I once went to a roller disco. It didn’t last long and it didn’t end well. And it didn’t involve me even lacing up a pair of skates. Still, the mere enthusiastic attendance had the desired effect on the person I went with. What I’m getting at is that this ain’t really in my wheelhouse. I ain’t got no rhythm and I sure as hell ain’t got no balance. Still, the fact that there is a roller disco subculture in the US was more than enough to get me interested in this wonderful documentary by Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler.
Something of a breeding ground for Hiphop back in the day, roller discos have provided an outlet and a community centre for black communities across the states since they were desegregated. The desegregation had a few effects, in some areas the roller discos closed rather than allow black punters in, in others a variety of special nights were created, on the face of it to allow the black community to have its own space. The reality of course being that white people still wanted segregation and this was just the same. Out of all of the ‘Hiphop’ style nights emerged ‘Adult Night’ - black night in all but name. This led to a thriving subculture of different styles of skating and different fashions.
United Skates follows a group of such roller discos in different parts of the US as they face economic and social uncertainty through the early 2000’s. Encroaching development and the usual level of racism disguised as a wide range of things have had a devastating impact on the scene and evenings that used to bring communities together are now few and increasingly far between.
The filmmakers stuff their movie with incredible moves and fantastic music as they follow the personalities involved in trying to keep this way of life alive. A young teenager describes his joy of skating in relation to his behavioural issues and you get a real sense that the whole community delights in the collective exhale that can be found from strapping on your designer skates and hitting the rink.
United Skates impresses in presenting the flow that goes with doing something you love to the extent that all other concerns fade into the background. It also documents the huge challenges faced as cities re-zone areas to bring in big money retail tax dollars, at the expense of initiatives that benefit the community. At one stage a participant calmly notes the level of help received by companies such as McDonalds and Dunkin’ Donuts, in sharp contrast to the level received by locally owned businesses that actually connect with the communities they reside in.
For better or for worse though, the movie doesn’t dwell on these cold facts, this is more a celebration of the good times, times that despite capitalism’s best efforts can still be found. This is a fascinating and enthralling look into a world that few outside the scene will have any knowledge of.