I consider myself to be “transportationally challenged” – that is to say, I can’t drive a car, ride a bike, ice-skate, ski or swim (at least not in a way that doesn’t endanger others, given my aggressively flailing limbs). Any method of moving from one place to another aside from walking eludes me.
It’s probably no surprise to hear that I can’t rollerskate, either. To me, rollerskating borders on black magic. I watch in awe as pros pull off precarious moves with the nonchalance of someone taking a stroll to the corner shop. It’s an enviable, effortless kind of cool, exemplified by the Berlin-based rollerskater Oumi Janta, whose videos went viral during lockdown. Last June, she posted a clip on Instagram that featured her rollerskating while dancing – backwards. It garnered more than 2.9m views and helped launch a cabal of rollerskating influencers.
Google searches for “rollerskates” had already started to rise, with global searches for the word increasing by 77% between March and May 2020, when, months later, the fourth season of The Crown furthered the fervour with scenes of Diana, Princess of Wales whizzing her way through Buckingham Palace. So when thinking about how to escape my comfort zone, I plumped for the activity that had the potential to make me look the most stupid, but also, if I managed to pull it off, the coolest.
I arrive at Roller Nation in north London on a damp and dreary afternoon, desperate to get my rollerskating lesson over and done with. Glimpsing knee pads on a table as I step inside, I am struck with thoughts of how inevitable it is that I’ll fall over, but my nerves are soon calmed by the venue’s sparkling disco balls and my unnaturally patient instructor, Nele, the founder of the rollerskating school Isle of Skating in London.
My first topple comes about six minutes in and means Nele takes me back to basics, teaching me how to fall correctly – which is harder than it sounds. The trick is to land on your knees, rather than your bum. Having perfected the art of falling over, I feel slightly less worried about the likelihood of having to leave the venue on a stretcher. I am ready for more.
The second rule of skating, it seems, is multitasking: something else I’m notoriously bad at. Keeping your feet in, knees low, chest high, bum low, and arms in, while propelling yourself forward by shifting your weight from side to side is … difficult. All the while, you must avoid looking at your feet – Nele takes to asking me how many fingers she’s holding up, in order to stop me gazing at the floor and, ultimately, falling towards it.
After many unsteady laps around the rink, walking like a penguin on my skates with Nele holding my hand, I am surprised to see I am absentmindedly skating solo. Who would have thought the phrase “practice makes perfect” might have some truth to it? Leaving my comfort zone wasn’t exactly painless – I’m still nursing a bruised arm – but it was worth it.
I probably won’t be signing up to a roller derby or showing off my moves at a roller disco just yet, but I wholly intend to keep learning. I leave feeling buoyed up by the experience and hoping that, next summer, I might finally have the confidence to take on my lifelong enemy: the bicycle.