"Twice as nice, without the ice"
January 23, 2007 6:17 PM   Subscribe

The US Figure Skating championships are this week, but though the ice skaters in Spokane and elsewhere get all the press, another group of skaters toil in near-obscurity. Roller figure skaters (also called artistic roller skaters) skate on quad (or sometimes inline) skates, do all the moves that ice skaters do (and even more -- notice the "heel" and "broken ankle" spins in this program, spins that are not possible on ice), and compete, as they have for decades, in local, national, and international events. In 1978, skating was at a peak of popularity and Time magazine wrote "skaters are hoping to be included in the 1988 Olympics"; nearly 30 years later, roller figure skating still hasn't reached the Olympics, some roller skaters like Tara Lipinski have switched to ice to get famous, and the number of clubs and participants in the US have declined precipitously, but dedicated roller figure skaters still spend many hours practicing school figures (on circles painted on the floor), dance, and free skating, for the love of their sport. Want to see more? Skating videos from RollerSportsTV.
posted by litlnemo (33 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

Great post. I had no freaking idea this existed.
posted by Kwine at 6:28 PM on January 23, 2007

It exists, and it's awesome. If any NYC Mefites want to see it in action, the Roxy has a regular skate party on Wednesdays from 8pm until 2am. This Friday there's a special skate night there; doors at 8. The Roxy crowd runs more toward disco than the classic artistic styles linked above, or the more contemporary jam skating that takes a lot of its influence from hip hop and break dancing.

I'll be at the Roxy Friday night with my quads on, if anyone wants a few pointers... if not, I'll see you all at the skate circle in Central Park once the weather turns nice.

Thanks for posting this, it's great to see skating get some exposure!
posted by sonofslim at 6:52 PM on January 23, 2007

I miss rollerskating. I was actually thinking about buying a pair not too long ago...they even have "off-road" models now.
posted by deusdiabolus at 7:06 PM on January 23, 2007

I had no idea.
posted by puddles at 7:13 PM on January 23, 2007

And on preview, apparently neither did Kwine.
posted by puddles at 7:15 PM on January 23, 2007

Neither did I

(and [more inside] is your friend, for future reference)
posted by Doohickie at 7:23 PM on January 23, 2007

This post, right here, right now, is one of the reasons I love MetaFilter. Thanks, litlnemo. I didn't know anything about this before just now.
posted by pjern at 7:32 PM on January 23, 2007

Cool post, nicely put togethr and really informative. I like the vintage Skate mag covers.

And the skating is great at the Central Park skate circle. I love that place. Rapture. Halloween SF skating. Rollergroove.
posted by nickyskye at 8:03 PM on January 23, 2007


Anybody know a good source for inline (hockey) skate wheels and bearings? Say 72mm, 80a wheels and ABEC 3 or ABEC 5sbearings. Nothing too flashy since I'm not real elegant, anyway.
posted by notyou at 8:20 PM on January 23, 2007

OMFG FLASHBACK TO 1981-1982-1983! Such great times when roller-skating. Keep meaning to buy a pair and hit the road and rink...pretty sure that 2007 will be the year. Much obliged for the awesome FPP and links!
posted by davidmsc at 8:45 PM on January 23, 2007

And while we're on the subject -- was I the ONLY person in America who loved loved loved "Roll Bounce?"
posted by davidmsc at 8:46 PM on January 23, 2007

yes. pretty sure you were the only person. i could ask around though?
posted by puddles at 8:58 PM on January 23, 2007

davidmsc, I loved that movie too, and mostly because I thought they did a really great job of recreating the period and the fun of skating. I was a kid skating at that time, and listening to a lot of that music, so I enjoyed it a lot. The movie was cheesy in a way but it wasn't bad cheese. (As opposed to, say, Roller Boogie, which is sort of painful though it does have one great artistic skating sequence in the middle.)

sonofslim, yeah, I left out the disco/jam style stuff -- that could be another FPP in itself. It's great skating but the skating culture and style is completely different than the figure skaters, of course.

I wanted to find more written material about that aspect, actually -- the whole roller figure skating subculture (particularly in the US), which is substantially different from the ice skating subculture, but it's hard to find much of anything good online.
posted by litlnemo at 9:18 PM on January 23, 2007

Oh, one thing I wanted to note that I didn't manage to work into the FPP -- the video linked under "national", with the high-level US skater doing a short program at Nationals, is sad because... well... notice how few people are in the audience. And I can guarantee you that 99% of them are skaters, their families, and other people involved in skating. It really is unknown.
posted by litlnemo at 10:04 PM on January 23, 2007

oh, the memories you've exhumed ...

oddly, despite having spent a horrifying amount of my younger years in competitive figure skating, i'd never known that a similar discipline existed for roller skating as well, until i watched the tv movie "the ryan white story" -- at some point early on the setting was one of his sister's roller-skating competitions (storyline conflict facilitated later by her skating aspirations being quashed by his illness, if memory serves). i sat there dumbfounded in front of the television, thinking "she just did an axel ... on four-wheeled roller skates!! how is this possible?" after devoting a nontrivial amount of time to perfecting these moves on the ice, it was utterly mind-blowing to see someone do them on wheels. to this day it seems wrong to my eyes.

and the compulsory figures ... i hadn't thought about those in years. i quit before they were dropped from the competitive requirements, so not only practiced these things during endless patch sessions, but was judged and tested on them as well. and again, had no idea until today that they were also done on roller skates, which, from a relativistic perspective, seems unfairly easy--no edges, no ice, no evidence. (looking back, it seems both surreal and hilarious, having a trio of somber-faced judges scrutinizing your movements as you create a bunch of circles and turns freehand (freefoot?) on a patch of pristine ice and retrace your own pattern, then watching them shuffle over in their snowboots, crouching down to inspect edge-marks, symmetry, circle size, uniformity, etc. (some of those figures were mind-bogglingly difficult, also, leading one to speculate as to who came up with the idea of tracing the damn things out with your feet ... )

skating, both roller and figure, is just bizarre.

(on preview ... wasn't trying to derail/divert from the roller-skating focus of the post--the memory tangents got the better of me. kudos to litlnemo for bringing attention to such an under-noticed discipline. perhaps the roller figure skaters can find a way to co-opt some of the attention from roller derby?)
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 10:44 PM on January 23, 2007

Flagged as fantastic -- you did an amazing job.

I never learned to skate, but I imagine that rollerering is an order of magnitude more difficult than ice-skating because of the lessened resistance.
posted by pax digita at 3:14 AM on January 24, 2007

"after devoting a nontrivial amount of time to perfecting these moves on the ice, it was utterly mind-blowing to see someone do them on wheels. to this day it seems wrong to my eyes."

Most people who have done both will tell you that it's harder to do those moves on wheels. Spins are definitely harder, and I'm really impressed by good quad spinners. (In case you hadn't guessed yet, I was a skater -- both ice and roller. Not very high level, though. Spinning was my favorite thing on ice -- on quads and inlines, not so much.)

If you can roller free skate, the odds are very good that you can take up ice free skating easily. It doesn't always go the other direction.

"...Had no idea until today that they were also done on roller skates, which, from a relativistic perspective, seems unfairly easy--no edges, no ice, no evidence."

It's judged differently. It seems easier in that there are no tracings to check, but they put a stronger emphasis on posture. It looks very different from ice figures because everyone's standing up so straight, arms all out in the same position, etc. I always had great tracings but would get marked down for posture issues. I love school figures; they are sort of zen. Not exciting, but enjoyable.

I believe in the 1940s or thereabouts they used to powder the floors with rosin or something so that skates would leave tracings in the powder, and skaters didn't have painted circles to skate on. This was with the wooden skate wheels.

One issue with the painted circles -- everyone's skating on the same size circle. On ice, the circle is proportionate to your height, but on quads it isn't, so that can make things easier or harder, depending.

If you are used to ice figures, it is probably weird to watch skaters warm up for roller figures -- 8 or so skaters can be sharing one serpentine, and they are just skating one after the other, around and around. And they aren't all bundled up in sweaters like patch skaters, usually. :) (This is me at a practice, with really awful posture... I think it was my first figure of the day or something.)
posted by litlnemo at 3:18 AM on January 24, 2007

Litlnemo, I might have to put together a companion post on the disco/jam stuff. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much artistic skating in New York -- I've been told it's the only state without an official artistic roller skating association. There are only 2 rinks in New York City (both of which are in immediate danger of being bought out by commercial developers) and neither offers true artistic lessons, so the culture is definitely geared toward free skate. Although my mohawk turns are getting really pretty, if I do say so myself.

And Luke Parker, roller skates have edges too! The trucks on a skate work like skateboard trucks; if you lean over to one side, the axles rotate to turn in that direction. It's how you steer the skate. Not as pronounced as on ice skates, but I definitely get yelled at for entering or exiting a turn on the wrong edge. Watch the video above with the broken ankle spin; you'll see the skater spinning on just her outside wheels. Amazing.

Jam skaters tend to use low-cut speed boots which offer a lot more flexibility in the ankle; for an extreme take on the broken ankle spin, check out the boot spin!
posted by sonofslim at 5:14 AM on January 24, 2007

perhaps the roller figure skaters can find a way to co-opt some of the attention from roller derby?

Our local derby league sometimes gives us breakdancers on rollerskates during halftime. Some are better than others, but they're getting better.
posted by mediareport at 5:27 AM on January 24, 2007

I'm making it official: roller-based meetup this Friday.
posted by sonofslim at 5:29 AM on January 24, 2007

you know what's the worst thing about rollerblading?

telling your parents you're gay.
posted by jcterminal at 5:35 AM on January 24, 2007

"Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much artistic skating in New York -- I've been told it's the only state without an official artistic roller skating association."

Well, they are part of one of the USA RollerSports regions, but whether they currently have any active clubs, I don't know. I think Hawaii is probably worse off -- I am pretty sure there are no rinks down there at all any more. (When there was a rink in HI, the skaters from there had to compete in the Northwest regionals for some reason.)

Really, there isn't much artistic skating anywhere any more. Rinks have closed down for a variety of reasons, including sky-high liability insurance, increased land value, the inline skating fad which encouraged outdoor and stunt skating but not rink skating, etc. Rinks that still exist are often unfriendly to artistic clubs because they feel they can make more money from hockey, private parties, etc. Seattle hasn't had a rink in the city limits since the early 80s (anyone remember when Skoochie's first opened as a rink before it became a dance club only? And before that, there was the rink on 85th, in Greenwood), and the other rinks in the area have gotten fewer and fewer. I think about all the places I skated as a kid, and most of them are gone now.
posted by litlnemo at 6:25 AM on January 24, 2007

Really, there isn't much artistic skating anywhere any more.

It's a shame, too. The US used to be very competitive, but recently the Italians have dominated the sport. Who wants to quit their job, leave their family, buy a rink with me, and train a new generation to take back the World Cup?

notyou: check out skates.com and rollerwarehouse.com, if there's not a skate shop by you. And forget about ABEC ratings. ABEC doesn't cover side-load strength, which is a major factor in how well bearings perform under skate conditions. Everyone I know uses Bones (available at any skateboard shop) except for a few serious old-schoolers who skate on Fafnirs, but I'm not even sure they make those anymore.
posted by sonofslim at 7:25 AM on January 24, 2007

thanks, litlnemo and sonofslim, for all the info and clarification--lots of things i'd never thought about, or never considered. it seems amazing (or, perhaps more accurately, speaks to the under-representation of artistic roller skating) that absolutely none of the two dozen or so figure skaters i spent six hours a day practicing with had any awareness of the roller movement.
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 8:06 AM on January 24, 2007

for some reason Melanie springs to mind. Brand New Key.
posted by adamvasco at 11:54 AM on January 24, 2007

Roller skating factoid of interest to me: For a long time I'd had no idea that inline skates predated the quad wheels. Then I saw a pic of Jackson Haines doing a theatre show on "rollerblades" back in the late 1800s.

(And btw I almost fell over to see this week's US figure skating nationals mentioned anywhere except the skating boards I frequent. Hell, it's being broadcast on ESPN/ABC I haven't seen one ad *there* yet.)
posted by NorthernLite at 1:21 PM on January 24, 2007

NorthernLite: it makes sense, if you consider that ice skates have been around forever, and that anyone wanting to adapt them to wheels would probably start with an inline arrangement similar to the blade.

There were attempts to build a quad skate as far back as the early 1800s but until the inventions of the pivot truck and the modern ball bearings in the second half of the 19th century, they were equally unviable. Wheels were usually metal or wood until people started experimenting with rubber compound wheels in the 30s, and eventually polyurethane (still the standard) as of the 60s.
posted by sonofslim at 1:48 PM on January 24, 2007

The interesting thing is that quads were considered a technological advance from inline skates, because they allowed you to do things that are more difficult on inlines. So in some ways the recent inline fad is a regression. Inlines are better at some things, like speed skating, for example. But they aren't automatically better for all types of roller skating.
posted by litlnemo at 4:04 PM on January 24, 2007

Of course, there are artistic inline skates which have 3 wheels instead of the usual 4 and a toe stop used for jumping, like a toe pick on ice skates. They're pretty uncommon -- note those prices! -- and despite the popularity of inlines, most artistic skating is still done on quads.
posted by sonofslim at 8:07 PM on January 24, 2007

sonofslim: thanks!
posted by notyou at 9:41 PM on January 24, 2007

Artistic inline skates can also have 4 wheels -- the PicFrames pictured at your link are that type. The 3 wheel Triax frames tend to be more commonly used by skaters who have quad freestyle experience already. The PicFrames are more commonly used by ice skaters. I skated on PicFrames at Nationals and always thought I had some disadvantage because I used ice skating techniques with the Pics while the other skaters jumped like quad skaters. But then again, they were all half my age too (the age group in my division was 12 and up, yikes) so my technique wasn't my main disadvantage. ;)

Inline artistic skaters are very much a minority. I was the only adult inline artistic skater in my entire region for a couple of years. I had one male friend who was a self-taught skater and did amazing high flip jumps on his PicFrames; I kept trying to talk him into competing because there were so few male inline skaters that he had a good shot at the National Championship. (I think there might have been 2 skaters in the men's event.) But he never did it. The most skaters in my inline event any year at Nationals was 7. My figures events on quads were better; we generally had 30+ for those. I wonder if the number of inline skaters has increased since I stopped competing.
posted by litlnemo at 1:11 AM on January 25, 2007

There's a documentary in here somewhere.
posted by sonofslim at 5:32 AM on January 25, 2007

Heh, there are trailers for two documentaries among the links in my post. But I have no idea how one could manage to see the films. I'd love to see them somehow.
posted by litlnemo at 3:34 PM on January 25, 2007

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