Let the Good Times Roll

On a recent Tuesday evening at a tennis court in Grass Valley, about a dozen women on roller skates were dancing in velvet short-shorts and patterned tank tops. There was not a man in sight. As I approached them and pulled out my laptop, the group slowly shifted from one side of the court to the other, edging away from me. I felt like I had walked into a Biden convention wearing a Trump T-shirt.

These women meet here weekly for a dance party on wheels, at this court whose name I agreed not to reveal to protect them from potential tennis player backlash. They also meet in Penn Valley. They range in age from their early twenties to mid-forties. They are mothers, business owners, beginners, seasoned vets: the goal is simple; practice a new skill, get away from responsibility, and have a damn good time doing it. 

Most tennis players have packed up for the day before 5:30 PM, when the party starts. The music plays loudly on a wireless Bluetooth speaker. The important thing is that the song has a good beat: Anything from Prince to Led Zeppelin and Biggie Smalls. Once the mood is set and laces are pulled tight, they freestyle. Some skate backwards and stop with grace, while others just try to keep from falling, arms out for balance. 

“It’s a wonderful way to meet people,” says Nevada City musician Cynthia Dawn, guitarist and vocalist of the band Mt Whateverest. Dawn says she fondly remembers the feeling of skating as a kid at the roller rink in Auburn, enjoying the lights, the music, and the physicality. Getting back into it as an adult during COVID has been a welcome release.

Photo by Annie Kendall

Roller skating meetups like these have exploded across the country.

Last spring, the need for a socially-distanced outdoor activity was on everyone’s mind. Smooth-gliding young roller-skater influencers like @anaocto, @sebeeychi and @kellllllllllls attracted hundreds of thousands of followers and copycats on Instagram and Tik-Tok. And by early summer, the groovy hobby of the 70s had reemerged as a mainstream craze. Public parks, parking lots, roads, skateparks, and backyard patios, became the arena for bow-legged beginners, and for those rediscovering the hobby. It became so popular that by July of 2020, there was a worldwide shortage of roller skates. 

Annie Kendall, artist and co-owner of Cosmic Shark Clothing in downtown Grass Valley, was ahead of the curve.

“I used to host these big roller skate parties three years ago at my old warehouse in Penn Valley,” says Kendall. “People would skate and buy clothes. We’d have live music. Over time it grew organically.”

After losing the warehouse just before COVID, Kendall moved the party to two separate courts on different afternoons, and interest has only grown.

While flat-ground roller skating is the most accessible entry point for beginners, bowl roller-skating — dropping into steep inclines to do vertical tricks — has also become popular. 

Grass Valley native Violet Moore has been roller skating since childhood. Her dad was a skateboarder and her mom competed in roller derby. In 2017, After being shown a video of a girl dropping into a steep bowl, Moore decided to dig out her old quad skates and give it a shot.

“I was living on the outskirts of Portland then and I was definitely the loner on roller skates,” says Moore. 

The feeling of personal freedom hooked her.

“I’m soaring through space and grounded to earth at the same time. It’s humbling. I love the feeling of gravity.”

After moving back to Grass Valley in 2018,  Moore started the Nevada County chapter of Community In Bowls (CIB), a global advocacy group for bowl skating. While the majority of skateboarders slept, Moore and friends went to the Condon Park skatepark to learn its curves and lines. And when the skatepark was officially shuttered during the first COVID lockdown last March, they built a mini-ramp in her backyard where they continued to practice. During bad weather, Moore goes to the Sk8Box, a new indoor skate complex built in 2020 by a local skateboarder, Moss Quaglia. 

Violet Moore skating at the Condon Park Skatepark

Though both Moore and Kendall emphasize that their groups are open and inclusive, they see roller-skating primarily as a female response to male-centric skate culture.

“I have always known the Condon skatepark to come off as dangerous” says Moore. “That’s why I brought CIB to Grass Valley. I felt like I could help fems feel empowered by skating and taking back some space we felt pushed out of decades ago.”

Despite the resurgence of roller-skating, few local stores carry the inventory to keep up with demand. Clothing store MINT, located in downtown Grass Valley, carries a limited selection of skates. And the Goodtimes Boardstore nextdoor only has bearings and other small parts. Most roller skaters still have to order skates and parts online, at sites like rollerskatenation and skatepro.

However, at least one local has recognized this as a business opportunity. 

Machinist Samantha Hill, who recently moved from Grass Valley to Sacramento, has been making custom order roller skates since the beginning of 2020. She sells her skates on her Instagram, @fatbottomed_quads.

“I tried to buy a pair of skates online and it was like a five month wait,” says Hill. “Then I had the idea, why not just make them myself? I have all the stuff.”

Hill starts with a flat soled shoe chosen by the customer. She charges between 250 to 350 dollars per pair. People send her pairs of Vans or Converse and she buys all the materials and turns them into skates. 

“I cut and shape everything myself to fit the person’s shoe,” says Hill. “The pair of plates, wide trucks if the customer wants, bearings, wheels, toe straps, laces.”

A custom pair of skates from Samantha Hill

Hills says she’s made two to three pairs of custom skates each month since last March, predominantly for women.

For the women roller skaters meeting at the Grass Valley tennis court, fashion is part of the fun. But it goes far beyond that.

“It’s a way to enjoy friendship, recreation, and skill-building without very many strings attached,” says Christina Griffin, a Nevada City mom and school district employee. “It’s been nothing short of revolutionary.” You don’t need much gear, you don’t have to drive very far, and no matter how much of a novice you are, there’s a community to learn with.

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