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These Photos Perfectly Capture the Roller Disco Scene of The 70’s

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Remember when people wore roller skates to parties, instead of Kanye West‘s famous Adidas sneakers? Ah, the groovy 70’s, the roller disco era, when skating expanded out of the sports world and into everyday life.

Roller skates were invented in the 18th century, but suddenly in the 1970’s it felt like wheels were attached to everyone’s feet. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, disco music was also introduced to the world. The two fabulously merged into what we now know as roller disco.

A Disastrous Debut

John Joseph Merlin, a Belgian, introduced his metal-wheeled roller skates to the world at a London party in 1760. That’s right, roller skates were invented before America was. His plan was to skate into the salon while playing a violin. But skating takes practice, and Merlin was lacking in it.

Roller skates, New York

New York City Department of Parks & Recreation

Another issue was that his roller skate prototype wasn’t engineered for turning. Merlin ended up crashing into a mirror and wounding himself, but his creation paved the way for an iconic cultural phenomenon. It’s safe to say his magician namesake wouldn’t have made the same mistake.

Skating as an Advertising Tool

Much like smoking and other fads, roller skating was such a powerful cultural force in the era of bell-bottoms and untamed hair that it could be found in movies, advertisements and music. More than a fad, skating was a cultural force to be reckoned with.

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Television shows, including Charlie’s Angels and CHiPs, featured roller disco, and vinyls displayed young people wearing funky outfits and skates. While clothing advertisements today typically top off the outfits they’re promoting with a neutral shoe, like Chuck Taylors or Timberlands, eight wheels reigned supreme in 70’s ads.

Repping Your City on Roller Skates

Much like with other sports, American cities developed their own skate styles. Chicago made a name for itself through JB skating, said to be named after soul icon James Brown. Wacky footwork and standing dance routines, like the “big wheel,” “gangster walk” and “crazy legs,” embody the JB style.

Roller skates

Boy’s Own

For our younger readers, that’s “crazy legs,” not to be confused with the “stanky leg,” which hip-hop group GS Boyz released in 2009 and certainly doesn’t involve roller skates. It’s not clear whether GS Boyz or Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em are fans of roller disco.

Playboy Playmates and Plastic Wheels

The 1970’s brought significant improvements to the roller skating industry. Flooring improvements and plastic wheels enabled smoother skating. Music and lighting systems at skating centers were also modernized. Those improvements fed the cultural phenomenon that is now largely extinct.

Brooke Shields, roller skates

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Per usual with cultural fads, 70’s celebrities were all in on it. By the end of the decade, Playboy Magazine held a “Roller Disco and Pajama Party,” which was aired on primetime television. It was enough make anyone buy a pair of skates.

An Era Long Gone

Just like eight-track tapes and Atari consoles, roller disco is largely a thing of the past. Some might say skating is akin to calling someone over the phone instead of texting: It’s just not something people do anymore.

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The groovy method of transportation had a cultural impact on the 70’s in astronomical proportions. But as of now, it seems we can add roller skating to the list of extinct social activities, along with dial-up internet and gun dueling.

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