Four basketball courts in Campbell Park became hallowed ground for Isaac Farfan during the summer of 2020, as the smooth, blue surface—its basketball hoops removed as a precaution in the earliest, panicked days of Covid—was the perfect place to take his roller skates for a spin.
Off Campbell Avenue and down the grassy knoll, the 49-year-old laced up his black boots as boomboxes pumped out smooth rhythms and funky melodies—think Ginuwine’s 1996 classic “Pony” or “When A Fire Starts To Burn” by Disclosure—into the wide open suburban space, where he joined up to 200 other skaters spinning, bouncing, turning, dipping, gliding and slow-walking during events organized by Campbell Rollers and Skate N Chill.
The second-generation San Jose native renewed his childhood passion for roller skating in 2007, and enrolled in a Roller Dance Academy in November of 2019—in the knick of time for the quad wheels to become en vogue during the isolation of the pandemic.
Farfan, a hairdresser-turned-skate-instructor, made it his mission to bring home Sunday school skating lessons he learned from Richard Humphrey, a living legend in the Bay Area who coined the choreographic style of “roller dance.”
“I feel like I'm teaching a lot of pandemic skaters how to roller dance—people don't know the culture yet in the South Bay, but it’s getting bigger,” says Farfan, who also teaches at Aloha Roller Rink in Eastridge Center and San Jose Roll Call events. “It gives me hope, but we just need to continue to build community.”
However, as Santa Clara County gradually shed public health restrictions, Farfan waved the newfound Campbell community and classroom goodbye in April. The hoops were re-installed, and pick-up games took over once again.
“We had someone scoping out the basketball courts, because once those hoops went up, we knew we were going to lose our space,” says Farfan.
Different cities have different styles, traditions and cultural centers of skating—Chicago flaunts intricate footwork inspired by James Brown’s over-the-top moves, and elaborate group routines and cross-floor slides emulate figure skating inside Detroit's rinks. There’s also the fast backwards skills popular in Philly and Jersey circles, while YEEK skating (Your Energetic Explosive Klimax) found in Atlanta delivers the exact raunchy energy its name promises.
While Oakland has Lake Merritt and San Francisco boasts both Golden Gate Park and the Church of 8 Wheels as local centers of skate culture, the Bay Area still overarchingly lacks its own unique sense of style. Some skaters chalk that up to the area’s cost of living and housing instability, especially compared to regions where decades of culture is built up over time through generations of community and institutional knowledge.
The South Bay, specifically, has relatively slim pickings when it comes to finding slick surfaces to ride or its own homegrown skating legends. That is, aside from the cowboy hat-clad Bill Chew—whose roller skates, legend has it, accumulated 300,000 miles on San Jose’s sidewalks.
Skaters looking to pump their wheels around bowls and ramps in Silicon Valley often contend with dirty, derogatory or already “claimed” space. Folks itching to trek street terrains or smooth public lots have been getting the boot and even threatened with fines, and trail rides sometimes elicit glares from bikers and inline skaters.
But Farfan is one of a dozen skaters working, organizing and skating to keep the community alive in the South Bay, creating and crafting a hub and culture of their own as they go.
“I almost feel like crying, it's so powerful and important to me,” Farfan says. “I love the regional skate communities, how different they are from each other. A lot of us organizers feel like we need to keep the vibe going and keep it alive here.”
“Skating culture” is really just a catch-all term linking a number of different subcultures populated by people with wheels attached to their feet. Akin to Forrest Gump’s views on the versatility of shrimp, there are artistic skaters, rhythm skaters, street skaters, derby skaters, speed skaters and once-a-year birthday party skaters. Each of these subgenres exists within Silicon Valley. As folks continually see the same people each week, a sort of skate “family” often emerges as older O.G. skaters connect with and support newbies in their community.
Most skaters also reject monolithic framings of roller skating within one-off “pop” moments—whether Xanadu-era roller discos at Brooklyn’s Empire Rollerdrome in the 1970s, hardcore roller derby bruisers making laps in Whip It or even Team Pup and Suds’ sick street tricks from the 1998 Disney Channel Original Movie Brink!.
So, what exactly is the South Bay’s skate culture?
“I’ve been trying to ask myself that question for a while,” says DJ GA, a skater based in Oakland who has become a familiar face supporting the South Bay scene throughout the pandemic. “It seems as if a lot of people that have been here have been constantly moved in and out. There were a lot of skating rinks in the Bay Area back in the day—15 years ago.”
As venues closed, skaters either stopped or spread out to the sparse rinks still hanging on nearby, with years of hyperlocal skate traditions being lost in the process.
“Because of that big ol’ mix and match,” GA says, “the culture of what used to be started to mix, mingle and not really be very specific, especially in the sense that it went from around five rinks in all the Bay Area to dang near only about three.”
When the pandemic began, GA says skating provided an out for depression. Wanting to help others’ mental health, too, he dove headfirst into organizing adult skate nights, where folks could wind, grind and sway to the music, as opposed to snooze-fest evenings spent looping in circles to whatever soundtrack a rink piped through speakers in the background.
GA’s name and likeness-turned-logo have since appeared on countless event flyers around the Bay Area, taking advantage of Instagram’s window into their colorful, energetic nights. When the money earned from these events eventually surpassed a 9-to-5 income, he pushed his grassroots business even harder online and on skates.
“The main goal for me is just to influence as many people as possible in the Bay Area to build up skate culture here,” he says, adding that he’s referring primarily to authentic rhythm skating, which embodies the very notes, riffs and beats of music in every limb—whether House, funk, R&B or something in between. “That’s something that has been built up through generations from the African American perspective, but there's no one type; It's almost like calling it hip hop, and then having a bunch of different sub genres.”
Do Your Homework
Rinks in the South Bay used to help keep the community together, especially as a safe and sober place for kids instead of being out in the streets. All but a handful of rinks have closed in San Jose, and those long-shuttered spaces are missing out on skating’s renewed popularity and continued growth.
Cal Skate in Milpitas became a local favorite during its 34 years of business, as dozens of skaters weaved together on the glistening wooden rink nightly underneath disco balls and neon lights. The spot even hosted the roller skating events of the first World Games in 1981, featuring artistic pairs compulsory dance, the 5,000 meter roller speed skater race and roller hockey.
Born and raised in San Jose, 22-year-old Joy Hackett waxes poetic about the energy forged between roller skaters in spaces like Cal Skate—an environment not always replicable in “real” life.
“Everybody's sweaty, everybody's learning, everybody's falling, and it's fine because you all come back up, and you feel the music together,” Hackett says with a laugh. “It’s centered around Black music—Cardi B, Drake, Beyonce—but we skate to whatever really, as long as it has a good beat. Even if the tempo doesn’t fit, the DJ will remix it a little slower, a little faster.”
When owners Chris and Trace St. Germain ultimately closed Cal Skate’s doors in August of 2011, the loss was huge. There were 18 rinks in the Bay Area when the rink opened in 1977. Only five rinks remained after its closure.
By the end of May 2014, the South Bay’s last remaining roller skating rink at the time—San Jose Skate—couldn’t stave off closure, either, as demand declined since the 1980s. Formerly known as Golden State Roller Palace and Aloha Roller Palace, Liz Ruiz has since revived the name and worked to maintain the original rink’s legacy. She purchased its entire fleet of skates and negotiated moving into a dedicated space inside the Eastridge Center. The space caters to all ages and styles, especially newcomers looking to try out a pair of neon orange rentals before committing to spending hundreds of dollars on skates.
However, a hole is still missing in San Jose for skaters seeking spaces like Cal Skate that were historically kept alive by Black people and Black music—a culture masterfully captured in the documentary “United Skates,” including segregated “soul nights” and the strains of keeping hubs alive despite rising rents.
“[Cal Skate] was the place people from Oakland would go skate, people from the Bay would go there, people from San Jose would go there—that was the Bay Area hub,” Hackett says. “That was a place that was upholding the Black rink skate culture, specifically.”
Some dedicated South Bay skaters now opt to trek thousands of miles to destinations like L.A. and Sacramento—seeking out the music, dances, physicality, fashion and vulnerability that comes from being surrounded by like-minded folks.
Hackett says all the money and time spent on commutes, equipment, lodging and food are worth it; she can’t find those experiences anywhere else.
“There's music I haven't heard, people I've never met and skating that I haven't seen before,” she says. “It's physical, gives you those endorphins, you look good—even when you're sore—it's just so worth it.”
Having grown up in San Jose, Hackett tries not to bash on the city too much. While she doesn’t think there’s been enough time or interest for the South Bay community to have carved out its own skating style and culture, she remains hopeful about the possibility of cultivating local spaces and culture as the years go on.
But she says learning the decades of history behind roller skating must be vital to that growth, especially when folks are able to gain traction online as “influencers” without paying their dues or even unknowingly ripping moves off of legendary skaters in the community—an easier feat given skating’s quasi-oral tradition, despite troves of vintage skating videos available online.
“While I can’t name off a bunch of moves—it’s harder to track because it's completely visual—I think it's just important to be aware,” Hackett says, “Recognize that there are people who have been doing this for a long time and also deserve to be heard. Just because they are not as good at using Instagram, just because they are not as pretty or appealing in the current market of visuals, doesn't mean that they didn't put in the work.”
Skates Wanted: Dead or Alive
Beto “Mooncricket” Lopez, who first donned skates along Oakland’s sidewalks as a child in 1979, is one of several seasoned skaters who have dedicated their lives to keeping roller skating alive and visible. When he’s not teaching classes or hosting events in places like Campbell, San Jose and Oakland, he’s skating across the state, the country and even across international borders—Covid restrictions willing.
The 47-year-old Blaxican filmmaker has documented hundreds of hours of this history since he first hit record on his parents’ video camera in 1992. However, he increasingly found himself alone or alongside a small group of his peers skating down at Lake Merritt.
“Before the pandemic, we would get a little sad wondering, ‘Where is the new generation?’” Lopez says. “It was just the OGs all the time. Who was going to take over and continue the tradition?”
But once the pandemic started turning life upside down in March 2020, Lopez said that answer quickly materialized with a “bang.”
An activity once steadily declining in the United States—comparing nearly 20 million participants in 2006 down to 11.5 million in 2016—roller skating thrived as an outdoor, distanced activity after the start of the pandemic. The surge was so high—and the supply chain so backlogged—that sold out inventories continue to plague newcomers.
Minnesota-based Riedell, one of the nation’s largest manufacturers, outsold its capacity when workers resumed production in May 2020, overshooting by about 50,000 units. One inline skate company’s sales increased more than 300% by July, and experienced its largest shipping month in the past 20 years.
Before TikTok, Instagram or YouTube, the website SkateGroove.com was a gateway into local events and fellow skaters. While the format may be different, Lopez is thrilled to see more bodies strapping on skates, as long as newcomers understand the craft never died—social media simply expanded its reach.
“The way I see it, it’s not a comeback, it's just another new wave of skaters,” Lopez says, countering innumerable articles from publications like NBC News and BuzzFeed, framing the attention as a trendy lockdown resurgence. “People are paying attention now. We see that as a good thing because that means it's not going to die, it's not going to disappear.”
Skating in Circles
Roller skates have already withstood the test of centuries.
According to “The History of Roller Skating,” John Joseph Merlin invented the first wheeled skate in London in the 1760s. The common two-by-two configuration arrived by 1863, courtesy of a New York City furniture maker, and the United States’ first dedicated “rink” was constructed in Rhode Island a few years later.
Popularity surged as skating morphed to meet different cultural demands—a stress reliever during World War II, the hottest buzz music amid the 1970’s disco fever, a fluid venue for hip-hop DJs the decade after.
Yet, skaters still find themselves spinning their wheels trying to find a forever home in San Jose’s public spaces.
San Jose Roll Call organizer Lucy Chavez says it can be exhausting fighting for their own haven like Lake Merritt or Golden Gate Park—most recently through holding space at City Hall’s Rotunda—as their efforts have failed to gain much traction.
“If you live in San Jose, you don't get that real estate—that feeling of a community,” Chavez says. “[Downtown] is a good space to have it every Thursday, and we're gonna continue to have it here.”
While co-organizer Justin Triano frames their “rebellious” work demanding public places to skate as their own modern-day “Footloose,” he says at its core, skating culture thrives when it provides a sense of sanctuary—specifically an atmosphere not dependent on alcohol or drugs—that is welcoming to all.
“San Jose doesn’t have that space—manufactured or organically. There's no space for skating to thrive or gain culture, and people will lose it,” Triano says. “It’s really easy not to have anything in San Jose, because Oakland, San Francisco and Santa Cruz are all right there. We should have a much stronger culture, because it’s flat and warm year round. But we don't ever really invest in ourselves, because it's more work to do that than just going somewhere else.”
Farfan is holding onto seeds of hope that the South Bay’s roller skating future will blossom, especially providing a sense of belonging regardless of income, location or ability.
“I get this emotional high thinking about it, and being [15 years] sober, this is what I thrive on these days,” Farfan says. “To do something like roller dancing, where it's physical and we're exhausted by the end of the day, but we're all smiling—we need a space to do this publicly.
"We are building community, we feel like we've helped save lives during the pandemic, and it feels like this is just the start for us.”