“When boys and girls support each other that’s when the magic happens.” The women taking up space with a Greek roller skating revolution
By Alex King
Photography by Mark Leaver
The late-summer sun is beginning to set over Drapetsona on the Athens coastline. In the distance, islands rising out of the waters of the Saronic Gulf and enormous ferry boats coming in and out of Piraeus port are silhouetted against the dark orange sky. From the hulking ruins of an old fertiliser factory, all the way around the point to the ferry terminal, a long strip of smooth new concrete stretches along the waterfront — perfect for the urethane wheels of roller skates. And that’s why, this evening, a community of female skaters are here to check out this new spot. Skating as a pack, the girls cruise together beside the ocean, swerving between the benches and trees, freestyling and encouraging each-other to try spins and grabs. As the last sunlight disappears, the lights on the wheels of their skates glow ever-brighter in the enveloping darkness.
Athens is an unlikely place for a female-led roller skating revolution. It boasts perfect, almost endless summer weather, but the city is densely packed, chaotically planned and spread across steep hills. The state of its pavements and public spaces often leaves a lot to be desired, due in part to Greece’s crippling economic crisis, which also took a heavy toll on support and infrastructure for young people. But women won’t let any of that stop them: they are using skating to create their own communities, through groups such as Patinia, and online with City Skaters of Athens and Syeah Skate, they express themselves and forge a new relationship with their city. Whenever they show up at male-dominated skateparks, they stand together to demand inclusion and respect — and in 2020 their story was immortalised in the short documentary, Athena Skates.
One of the original groups, ‘Chicks in Bowls’ (known as CIB) was born in 2015 and it was just a small part of a movement that today spans four continents. “It all started in 2012 with Lady Trample, who is an amazing girl and roller derby pro from New Zealand,” explains skater Constantina Xafi. “She started this whole movement to make safe spaces for female roller skates at the skatepark, so they wouldn’t feel intimidated by skateparks full of men. Lady Trample’s vision is super, super nice and it has spread around the world, empowering women and bringing them together.”
Skate culture has always been a boy’s club. Of all the types of riders who call the skatepark home, on skateboards, BMXs, scooters or inline skates, it’s only the roller skaters who are mostly women. The last decade has witnessed a major push to make skate culture more inclusive and accessible to women; from supporting more female pros to boosting girls-only skate nights. Yet, despite huge leaps forward in female representation, skateparks are still male-dominated spaces. In Greece, long one of the most socially conservative countries in Europe, patriarchal attitudes die hard — and that’s reflected in Athens’ skate culture, too.
“There are definitely problems in skateparks, just as there are problems in society,” explains Eva Balasi. “The skatepark is like a small society. There will definitely be malakas [a world-famous Greek slang word that roughly translates as ‘wankers’] who believe that the space belongs to them and who won’t let you do what you want to do. Not only because I rollerskate or because I’m a girl, but because they believe that they can do something better than everyone else.”
“It is male dominated, however the way we talk about it, in all skateparks,” Constantina adds . “But since I understood what feminism is and what patriarchy is, I just don’t put up with bullshit anymore. We all roll: you deserve space at the skatepark, whatever level you are or whatever type of person you are — as long as you’re not a dick. I don’t see borders in roller skating: for me, feminism is about spreading equality. When you see boys and girls supporting each other that’s where the magic happens.”
The rolling family the girls have created today numbers around 30-40 skaters, whose ages range from late teens to mid-30s, and it’s growing all the time: open and inclusive to all who want to come along and skate — male or female — as long as they bring a positive attitude. They share clips from their sessions on Instagram and anyone is welcome to reach out. That’s exactly what artist and architect Foteini Korre did when she saw a roller skating scene growing in the Greek capital. She has fond memories of her first session with the CIB crew. “I enjoyed falling over all the time and pushing myself,” Foteini remembers. “I loved that I was doing new things with my body and I felt so supported by the girls. The sense of achievement at the end just made me feel so accomplished.”
Athens is blessed with many things but big municipal skateparks aren’t on that list. If you want to skate ramps, you don’t have many options: some suburbs have small parks but many of the best spots have been built by skaters themselves. Linking up with other girls makes the journey to a distant park or spot an adventure rather than a chore.
“It’s nice to explore the city on skates but it’s not ideal, not so easy,” Constantina explains. “We don’t have so many skate spots that are roller skating friendly. But once you start hanging out with people and skating regularly you meet people. They tell you about new spots that are nice to skate, so you can go and check them out and discover new places.”
Constantina and Eva are regular skate partners and tonight they’re deep into an evening session at the Vyronas mini ramp, nestled in the forest beneath Mount Hymettus. After burning through all their energy, they’re lying at the foot of the big concrete ramp, trying to catch their breath. “Most ramps in Athens are built for skateboarders and are tall, slippery and dangerous for quads — like this one,” reflects Eva. “I was really scared to come here again. Ever since I fell and broke my leg here, I’ve seen it in my dreams. Each time I see myself fall and I break my leg in a different spot.”
In March 2019, Eva, a fashion photographer, broke her shin in two places. Yet, even with a 34 cm titanium rod in her bone marrow, two screws in her knee and two more in her ankle, she couldn’t stay off her skates. A month and a half after the operation she was skating again despite being told to take a six-month break. “I had to do it, it was what made me feel good,” she explains. “Skating is how I’ve met all these interesting people I hang out with. It was too hard to stay away for long.”
“Skating is about falling,” Constantina adds, thoughtfully. “When you fall, you have to get up and stand back on your feet. Then you laugh, you fall again and you won’t hurt yourself.” Constantina is one of the driving forces of this particular group. She works in theatre, founded her own screen-printing business and volunteers as a teacher with Free Movement Skateboarding, who offer free skateboarding lessons to young Greeks and refugees. She’s also working towards her dream of creating a skatepark full of bowls suitable for roller skaters but open to all — regardless of who they are or what they ride.
Style is an important part of roller skating and the girls ride a steezy range of skates, made mainly by Chaya and Moxi, the brand run by US skate legend Estrojen. But roller skaters aren’t obsessed by gear; which makes it more accessible and helps to explain why it has taken off in Athens. Once you have your skates, the city is yours: you’re free to cruise wherever you like.
“The thing I like most about roller skating is that it brings me together with others,” explains Lydia Panagou, who has become one of the group’s most accomplished skaters. “Roller derby is interesting but it’s more of a sport. Roller skating is much more free: you can go out whenever you want and relax with your friends. There are no limitations or rules and no-one is judging you. You do whatever you want, whatever level you’re at. You develop, evolve and go further because you want to, not because you’re trying to win — you are always a winner. I mainly do street skating because that’s what allows me to express myself most.”
The sense of freedom, community and self-expression is what brings more and more girls to join — they even have crews from other cities passing through, who reach out to skate together. And as the communities grow, the more impact they have on the wider city. After coming back week after week, year after year, everyone at the skateparks is starting to accept that Athens’ female roller skaters are here to stay.
“When I started going to skateparks many years ago as a skateboarder, there were no girls,” Eva remembers. “Now, I feel really happy that whenever I go to skateparks around Athens, I will almost definitely see other girls skateboarding or roller skating. When there are lots of girls together, we inspire each-other to attempt more tricks, hit the ramps harder and generally be more dynamic in the space. We can teach new skills or be shown what we’re doing wrong, which helps your skating improve much faster. It’s encouraging to me to see so many girls skating these days. It shows that we are progressing, not just as a community of roller skaters, but socially, too.”