Shortly after the pandemic started, Mama Celeste, an Oakland resident and drag queen, decided to pick up a new hobby. “I started roller skating because I needed to leave my house and see the sunlight,” they said.
Now they skate two to three times a week. “It’s the only form of exercise I’ve ever enjoyed in my life,” they said. “It’s a great community of people who inspire each other to try new things and learn new tricks.”
This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.
Mama Celeste is part of a nationwide roller skating revival, with gatherings from Lake Merritt in Oakland to Central Park in Manhattan. Associated with the 1970s disco craze, roller skating first took off in the late 1800s and has long been an important part of Black culture. Thanks to TikTok, it has entered the popular consciousness once again.
As it so happens, one of the Bay Area’s newest parks, Township Commons, is great for all kinds of skating. Located on Oakland’s waterfront, the park was created by demolishing most of an enormous warehouse. The flat 4.5-acre site is encircled by a half-mile-long trail, with smooth asphalt ideal for wheels. Township Commons also has a large paved area that is as big as an indoor roller rink, and skaters don’t have to worry about being preempted by other uses, as is the case when using a parking lot or a basketball court. You also can’t beat the view.
The park inspired Mama Celeste to bring together the local drag scene—which had been languishing after venues closed due to COVID-19—and the local skate scene. They envisioned the paved area as an outdoor stage and the adjacent hill as informal tiered seating for audiences. Mama Celeste and their cofounder, Nicki Jizz, decided to start a roller disco party and drag show called Rollin’ with the Homos (a reference to the 1995 Coolio song “Rollin’ with My Homies”).
Since its launch in February, Rollin’ with the Homos has become a regular event, typically held on the fourth Sunday of each month, with an audience of a few hundred people. Each roller gala features several star turns; one highlight has been Beef Cakes’ performance to Beyoncé’s “Blow,” in which they perform cartwheels, splits, and other acrobatic moves. The only requirement is that the performers incorporate some element of rolling, inviting creative interpretation: one performer rolled down the hill, and another brought an office chair and pretended they were driving a car. (Attendees of the December 19 show will have a high likelihood of seeing a performance to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”)
On a Saturday afternoon in October, I dug out an old pair of clip-on recreational skates from storage and headed for Township Commons. I figured that my comfort level with figure skates meant that I could forgo protective equipment, which was a risky decision, given the chance of wrist fractures and other injuries; the recommended safety equipment includes a dedicated roller skating helmet, kneepads, and wrist guards. (Although I didn’t fall, I felt the beginnings of shin splints—and I might have put less pressure on my shins if I hadn’t been as concerned about falling.)
The park has a big wooden deck facing the bay, with wide steps next to the loop trail. I sat down, clipped on the skates, and moved forward cautiously; the railing that was there to keep people from falling into the water was my new best friend. Two friends on in-line skates zoomed past me, talking to each other. Along the path, Takiyah Franklin, an Oakland resident wearing a shiny purple unitard, was grooving to the music from a salsa class taking place on the main deck. My skates looked as though they could have been a passport to new worlds of fashion and music, as well as fitness, if I so chose. But they were also perfect as an excuse to go out for the afternoon and people-watch.•