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The Wheel Thing - The New York Times

Category: Fashion & Style,Lifestyle

Once, roller skating was a family-friendly activity. At the height of the roller skating craze, during the 1970s and ’80s, you went to the roller rink and banged your feet against the wood while dancing to “Don’t Bring Me Down” by Electric Light Orchestra. Or maybe you went to the local theater just to stare in wonder at Linda Blair in “Roller Boogie,” wishing that one day you too could find love on the trashy Venice Beach boardwalk.

The popularity of roller derby in the early aughts, with help from Drew Barrymore’s roller derby big screen tale, “Whip It,” knocked that wholesome image of roller skating senseless; women decked out in fishnet stockings and rainbow-colored uniforms, tackled, smacked and pushed each other to the ground.

It wasn’t the only time women in film skated over the opposition.

Though Heather Graham’s Rollergirl was an adorable but vulnerable pornographic fantasy in “Boogie Nights,” her character’s most memorable scene was when a former high school acquaintance humiliated her during an “experimental” real-time film in the back of a limo. “You don’t ever disrespect me!” she shrieked, beating his face to a pulp with her skates.

In “Funny Girl,” Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice used her roller skates to steal the spotlight as she fell and trounced during a vaudeville act, pretending to be incompetent in her skates.

The audience ate it up, and by the next skit, she masterfully glided across the stage while singing, “I’d Rather Be Blue Over You.” As a fool on roller skates, she controlled the joke and the audience. She was a woman in charge.

Recently, roller skates have emerged again, as part of a new feminist uniform.

In “Sharp Objects,” Marti Noxon’s HBO series based on a Gillian Flynn novel, three teenage girls glide with death glares and lingering gazes down empty small town roads. Eliza Scanlen’s character, Amma, a complicated teenager and the leader of this feral pack, uses her skates to flee from not just her family, but also from the oppressive town of Wind Gap, Mo., where the story is set.

Wind Gap’s brutal history, which includes a gang rape of its founder’s wife by Union soldiers, is annually re-enacted in a pageantry-style performance by the town’s middle-schoolers in Southern gothic costumes.

No wonder these girls cruise town on roller skates, with their hair flying wildly behind them in the middle of the night. Without their roller skates, they are chained to their excruciating present. (This is not to say these girls are innocent creatures.) The roller skates aren’t just a method of transportation. They give them agency.

Roller-skating isn’t in the original book. Jean-Marc Vallée, the series director, was influenced by Chet Faker’s 2014 “Gold” video; the song, dreamy and soulful, was paired with even more ethereal imagery of three strong-bodied women decked out in tube socks and chunky gold hoop earrings, roller skating down a yellow strip in the middle of a dark highway.

Mr. Vallée persuaded Ms. Flynn, Joanna Robinson reported in Vanity Fair, to add roller-skating to the series.

The pastime has also been revived in real life, though with a less meandering character than in the past.

When Justine Sanborn started roller skating at male-dominated roller parks in high school in Elk River, Minn., she was the only girl there, she said. Something always felt like it was missing. “Maybe it was the women,” she said.

Ms. Sanborn, 29, who is an adjunct professor at the New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn, has been skating with the Gotham Girls Roller Derby league for the past four years, using the name B000M, and is now a vice president of the Long Island chapter of Chicks in Bowls, a worldwide community of roller skaters supporting other women at skate parks.

“What’s really special about Chicks in Bowls is that we’re all there to learn and share with each other,” Ms. Sanborn said. “Of course, it’s all about you and skating and doing your own thing, but it’s about ‘we’ and that we’re in this together. That camaraderie is such a critical component. It’s also inherently feminine to help each other.”

When on skates, women are encouraged to use their bodies in ways that they have never been encouraged to do before, bucking patriarchal norms. There is an escapist element, to be sure. On skates one is in a gorgeous opalescent bubble, floating along, or stunting, or racing in a world void of unfair tennis umpires, sexist politicians and assaulting network C.E.O.s.

At Cynthia Rowley’s spring-summer 2019 collection on Sept. 11, the models, including Ms. Sanborn, didn’t walk — they rolled. Ms. Rowley had replaced the typically restrained, dead-eyed runway models with women on roller skates, who filled the designer’s West Village office (a onetime three-story garage) with their stunts and their swirls, using her colorful dresses like props as they glided, swiveled, yelped and howled.

Ms. Rowley’s fashion shows have always had sense of unpredictability. Last year, models perched on swings. In a promotional video, her daughter, Kit Keenan, once surfed in her mother’s high heels. This time, Ms. Rowley said in a phone interview, “I wanted to see movement. I wanted to have something that would demonstrate that movement in the clothing.”

“A lot of these girls said, ‘I don’t want to ruin the dress,’” but Ms. Rowley reassured them. “I want badass girls skating in these ruffly, girly dresses and roll on the floor if they want to,” she said.

Amy Gordon, a New York-based performer and one of the models who twirled in a full-length yellow dress from Ms. Rowley’s collection, said there is a feeling of flying when you’re roller skating, of euphoria. Before the show, Ms. Gordon had a gig in Las Vegas as an alien diva on skates.

“These are women who have honed their skills to a point where they elicit screams from strangers,” said Ms. Gordon, who has been skating for 18 years.

When she is not performing, she skates regularly around town at Dreamland Roller Disco (a Friday night roller dance party at Lakeside Rink in Prospect Park) or at Monsignor McGolrick Park in Greenpoint. “If you want to call it witchery, feel free,” she said. “There was an element of supernatural power of us being on skates. Because on skates, we’re moving like more than just humans.”

Roller derby is one safe place where women are encouraged to be aggressive and assertive (more so than, say, tennis, as the powerful response to Serena Williams’s outburst at the U.S. Open shows), with rules and regulations followed just as strictly as they are in other physical contact sports.

This expression is a challenge in roller derby leagues outside of the United States. In Beirut, for example, the leagues face obstacles to simply exist, “because wearing certain clothing, or skating in public or expressing yourself through sport, is seen as a challenge to masculinity or misogyny,” said Erica Vanstone, the executive director of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.

Allison Anders, 63, an independent film director, regularly roller skates on Saturday morning at Moonlight Rollerway in Glendale, Calif., with her daughter, Tiffany Anders, who is a music supervisor, and her granddaughter, Isabelle, 11.

Roller skating has been part of the elder Ms. Anders’s life since she was a young girl, during a time when virtually every small town in United States had a roller rink. She loved watching the girls skate around with short skirts and pompoms on their skates. “I thought, ‘I can’t wait to do that as a teenager,’” she said.

About five years ago, Ms. Anders became obsessed again with the culture. She directed an episode of “Riverdale,” in which she pushed for skating waitresses to wear short shorts instead of cumbersome skirts. She invested in fuchsia Moxi skates. She bought a green glitter strap to carry her skates with; her daughter and granddaughter have rainbow straps.

Ms. Anders thinks the roller derby world is different now than it was in the ’70s. It’s not the blood sport that was portrayed in the Raquel Welch flick “Kansas City Bomber.” Ms. Anders has a skate playlist that includes Joe Jackson and “Fight the Power,” by the Isley Brothers.

“I think the whole skate culture is women now,” Ms. Anders said. “And it’s very clear now that women aren’t there to please men. They’re not there for the male gaze. They’re in gear that works on the roller rink or on the street. They’re looking good for themselves. They’re dressed for themselves.”


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