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Skaters by Alice Zoo • Photo Gallery

Bio

Alice Zoo is a photographer and writer based in London. She is interested in the processes by which people construct meaning for themselves, often in the forms of ritual, celebration, and recounted memory. Her work has been exhibited in public institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery, Royal Photographic Society, and Royal Albert Hall; included in exhibitions such as the Magenta Foundation Flash Forward, Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, the Royal Photographic Society, and Photo Vogue Festival; and commissioned by publications including Creative Review, FT Weekend Magazine, and The New Yorker. She has written extensively on photography in print and online for publications such as British Journal of Photography, 1000 Words Magazine, Magnum, and PYLOT.

“Everyone was bored, so everyone was skating.”

Walking in the parks in London during the long months of the pandemic summer, every so often the anxious tension in the air would be cut through by the sudden rush of a group of roller skaters, zipping back and forth along the Serpentine at speed, or moving together in coordinated dance routines. It was hot in London: spring was one of the warmest and driest on record, and summer came with a series of heatwaves. Music played from portable speakers; people sat on the grass, stretching one another out. The air felt good on those evenings, with its long sunlight and drifting willow seed, and the speed and the skill and the athleticism. And it wasn’t just in spite of the pandemic; in fact, this was something that the pandemic’s restrictions actually made possible.

Ayisha, 22, known in the community and on YouTube as Ayy Skates, explained to me how lockdown brought it about. “No one was out. It gave us the opportunity to come out on our skates and be free. All of the roads were empty, so it gave us a chance to skate anywhere.” Like many others in the community, she found herself on furlough, and with so much time to practice her skating began to improve dramatically; soon after that, she found the rest of the community, who’d all been feeling the same thing. “It’s definitely changed a lot in my life,” she says.

Ayisha is part of a south London skate collective called Wavyon8, of which Shakeel Kidd-Smith is a founding member. The group had just started to attend rink events together when the pandemic shut all the rinks down, but the effect was far from disastrous. “Lockdown was a blessing in disguise,” Kidd-Smith tells me. As exercise was one of the only activities permitted under government rules, skaters started to head to open air spaces to practise, finding other skaters there when they arrived. “Everything kind of fell in place to allow it to happen,” he describes. “We have all the time in the world, the best weather, and the community was finding each other… It’s brought the community together, and given skating as a whole more substance, more meaning and more value.”

Another Instagram page, WatchMyWheels, is run by Dre “Bantzz”, who also found his following flourishing as spring turned into summer. “The UK scene is very small. So for it to grow now, during lockdown, is amazing,” he says. Dre posted about skate linkups at parks across London and numbers kept growing. “I had no idea everything would do so well, but we’re here now,” he says.

All of the skaters I met with shared a desire to shine more light on the rollerskating scene, and to build the community by encouraging new members, even total beginners arriving to a linkup alone. “Everyone is more than happy to teach anybody else,” Kidd-Smith says. “Observe, practise, ask a question if you need a little bit of help.” Skills and routines are also passed around online. “We all link, from UK to US; everyone respects skaters in different areas, we all learn from each other,” Kidd-smith says. “I might see someone in America do something I’ve never seen before, and then I’ll message them on Instagram and they’ll give me a little bit of insight on how to do it.”

Before this year, the IRL skating community were aware of one another, but would tend to attend rinks in their cliques or friend groups; this summer changed all that. “Because of lockdown we’ve connected on a deeper level: it’s allowed us to talk to each other more, to organise things with each other more, we all communicate more,” says Kidd-Smith. “We’re building a sort of skate family.” The community is very gender-balanced, perhaps unusually for a sport. “Online, you’ll see more women, because they’re more enthusiastic with it,” says Dre, “But when it comes down to the events it’s a pretty mixed bunch.” In London, the community is mainly made up of Black skaters — many of the rinks are Black-owned, and “a lot of the integral stuff that happens in the background is Black-orientated,” says Dre, but everyone is welcome. For Kidd-Smith, the priority is openness above all else: “We all just come together, no matter what background or ethnicity you are.”

In a year of so many restrictions, it’s worth noting how often skaters described loving their sport for a similar reason. “I feel free. It just gives me freedom,” says Ayisha. “I would compare it to flying, almost. That’s what it feels like. It’s just bliss, I just feel at peace. When I’m skating I don’t think about anything else.” When I took her picture in early autumn, we chased the sunlight as it appeared and disappeared behind clouds, laughing at how little time we had for each shot as the light would rise and fade, rise and fade. I left when it had finally disappeared completely, no light left to shoot with. Like most evening linkups, the groups stayed on for hours. “People would wait until the sun was slowly going down,” Ayisha told me later on the phone, “and then we’d just skate into the night.”

Bio

Alice Zoo is a photographer and writer based in London. She is interested in the processes by which people construct meaning for themselves, often in the forms of ritual, celebration, and recounted memory. Her work has been exhibited in public institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery, Royal Photographic Society, and Royal Albert Hall; included in exhibitions such as the Magenta Foundation Flash Forward, Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, the Royal Photographic Society, and Photo Vogue Festival; and commissioned by publications including Creative Review, FT Weekend Magazine, and The New Yorker. She has written extensively on photography in print and online for publications such as British Journal of Photography, 1000 Words Magazine, Magnum, and PYLOT.

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