“Roller Dreams” traces the disco-era rise of the Venice Beach roller dancing scene

By Jacqueline Fitzgerald

Sara Messenger shoots the duck in early 1980s Venice

How often have you traveled the Venice Boardwalk, watched street performers and wondered what their stories are? Director Kate Hickey can fill you in. Her documentary film “Roller Dreams” is a compelling and touching documentary about the roller-skating dancers of Venice Beach, some of whom have been sliding and gliding to a funky get-up-on-your-feet beat for decades.

“It’s an ode to old Venice, a sense of community and family, and what is missing these days,” says Hickey. “Those values are becoming lost.” It’s also a tribute to performers, their passion and “keeping the dream alive, no matter what” — particularly in the face of historic racism and cycles of gentrification.

“Roller Dreams” screens Sunday as part of the 16th annual Venice Film Fest at Beyond Baroque. Says Hickey: “It makes people want to put skates on.”

Roller skating became a popular leisure activity in 1930s America, and film buffs know Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced on roller skates in 1937’s “Shall We Dance.” Coinciding with the era of disco music, roller skating’s resurgence started with mostly African-American dancers in Venice and spawned movies like “Roller Boogie” (1979) starring Linda Blair and “Xanadu” (1980) starring Olivia Newton-John, both films prominently featuring Venice Beach.

For most people, the trendy pastime was a short-lived fad. But Venice roller skate dancers aren’t most people. The fact that they’d kept on skating surprised Hickey when she moved to Venice from Australia in 2007. She was especially intrigued with the old-school/OG folks.

“This was not the white-washed Hollywood version — they were from South Central Los Angeles. I couldn’t believe they were still doing it after all this time,” she said. “I was really fascinated and thought, ‘My God, look at how they express themselves.’ These guys were artists, and they were so extroverted. We’re not used to that in Australia.”

Having an “alien eye,” as she puts it, helped Hickey frame the story. Using current and archival footage, she spotlights six performers, tracing their ups and downs over the decades, and the family-like bonds they forge.

The group’s undisputed leader is the charismatic Mad (James Lightning), who precisely executes his graceful, seemingly effortless, moves. “Liquid poetry” is how his one-time dance partner Sara Messenger, aka Sally Piano, describes it. She joined the Venice group in 1982, though she’d always loved to dance and remembers dancing on skates at a roller rink when she was about 12.

The two dancers shared an instant connection. “He and I were so psychically tuned into each other,” she says. Being part of the group gave her a sense of belonging that she hadn’t felt as a kid growing up in Maryland. “Music connects people, and 99% of the interaction is body language. We know so much about each other that we’ve never spoken in words.”

Her all-time favorite song to dance to? “The one that comes to mind is ‘Shotgun’ by Junior Walker [and the All Stars],” she says.

Messenger likens dancing to “sex on wheels” and to freedom.

“It’s a beautiful integration — it’s sexy, it’s athletically challenging, it’s dance. There’s a social element because you’re part of a group.” And, she says, it’s sacred and spiritual. “When you’re doing a figure eight, it requires an enormous amount of trust. As you lean into that curve, every turn you make is like a prayer, or saying ‘I trust the universe.’ ”

Also a musician, writer and self-described “Renaissance gal,” Messenger, 64, now lives in San Diego. She still comes to Venice to skate and plans to appear at Sunday’s screening.

“I feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t roller skate,” she says. “You just don’t know what you’re missing.”

“Roller Dreams” screens at 8:30 p.m. Sunday (Jan. 27) as part of the Venice Film Fest at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice. No cover; donations requested. Call (310) 306-7330, visit laughtears.com or search Facebook for more information.

The Venice Beach Skate Dancers have also launched a fundraising effort to repave Skate Dance Plaza and will hold a Skate Against Hate event on Aug. 10. Search gofundme.com for details.

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