Melbourne Freeride, a Facebook group with more than 2000 members started by passionate skaters Cuong Huynh and Jess Jackson. Meeting at the iconic Cow Up a Tree sculpture on Harbour Esplanade in Docklands, the free session is for all comers from beginners to experienced, and both quad and inline skaters. The freeride events attract rollerskating enthusiasts of all ages and genders, as well as people riding scooters and skateboards. “We encourage all wheels,” says Jess.
When they’re not working (Cuong, 39, is the manager of Highett skate shop Bayside Blades and Jess, 35, is a professional dog walker) you’ll find them at skate parks in Melbourne’s inner north or skating the suburbs looking for interesting places – stairs and ledges, for example – to try their skills.
Taking to the floor at Caribbean Rollerama in Scoresby.
As well as Freeride, Jess and Cuong are part of a wide and welcoming skating network that includes everyone from people into roller derby, speed skating and roller hockey, to those who prefer professional classes, roller disco or artistic skating. “Social media makes it so easy to see what’s happening,” says Jess.
And there’s a lot going on: roller disco parties at the underground carpark of Collingwood’s public housing flats, pop-up roller skating events in bars, skating meetups, performances, competitions, a rolling schedule of classes, parties and events at Melbourne’s roller rinks, plus a wealth of inspirational Insta feeds and YouTube channels.
This roller revival is not just a Melbourne phenomenon. In Geelong, roller enthusiasts meet for group skates on a semi-regular basis. Organised via the Geelong Outdoor & Social Skating Facebook group, co-founder Adam Rhino says the events usually happen over summer. “Most skates are posted by individuals who feel like going on x day and x time, and if others can join in, well that’s just great.” Adam says the most common place to go skating is along the Geelong Waterfront or Barwon River and everyone is welcome. “The youngest person I’ve seen on skates was about four, and the oldest so far is mid-fifties,” he says.
All are welcome too at The Zone Fun Park in Bendigo, where kids are joined by adults keen to revisit their childhood skating passion. Owned by champion inline skater Ben Janssen, The Zone holds skate sessions every day, including kids’ skate parties on weekends. Monday and Wednesday nights are reserved for men’s and women’s inline hockey training. Manager Mark O’Hehir has been with The Zone for only six months and says the interest in the sport took him by surprise. “I didn’t think that skating was that popular.”
Caribbean Rollerama on a Saturday morning is as busy as ever.
On Sunday afternoons in the gym at Mount Alexander College in Flemington, former Victorian Roller Derby League player Amy Cora runs a RollerFit session for beginners. To a soundtrack of contemporary and nostalgic pop, and with lots of encouragement, we learn to safely fall, skate in a tight circle, go backwards, brake and spin with varying levels of success. By the end of the session everyone has grasped the basics well enough to be able to finish the class with a dance routine on skates.
“Getting to glide around on skates is such a freeing feeling to me, and I think the endorphins of exercise are even better when you don’t realise you are exercising,” says Amy.
RollerFit has been running in Melbourne since 2016 and has been growing steadily, especially as skating gains more visibility. When artists such as Chet Faker (Gold) and Gwen Stefani (Make Me Like You) feature skating in their music videos, you know your sport is having its moment in the sun.
For roller derby, that moment came a decade earlier with the release of Whip It, the 2009 comedy-drama about a women’s roller derby team that raised the profile of the sport. There was a big resurgence back then, recalls Cindy Frost, a former player and now trainer and coach with the Northside Rollers. And while she acknowledges interest may have tapered off since the peak of Whip It popularity, there’s still huge interest in the sport.
At a league ‘Fresh Meat’ session, the newbies getting ready to start training at the Darebin Community Sports Centre in Reservoir are wearing helmets and wrist and knee pads. A few are wobbly on their skates, but others, some returning from a roller derby hiatus, are already spinning and skating like pros. “The fact we’ve got this many people at an intake means we’re still going strong,” Cindy says.
While roller derby has a short but intense lifespan, with many players retiring after around 10 years, for other skating fans age is no barrier. Artistic skating group The Pacemakers was founded in 1995 and its members include men and women aged from 30-something to 70-plus. Academic Laura Hougaz, 64, says artistic skating is great for her brain and her body. “The money we save the government by keeping fit,” she says, only half-jokingly.
The Pacemakers practise twice a week at Caribbean Rollerama in Scoresby and are working towards the state and national championships where they’ll perform their new routine in sparkly costume to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, gliding in harmony across the rink floor. A drawcard at artistic skating events around Australia, The Pacemakers have no plans to slow down, even as the funnel of new artistic skaters into the group is diminishing.
While the new generation of skaters may be more interested in street skating than spins and sequins, Caribbean Rollerama on a Saturday morning is as busy as ever. As The Pacemakers finish their training session, the doors to the rink are opened to the public and within minutes the rink is flooded with kids of all ages. A new generation of skaters is ready to roll.