Central Texans Find Joy and Connection in Roller Skating
By Krissi Reeves
On a Monday evening in October, Zoe Otey rolled in her bright pink roller skates across the Palmer Auditorium terrace toward her boyfriend, Tristan Respress. The pair gracefully glided in unison as the sun disappeared below the horizon.
The couple, both 26, met at an outdoor roller skate meetup at the Long Center in June.
“The roller skating community is amazing,” Respress said. “There are a lot of people and a lot of good vibes. It was like a warm hug when I found this community.”
Few would guess that Otey and Respress are relatively new to roller skating. Otey strapped on her first pair of skates in December 2020. Respress, who has skated sporadically since 2017, bought his first pair of skates in March 2021.
Both praise Austin’s skating community for its welcoming energy and credit roller skating for boosting their mental health.
“I have always been really anxious and battled with depression,” Otey said. “Roller skating kind of pulls me out of those negative thought patterns.”
While many roller rinks were shut down during COVID, Central Texans took to Facebook, Instagram and TikTok to find fellow roller skaters and public spaces to skate.
Roller skating in Austin is experiencing a revival. In the street. At the city park. In abandoned parking garages. And as the pandemic is subsiding, back in rinks.
The Austin Social Inline and Quad Skating Facebook group, one of several local online roller skating communities, grew from around 650 members in January 2020 to more than 3,700 members in October, according to the page’s administrator. The Facebook group features invites to skate meet-ups, skilled skaters offering lessons and new skaters seeking a squad.
Social skate sessions now happen seven days a week at public spaces around the Austin area, including the Long Center, Palmer Auditorium, Alamo Pocket Park, Bartholomew Park and Rock Sports Arena.
The trend was reflected on social media. TikTok’s #rollingskating page has more than 5.8 billion views, up from 1.8 billion last July. There are currently more than 2 million Instagram posts tagged with #rollerskating.
During the pandemic, sales of skates have soared. Riedell, one of the world’s leading roller skate manufacturers, reported a more than 50% sales increase since March 2020 due to lifestyle outdoor skating, according to the company’s co-owner and vice president, Scott Riegelman.
“Everyone was looking for exercise and things to do for the whole family and outdoor lifestyle roller skating went crazy,” Riegelman said.
Since COVID restrictions have eased, roller skating rinks have seen an uptick in interest as well. Playland Skate Center in North Central Austin has served as a sprawling headquarters for the roller skating community for nearly fifty years. In summer of 2021, Playland’s long running Tuesday night adult skate outgrew the venue’s 1,100 capacity rink, so the business programmed a second adult skate night on Thursdays and added DJs to the lineup to serve the growing community.
Donavin Velez, 45, is one of the DJs at Playland’s adult skate. He’s also the founder of the Underground Roller Disco, a lively pop-up skate party. While DJing outdoor dance parties at Zilker Park during the early stages of the pandemic, Velez heard about the Long Center roller skate meetups. He reached out to the Austin Social Inline and Quad Skate Facebook group and asked if the group would enjoy a DJ while they skated. Underground Roller Disco was born.
Velez now hosts at least two Underground Roller Discos a month — at the Long Center terrace and Playland Skate Center. Velez credits roller skating’s mindfulness and collective positive energy for the instant popularity of his roller disco.
When roller skating “there is a feeling of flowing freedom that overcomes you,” Velez said. “You’re not thinking about your bills or all the petty things in your life. It brings you to the present moment.”
Elana Verbin Bizer, assistant director of the University of Texas at Austin Counseling and Mental Health Center’s Integrative Health Program says roller skating offers significant physical and mental health perks.
“Roller skating, like most forms of exercise, improves mood by boosting endorphin levels. When combined with the emotional benefits of socializing and feeling connected with others, it’s a double win,” Bizer said.
“With the pandemic, most of us were staying at home and getting far less exercise, both of which can contribute to symptoms of depression and sleep difficulties. Activities like roller skating create an opportunity to go outside, synchronize our circadian rhythm and have some fun,” Bizer said.
For Austin native and preschool teacher Dani Thomas, 25, roller skating provided a vital lifeline during the pandemic.
“I was feeling really, really low and once I got on my skates, every day I had a reason to get up — to go skate,” Thomas said.
Not only did Thomas teach herself to roller skate, she also began producing a popular meetup in June 2020 at Alamo Pocket Park in East Austin called Dani’s Bounce & Roll. The meetup is open to all comers. Thomas shares her skating adventures on social media and tags her content with #blackgirlsskatetoo.
“I feel like it’s very important for representation of Black skaters,” Thomas said.
BIPoC Skaters of Austin, an online skating community with a mission to “amplify the voices and artistic integrity of Black and Brown skaters,” was founded in May 2021.
Organized by Julie Le, 34, the group hosts regular “Sunset” and “Rise and Grind” outdoor social skates, helps produce jam skate lessons and promotes skate meetups like Thomas’ Bounce & Roll.
“There’s a certain kind of joy that skaters share,” Le said. “We all love the wind in our face, our minds getting consumed by nailing one trick, laughing when we fall, and hitting beats to a tough song.”
“I just can’t think of better medicine than that,” Le said.