London's Roller Skating History and Future Collide

Roland Ramanan's photos of London dance skaters capture a scene from its 1980s roots to warehouse parties happening today.

“The Dojo,” a car park in north-west London.

Mikie Dread used to fall asleep with his roller skates on. This was in the early 80s when he was still in his teens, living with his sister in a south London council estate. When he wasn’t working in his parents’ all-night minicab office in Dalson, he’d get up in the early afternoon and skate to Trafalgar Square, carrying a ghetto blaster playing dub or reggae, trainers tied around his waist with a beer can stuck inside. He’d hang on to the back of red Routemaster buses, cross the Thames over Westminster bridge, pass Big Ben.

In the centre of the city he’d skate non-stop, blast music for a b-boy crew who’d collect coins from tourists, pick up promotional discount fliers outside clubs and sell them on to the people in the queue, then spend it all on slot machines and arcade games. His style wasn’t so much about dancing as it was about getting lost in speed, dodging people, flying around backwards, making friends. There were times when he’d come back and pass out in his bed without even unlacing his skates. “Then I’d wake up, brush my teeth, wash my face, stick my hand in a box of Frosties, take a munch of that, and I’m off again.”

Now in his fifties and severely vision-impaired due falling off a roof while working, Mikie still makes appearances at roller skating meet-ups around London. His life in-between charts some of the major milestones in the city's roller skating history. He skated at legendary Kings Cross venue Bagley’s when it was still an empty shell of warehouse “with the worst floor you’ve ever seen.” He remembers bladers turning up at Trafalgar Square at the end of the Nineties, and his “love-hate relationship” with them: “If you see a roller blader you’re going to see cones; a quaddie’s worst nightmare.”

Mikie Dread sits outside his flat with his skates in front of him. He's wearing a blue tracksuit.

Mikie Dredd outside his home in Southwark, South London.

It’s not always easy to chart the history of roller skating in London, as vibrant and extensive as that history is, and the part played by people like Mikey can be erased by time. But Roland Ramanan is doing his best to connect some of these dots. A former special educational needs teacher who lives in Bow, he noticed quad skaters for the first time when taking walks in Victoria Park during lockdown and started taking their photos.

Roland had previously created a photographic project focused on the people who hang out in Gillett Square in Dalston, many living precariously. When he came across the roller skaters in Vicky Park, he was drawn in by the music, the familial sense of group support, and the “bedrock” of Black culture and creativity that’s foundational to the scene.

As with Gillet Square, skate meetups allowed people to forge a loose, lively community without paying to enter the corporate-owned social spaces that dominate the capital. “The quickest way to make friends is to put a pair of skates on,” Mikey says. “The camaraderie between skaters is different. You’re instantly like-minded.”

A roller skater throws b-boy moves on the floor, in a car park, in front of a crowd of other skaters

Hakim Saber at the Dojo.

Although he’s working towards turning his portraits into a book, Roland set up an Instagram account to share his photos with the skaters and spark conversation. There you can see portraits of Mikie at home, with his skates and in front of his record collection, Jamaican flag hanging from an extension cord above crammed shelves. The comments are peppered with the word “legend.”

Stories and photos of other London roller-skate OGs, like Wayne Gordon, are up there, along with people like Ishariah Johnson, who’s been active on the scene for a decade; and a younger generation of “skatefluencers” who are working to positively impact their communities. One of these is Skate Tingz organiser Amir; one of Roland’s photos of him has been chosen as one of 100 winners of the British Journal of Photography’s Portrait of Britain prize.

Another is youth worker and musician André Ashley. He only started roller skating in 2019, but his meet-up Watch My Wheels has had a big impact, with big, vibey dance- and speed-skate gatherings outdoors in the summer and in car parks during the winter. He has also worked hard to include those who can’t afford skates, fundraising for loaner pairs for local kids to borrow, and put out a track called Dip & Glide with another skater, known as Ancestral Sensei, in the summer of 2021.

A roller skater practices moves against the backdrop of a London street

Reon Robinson tries out skates he has been modifying with his dad in their Ilford garage.

It’s a funny, laid-back love letter to roller skating in London, with shout-outs to everyone from roller derby and hockey players to speed skaters, veteran dance skaters, newer stars, and everyone packing out car parks during the pandemic. Airwaves wheels get a mention, as do the Flexlite ice skates that people pull apart and drill roller skate plates onto. “So many boots in the whip,” one verse goes, “you’d think I was a wheeler dealer.”

On Roland’s Instagram page, there’s a series of portraits of André, along with an interview excerpt. “If anyone was to ask me to describe what love is, it’s the feeling every time I see my wheels,” Dré says at one point. “The surge of excitement and adrenaline funnels through your muscles every single time.”

Together, the photos help illuminate roller skating in London as more than a lockdown fad or way to blow off steam at some goofy hen party. It’s a community that celebrates its history—intertwined with the evolution of music, dance and nightlife; often at the margins of mass consumer culture; and shaped by generations of Londoners with roots in the Caribbean, among other places.

A roller skater sits on the pavement, looking up at the sky, as if gathering strength

Dom Charles takes a break from solitary drill practice in a supermarket car park in Hackney, East London.

It’s also a community that’s always changing and levelling up: car park parties during the pandemic, YouTube tutorials, Instagram Live Chats. There’s the fresh influence of trained dancers who had fewer opportunities to perform and practice during lockdown, and turned to roller skates for a chance to flow in public and connect with others. Performers like Frankie J, Hakim Saber and Johnny Montero, Roland says, “bring incredible physical dance skills to skating, and they’re already raising the bar. They can do things on skates that people who’ve been skating for a long time can’t do.”

The scene could shift again when a new roller disco, Flipper’s, opens in London in 2022. It’s run by the daughter of the guy behind the original Flippers Roller Boogie Palace that launched in Los Angeles in 1979, where musicians like Prince and the Go-Gos played while Patrick Swayze and Cher danced on eight wheels. It’s an example of how roller skating’s present and history keep colliding. It was a photo of Cher roller skating at this time that first introduced the concept to an enthused ten-year-old Mikey Dread.

In the meantime, there’s lots going on now, in permanent dance-skate spaces like Roller Nation and weekly or ad-hoc nights like Fix8 and Sk8City, as well as in car parks, skate parks, actual parks and on the streets. Roland’s documenting as much of it as he can, sometimes laying on his back in the middle of the action at a jam-packed Roller Nation, taking shots as wheels spin past his head. He’s constantly blown away, he says, by the “dedication and intensity” of the skaters he shoots, and tries to capture the “sensuality” of the movements and physical interactions. “It’s a real area for self-expression.”

Ishariah Johnson dipping at a rink

Ishariah Johnson at a Wavyon8 event.

One night that he has described as a particularly out-of-body experience was a BYO-skates night at a riverside warehouse in Hackney Wick, where DJ and dancer Frankie J played house and broken beat with his roller skates on. Roland’s photos show white beams of light cutting across a pink and purple glow, as skaters dip, pose and drop to the floor, b-boy style. “It was a concentrated atmosphere with a lot of experimentation and inhibitions being shed,” Roland says. “I remember standing there, thinking, people should see this to believe it.”

Photos by Roland Ramanan

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