Field Report: Experiencing The Roller Disco Fandom

When we were asked to rip off the Band-Aid and perform a fanlike activity with a fandom that was unfamiliar to us, the first thing that popped in my mind was to go explore the world of roller disco just because I was watching ‘Austin Powers: Goldmember’ the night before.

According to Wikipedia, the concept originated as a fad in the 1970s when the disco craze was at its height, peaking around 1980s.

Since this fandom is pretty much in a decline, I did some research on some of the fanlike activities / texts that this fandom had during its heyday.

  1. Roller Fashion. During the 70’s if you are going to a roller disco, fashion is the first thing that one has to pay attention to (even before learning how to skate). If you planned on going to a roller rink, you needed to dress up. This meant that roller disco brought with it a whole new brand of fashion, which just happened to arrive just when Seventies fashions were at their gaudiest. Combine tight athletic attire with the glitter of discothèque fashions, and you got Seventies fashion at its most extreme.

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  1. Roller Celebs. If you’re a fan of roller disco, this meant that you had to pay homage to a few roller celebrities. Natalie Wood, Cher, Brooke Shields and Farrah Fawcett were a few that fans followed and adored.
ca. 1979, Venice, Los Angeles, USA --- Singer and actress Cher, wearing a white swimsuit, shows off her roller skating moves at Venice Beach, California. --- Image by © Douglas Kirkland/CORBIS
ca. 1979, Venice, Los Angeles, USA — Singer and actress Cher, wearing a white swimsuit, shows off her roller skating moves at Venice Beach, California. — Image by © Douglas Kirkland/CORBIS
  1. Music. Aside from the disco music that came with the fandom, a lot of roller disco themed songs also made it to the top of the billboard charts. Bicycles, Roller Skates and You – The Archies, Roller Rink – Trooper, Roller Skating Child – Beach Boys, Roller Skate Rag – Barbara Streisand, Roller Skatin’ Mate – Peaches and Herb to name a few.

  1. Boardwalk on Venice Beach. Supposedly the Mecca of skating. Legend has it that, in the late Seventies, the boardwalks of Venice Beach, California overflowed with scantily dressed roller girls. Whether this claim has become embellished over the years is uncertain; however, one thing’s for sure, the Mayor of Los Angeles in 1979 declared the Venice Beach as the “Roller Capital of the World” because of this fact.

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  1. Cinema. The fandom was so big in the 70s that Hollywood just had to cash in. The Roller Movie Trinity, as everyone knows, is Skatetown U.S.A., Roller Boogie and Olivia Newton-John’s Xanadu. Other great roller disco- themed movies include The Unholy Rollers (1972) starring Claudia Jennings, Kansas City Bomber (1972) starring Raquel Welch, Rollerball (1975) starring James Caan, Rollerblade (1985) starring scream queen, Michelle Bauer.

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  1. TV. Many TV shows also rode the roller-disco train. There were TV shows dedicated to watching celebrities roller disco. Even the Brady Bunch variety show gave it a spin; however, the ultimate roller episode has to be the CHiPs episode “Roller Disco” (1979).  The story: A gang of criminals rob stores and make their getaway on pop wheel skates. Only Ponch and Jon can catch them on their motorcycles. Jim Brown plays one of the skatin’ bad guys. Here is a list of some of the stars that made cameos in this episode: Ed McMahon (The Tonight Show), Leif Garrett, Larry Linville (M*A*S*H), Melissa Sue Anderson (Little House on the Prairie), Nancy Culp (Beverly Hillbillies), Lee Meriweather (Barnaby Jones), Cindy Williams (Laverne & Shirley), Todd Bridges (Diff’rent Strokes), George Pepperd (The A-Team), Dan Haggerty (Grizzly Adams), Dana Plato (Diff’rent Strokes), Antonio Fargas (Starsky & Hutch), Vic Tayback (Alice), Jo Anne Worley (Laugh In), Tina Louise (Gilligan’s Island), Ruth Buzzi (Laugh-In), Dick Van Patten (Eight is Enough), Adam Rich (Eight is Enough), and Brett Sommers (Match Game).

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  1. Roller Vinyl. If you’re a fan, you collected these that contained the best roller disco dance songs of the time.

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  1. Roller Magazines. Yes, this was a thing. And people collected it. When you weren’t watching roller skating on television or at the movies, you could always read about roller skating.

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  1. Roller Shoes. There were all types of shoes available in the market. The pop wheel skates, sidewalk skates, were extremely popular, despite the fact that they provided no ankle support and most roller rinks wouldn’t allow them.

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Initial Observations

My group and I decided to go to Lola Stars Dreamland Roller Rink at Prospect Park. It was great timing because they were going to have themed event – Purple Rain Skate Party. The theme was a tribute to Prince and his 1999 album, Purple Rain with the invitation saying “DRESS UP! Black vinyl, Purple glitter, 80s Glam, Silk, satin and ruffled shirts!”

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I arrived at the venue wearing a red shirt and dark jeans. I figured that only the experts- the real fans – would be in costume. True enough, it is only after checking in that I realized that I DID NOT know how to skate. I spent a good 3 minutes staring at the pair of green rentals in front of me thinking that the night would be a major disaster.

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Most of my time in the rink was spent learning how to skate (and learning how to fall). What I love about this fandom and its community is that everyone seems to be so welcoming and encouraging. A lot of the “pros” would approach me and give tips and give words of encouragement every time I would stumble.

Speaking of “pros”, aside from being extremely friendly, you will be able to pinpoint them right away as soon as you get into the rink because they will be either in costume or be wearing special skates (some light up when the wheels roll). Maybe dressing up is really important to this fandom, a fan article saying ‘I belong’.

Moreover, these ‘pros’ were going around the rink showing off their various dance skills. Each of them have a unique style – one would boogie; one would dance with hula hoop; one would salsa; one emulating Michael Jackson. They would show off but the kind that isn’t obnoxious. They would show off to everyone’s delight.

In terms of customs and traditions, I observed that the more ‘advanced’ you are, the more fan articles you would have on – louder costume, more make up, better skates, more glitter. Furthermore, there seems to be an informal etiquette that if you’re a beginner or new to skating, you stay at the edges of the rink – the more experienced you are, the more you can go to the center. There is also a coned-off area at the center reserved for the “pros.”

Admittedly, I was not able to really “perform a fanlike activity” as the assignment suggested because I spent the whole night pretty much learning how to skate. To be a true fan, one must be able to skate well and dance with skates on. I would say that I was merely voyeur to this fandom and that there is more to this fandom than meets the eye.

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