Hip-hop thumps through the graffitied walls of the warehouse, drowned out by industrial fans and the smack of wheels hitting concrete.
In glittery helmets covered in stickers and neon-colored roller skates, the members of CIB coast inside.
Allison Kuhlman tightens the yellow laces of her cherry-red skates. The former roller derby player is more cautious now since breaking her tailbone in 2012 but can’t stop herself from being on wheels. She’s eager to get in some practice before taking her son to swimming lessons.
“I go home and I become Betty Crocker,” she said.
A combination of lockdown boredom and viral social media posts kicked up a renewed interest in roller skating. Throughout the summer, roller skates became another quarantine shortage, and Instagram feeds were flooded with people glide-dancing across pavement.
The sport has provided a place of comfort, where skaters found body acceptance and positivity and LGBTQ athletes found community. As newcomers find refuge in this longtime safe haven of a sport, locals in the roller skating scene told us what skating means to them.
Kuhlman, 41, founded the Tampa Bay chapter of CIB in 2015. A single mom of two boys who works full time, Kuhlman wanted to keep skating even though she no longer had time to commit to roller derby. That’s when she heard of CIB, a global roller skating organization founded in 2012 by a New Zealand derby skater named Lady Trample.
Originally “Chicks in Bowls,” the group’s name is now just CIB, adapted to fit its inclusive mission. There are now over 300 community-run chapters around the globe dedicated to creating safe communities for roller skaters to own their space at skate parks.
The Skatepark of Tampa offers free admission for women, but it can still be an unwelcoming space where skateboarders try to intimidate people on roller skates. While at skate parks, female skaters have been harassed, filmed without their consent and flashed, said CIB member Heather Lyles. CIB meetups also function as backup if an unsafe situation develops.
“It’s a very, very real thing that we have to have safety in numbers,” she said. “You might have to bring a can of mace to the skate park.”
Before the pandemic, CIB Tampa Bay had 170 members in its Facebook group. By April, that number shot up to over 400. Some are older skaters who miss adult skating nights at local rinks. They see skating as a release valve during an especially stressful year.
“It allows me to clear my head and turn my brain off,” said Christina Trapasso, a CIB Tampa Bay admin.
“I lost my job, and what’s the first thing I did? I put on my roller skates and I went for a 5-mile skate.”
Others are brand new to the sport, figuring out how to break in the skates they bought after being inspired by TikTok videos.
To help some of the new skaters, CIB started hosting socially distant training sessions. Lyles, a 35-year-old skater, has been demonstrating some of the fundamentals: how to turn around, skate backward, fall safely.
A white woman, she also wants newcomers to know skating’s past. While popular social media videos show thin white athletes twirling on skates, Lyles said today’s skating culture, including modern music and dance moves, has roots in Black culture.
“In order to appreciate what you have now, you always should look into the past,” she said.
Black skaters have long enjoyed the sport and found community in rinks. But skaters of color often experienced racism at white-owned venues, the Daily Beast reported. In some places, they were only allowed in during Black Night, sometimes called “MLK Night,” “Soul Night” or “Gospel Night.”
During the desegregation movement of the 1950s and ′60s, rink owners tried to keep Black skaters from entering. According to Boston public radio station GBH, skaters responded with sit-ins and other protests. Modern racism still exists today at rinks across the country, said the HBO documentary United Skates. Examples include bans on hip-hop music and smaller wheels traditionally used by Black skaters and excessive policing during adult nights.
By day, Lyles owns a marketing and advertising agency. Her other passion is roller derby. She skates under the name Punk N. Drublic. A contact sport that involves pressing against clumps of sweaty women on skates is not exactly pandemic-friendly, so for now, roller derby bouts have been canceled.
That hasn’t stopped her from gliding around her kitchen or practicing at the ramps and bowls at the Skatepark of Tampa.
“Quarantine was really hard, and skating was the only thing that kept me sane,” she said.
“It’s one of the only places I have found where I was told I was allowed to be aggressive and strong, and not told I’m being too much.”
Lyles said she wishes she had found skating earlier, when she was insecure about her body and her identity as a bisexual woman. Before getting into roller derby at 25, she avoided wearing tank tops and short shorts. Roller derby has helped her find confidence.
“Imagine how many other people’s lives we can change once they just tap into how strong they are,” she said. “And it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man or nonbinary. It just matters how you feel about yourself.”
Amina Stevens is a new CIB member, but she’s been skating since childhood. The 27-year-old Temple Terrace Realtor used to visit the roller rink every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. She remembers being teased and called a “rink rat.”
“In quarantine, people can only really do things outside. They’re really falling in love with it, but all the people who have grown up skating for their entire lives are like, ‘Hey, this has been cool,’” she said. “Especially in African American cultures, there’s a long history there which I find interesting. You can obviously see it when you go to soul roll night.”
While Stevens has ventured into park and trail skating during lockdown, she has long enjoyed soul roll skate parties, where hundreds of skaters pack into indoor rinks to dance together on wheels. She and her friends would join crowds crammed on the hardwood floor, locking arms to form a “skate train.”
Her friend Andrea Roach, 32, loves freestyle roller skating at United Skates of America in Tampa. She trains on Thursdays and returns for adult night every Sunday, showing off her backward skating and skate step routines. She also loves to skate to slow jams and drift around the rink with her boyfriend to classic R&B.
“Skating is limitless,” she said.
One of Roach’s favorite things is traveling to different places to see the skating style, culture and music of each region. She’s been to rinks around Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Chicago, New York, New Jersey and even Jamaica.
“The way people skate in Tampa is not the same way they even skate in Miami, definitely not the same way they skate in Atlanta and vice versa,” Stevens said.
Chicago, for example, is known for its smooth style of JB skating that originated in the 1970s. Named for the James Brown soundtrack the skating was originally set to, JB music now incorporates hip-hop and R&B into remixed James Brown songs or any rhythm that flows.
Stevens likes a Detroit-style skating move called Open House. Skaters quickly zoom around the rink, then turn their bodies and all slide in the same direction on the floor.
“It’s really, really fun to watch. I mean, sometimes it can be like 50 people trying to slide at one time, and the goal is to not try to knock each other down,” she said.
For Cynamon Gonzales, 28, a lifelong hobby of skating helps her manage both her chronic and mental illnesses. This summer, she combined her love of the sport with her passion for activism.
To create a space for like-minded people to grow their confidence at skate parks, Gonzales founded the Gay Commie Skate Crew at the end of August.
The name started out as a joke, she said, a response to name-calling online and in person. She says that instead of getting upset about it, her friends made it their own. “We took it back.”
The group is open to roller skaters, inline skaters and skateboarders.
“We really open it up to all wheels and all people,” she said. “We have people who literally just bought skates just to come skate with us and look like a brand-new baby calf just born, trying to walk.”
Gonzales roller skated along with protesters after the death of George Floyd. Then in August, the part-Navajo skater posed for photos on her skates in traditional regalia for the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
“I posted them online and I got so much feedback from it, like so many good things,” she said. “It really made me realize that I have this platform as an Indigenous skater.”
One of the issues she hopes to draw attention to is land acknowledgment. Many people who live in St. Petersburg and Tampa, for instance, don’t realize they are living on Tocobaga, Calusa or Seminole land. Gonzales uses the hashtag #youreskatingonnativeland.
“A lot of people don’t know whose land they’re actually living on, the land that was taken from away from these people,” she said.
“I think that that needs some light shed on it, especially right now as America is going through this … wave of this movement for equality and equity and liberation of our Black family. I think that it goes hand in hand with that.”