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Was This the Summer You Started Roller-Skating?

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo Courtesy of Oumi

Hot Bod is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.

Like watching anything difficult that seems smoother and smoother the better someone is at it (surfing, flirting), there’s nothing as transfixing and mood-altering as roller-skating. It’s like dolphins cresting or blowing bubbles, it’s a physics problem about joy and levity. This summer, Instagram’s breakout roller-skating stunner Oumi Janta entranced millions of eyeballs with clips of her dancing on roller skates. She has a casual glamour and a casual relationship to gravity — switching this way and that way, a flowy pant swishing in the wind.

Even this roller-skating knockout told me she also loves the passive delight of watching skating videos: “Sometimes I just put a random [roller] skating video from the late ’80s or ’60s. The music is so vibe-y in those videos. Sometimes I start my day with one of those videos to get me motivated and start the day right.”

Videos made by countless talented skaters — like Janta (funky and dancerly), Coco i.e. @gypsetcity (athletic with a perfect sense of humor), Shove i.e. @fat_girl _has_moxi (dreamy, electro, slinky), and Sade i.e. @skatealldae (educational with windup machine propulsion) — not only entertained zillions of people panic-scrolling on their phones this summer, but they helped precipitate a summer activity. (Things did not always go smoothly for new hobbyists: I remember an early July request to the Home Cooking podcast from a caller who had fallen on her second day of roller-skating, fractured her wrist, and was seeking tips about food she could cook with one hand.) There was even a scarcity of roller skates! And skaters, amateur and experienced, took part in Black Lives Matter protests at the Skate for Justice protest in Los Angeles in June and the inaugural Worldwide Rollout Day in London in July. (The mesmerizing 2019 documentary United Skates, currently on HBO, outlines the racialized history of roller-skating rinks in America, as well as pays tribute to the incredible innovations of black roller skaters.)

One of the most satisfying things about skating, to Janta, is that it’s infectious: Seeing someone skate triggers something admiring and covetous in the viewer, and makes them want to skate, whether or not they stick with it. “It feels really really good when I see that they start and succeed in roller-skating, it just makes me really really happy. I got at least a quarter of my friends to try roller-skating — they bought skates, too.”

Janta’s skating style — a suspended liquid — seems like it’s messing with time and physics. She tells me she doesn’t choreograph anything ahead of time, but lets the music and her skates take over. I mean, roller skates are totally enchanted! You don’t move your shoes, your shoes move you! Janta has been skating for six years and teaches with Jam Skate Club. The activity, she says, has completely altered the way she moves through the world in general. “It changed my movement a lot,” she says. “I liked to dance before, but with roller-skating I just feel more connected with my body.”

Janta’s skating is preposterously beautiful — gliding! jellyfish-like! — but I think it’s something in the seams of her videos that makes them so fascinating. She keeps in her little falters, even points out her little hiccups. It’s not self-deprecating; it makes the mistakes part of the whole. She captions one video, in which she looks like a live wire whipping around: “current mood, felt like whipping my hair today till I got lil dizzy…you see me almost trippin‘ before the jump?” The roller skater Sade has this instinct too, writing in one caption: “also peep how my glasses fell off my face during that 360…it’s really a constant fight to keep them on and i have still YET to fix it”. There’s a palpable release in skirting around a mistake to recover and try again. It suits a summer of amateurism — which started with lots of announcements about new hobbies and is ending with a conspicuous absence of updates — to see that even the capable skating sensations who inspired these habits are still figuring things out.

At the tail end of summer, it’s corny and kind of inevitable to take stock of things: What have we been doing? What were we planning on doing? I wonder if the people who helped roller skates sell out in July are still skating? I know I’m still transfixed by roller-skating videos, like each one has something I’ve never seen before. My appreciation has naturally deepened, but, amazingly, my delight has continued to grow more potent. There’s something about these videos, from Janta and other skaters, that are out of time. But not in a retro-revival way — it’s that their floaty drift across the pavement seems as if it’s always existing, and the camera just happens to capture it for a second. On skates, the perpetual glide is always available to them, its own endless summer.

Was This the Summer You Started Roller-Skating?