TikTok has fallen in love with 70s roller rink aesthetic

50 years after the roller skating boom of the 70s, Gen-Z is buying skates in their droves amid a viral TikTok craze.

by Eva Short
28 May 2020, 5:00pm

Gauzy neon lights bounce off the silver sequins of a woman’s tube top as she glides through a roller rink on turquoise skates. The tinny, distant sound of music being pumped through a speaker can be heard in the background. She grooves side to side and gyrates her hips—however, she’s dancing to Doja Cat, not to Donna Summers. This is not a 1970s roller disco: it’s half a century later. 2020, the year of the online roller skating renaissance.

The lure of the roller disco, and its associated dreamy, free aesthetic, has endured since its heyday, when roller rinks mushroomed up all across the USA throughout the 1970s and early 80s. Whether it be pairing quad skates with flares at a rink, or donning the classic shorts and knee-high striped sock combo that is synonymous with the roller skating culture of the California piers, the fashion of that time has enjoyed lasting appeal. Now, it's experiencing a renaissance. While some of that IRL popularity is undoubtedly due to lockdown's changes to how we see exercise and travel, rollerskating has also rolled into the online consciousness as viral trends on TikTok and Instagram breathe new life into the pastime.

On TikTok, people film themselves gliding down piers or sun-soaked leafy suburban streets in their skates, wearing flared jumpsuits, t-shirts tied at the waist or string bikini tops. Or, more recently, moonwalking while peeling off a leopard print face mask, in the case of one of the platform’s most well-known skaters.

Actress Ana Coto (@anaocto) joined TikTok in February of this year, feeling she had finally found a suitable place to share her various skating clips. In her videos, she lip syncs and dances on skates breezily to Big Poppa and Chaka Khan, doing so with such ease that you would think she learned to skate before she learned to walk.

Ana initially learned to skate (unsurprisingly) as a child, but she returned to the hobby with gusto three years ago. Unbeknownst to her, it would turn her into an internet star -- since starting her account, she has amassed 1.3m followers and tens of millions of views. “I think I was just at the right place at the right time,” she says, noting that while skate content was sparse on TikTok when she had just arrived, the amount of roller skating videos has boomed considerably in the past few months.

Despite a relative dearth of cultural depictions of roller skating, Ana has still found some inspiration in cinema. She notes in particular the portrayal of roller skating and its connection to the Atlanta hip hop scene in the 2006 film ATL. Nothing, however, has grabbed her quite like ‘Roller Girl’, Heather Graham’s seminal character in the 1997 Paul Thomas Anderson ode to the 1970s ‘Golden Age’ of porn, Boogie Nights. “That's the only character in pop culture that I remember being kind of floored by, like I didn't realise that [roller skating] was a sexy thing probably until seeing that.”

Meanwhile, Instagram, Twitter and Reddit are awash with stylish flat lays of skates, posted under the hashtag #SkatePalette. Users arrange their worn skates with books, vinyl covers, bandanas and even tubes of oil paint in matching colours.

The tag began on Instagram in early May, started by Yanka Dietvorst (@jiggydust), a skater from Antwerp, Belgium. Craving a creative outlet during lockdown, she decided to put together a colour palette to match her yellow roller skates and post it online as a challenge for others. This challenge took off, even spawning a spin-off tag for the hula-hooping community. Dietvorst’s love of roller rink Americana shines through her Instagram, so much so that people often mistakenly think she is from the US.

“I just love the American roller skate ‘look’,” Yanka says. “I love the colours and the style … I have a love for vintage stuff, and styles. Three years ago I saw a video of the Moxi Roller Skates girls and I was mesmerised. They looked gorgeous and badass at the same time. My dream is to go to California one day, because for me that’s just roller skate heaven!”

This new online interest has sent the demand for roller skates soaring, so much so that suppliers are overwhelmed. Michelle Steilen, owner and founder of Moxi Skates (and a professional stunt skater herself), says that the sheer amount of orders has necessitated bringing on extra staff to handle the workload. The brand produces skates in a range of millennial-friendly jewel tones and pastels. On Moxi’s online store, skaters can buy matching knee-pads and toe covers for their skates, and even vintage-inspired apparel such as shorts and knee-high socks. “My parents are antique dealers and I've always been really fascinated by old stuff”, Steiner explains.

So why have global lockdowns amid the Covid-19 pandemic intensified interest in roller skating? On a practical level, the pastime is an ideal way to get fit; it doesn’t require any other equipment and can be done in most outside settings at a social distance.

Michelle maintains that interest in skating, particularly outdoor skating, has risen steadily over the past few years. However, she can also appreciate how these unique recent circumstances are having an impact. “People are stuck inside and they feel like going insane. They want to get on roller skates because they need physical, mental and spiritual release and that is what roller skating will give you,” she explains. As well as satisfying the new physical requirements for getting around in a pandemic-stricken world, roller skating provides a special kind of release. As far as forms of exercise go, it’s fun, carefree and not inherently competitive; an ideal form of escapism.

“Practicing indoors or on the street at my place during this whole pandemic has kept me sane between newly online school and being treated like trash as an essential worker,” 21-year-old Reddit user chicken-alfredhoe, a novice skater based in Athens, Georgia, USA, tells me. “I love watching TikToks and looking at challenges related to skating and trying to do them or using them to inspire me.”

Tiffany, 25, from Orlando, Florida explained that she turned to roller skating after being furloughed from her job and wanting a new hobby and form of exercise. “It's been a ton of fun, and it's given me something to look forward to in a time when everything feels uncertain.”

No one truly knows how long this new version of reality is going to last, but one thing is certain: as strange as these conditions may be, they have propelled roller skating back into the mainstream—and so far, the online love affair has no end in sight.