Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Dressed in an embellished red leotard and stockings, Kemps Corner resident Shriya Rao (10) stretches her hands, spins on a leg and showcases a three-minute Fox Trot on Madonna’s hit number, Material Girl. Then, eight-year-old Aahana Khemani and Ansh Marfatia perform some mean moves - they balance on a single leg with arms stretched like a bird, squat to resemble a teapot and even do a cartwheel - all while wearing ankle-length boots attached to roller skates, hidden under their stockings.

Ansh Marfatia attempts a cartwheel at the 54th National Roller Sports Championships in Noida
Ansh Marfatia attempts a cartwheel at the 54th National Roller Sports Championships in Noida

Training for over a year with 33-year-old Sweta Dattani Gandhi of Sk8art at Peddar Road, the trio was among 340 skaters from across India, and 21 from Mumbai, who showcased artistic roller skating at the 54th National Roller Sports Championships in Noida that concluded last Sunday. Held by the Roller Skating Federation of India (RSFI), affiliated with the world parent body Fédération Internationale de Roller Sports (FIRS), the annual championship is the only national level competition that provides a platform for artistic roller skaters from eight years and above, who are selected after rounds of district and state championships.

A class in progress at Prabodhankar Thackeray Krida Sankul in Vile Parle (E)
A class in progress at Prabodhankar Thackeray Krida Sankul in Vile Parle (E)

Dance on wheels
“Artistic roller skating is similar to ice skating. It basically means dancing on wheels, only more technical. This is the first time my students qualified for the nationals. Unlike speed skating and roller hockey, there’s not much awareness about the sport, especially in Mumbai,” shares Gandhi, a national medallist in artistic roller skating, who has been practising the sport for the last 15 years and coaching for four years.

Adesh Singh and Sweta Dattani Gandhi. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar
Adesh Singh and Sweta Dattani Gandhi. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar

She recalls, “In the 1990s, when I would compete at the nationals, Maharashtra was feared because the team would comprise about 80 skaters, and 15 of them would be only from South Mumbai. Now, there are hardly five.”

Where are the takers?
Gandhi isn’t off the mark. In a city offering speed skating classes in most neighbourhoods, only five coaches are dedicated to artistic roller skating, informs 40-year-old skating coach Pankaj Manihar. The reason: lack of students. “I taught this form for the past 12 years in Santacruz but the strength of students didn’t meet expectations and overhead expenses. Now, I only focus on roller hockey. The two students I had were sent to Adesh Singh,” says Manihar.

A 51-year-old Bareilly-born artistic roller skating coach, Singh is one of the most well-known names in the field in Mumbai. Back in 1988, she learnt the techniques from Argentine coach, Professor Arturo Grecco, credited for introducing India to this form of roller sport.

Training students for over two decades at Prabodhankar Thackeray Krida Sankul in Vile Parle (E), Singh has produced two international, eight national and 23 state medal winners. These include two-time national bronze winner Reeva Sakaria and 13-year-old Santacruz resident Prisha Thakkar, who won a gold medal at the just-concluded nationals and a bronze at The 17th Asian Roller Skating Championships in China, last October. “I was competing with 23-year-olds in the open category. I am proud to be the first girl from Maharashtra to win at this competition,” shares Thakkar.

While Singh says that she gets more enquiries now than five years ago, she admits, “Not many opt for it because it takes time to learn the skills. The competitions are few, so parents looking for quick results back out.”

Money matters
The sport is also expensive. While the coaching fees range from `1,500 to `6,000 per month (with coaches putting in extra hours during competition), the equipment ends up burning a hole in parents’ pockets. The specialised skates, featuring a toe brake and ankle-length boots, range anywhere from `25,000 to `80,000, per skate. “We imported them from Italy to be on par with international competitors,” shares Prisha’s mother, Bijal Thakkar. And that’s not where it ends. The cost of travel and stay during competitions is also borne by the skaters. “We even had to buy a jacket with the state’s name on it, something which the government should have sponsored,” reveals Shriya’s mother, Gayatri Rao.

Space jam
The ideal surface for artistic roller skating is a wooden rink. “But India doesn’t have any. So, we skate on cement flooring or Kota stone surfaces,” shares Gandhi, who ends up training her students at a building garage since she is unable to find space in the city.

“I have even written to the Mayor to help us get access to good floors but in vain. I can’t teach the students in a tiny space because floorwork accounts for 50 percent of judging criteria,” she adds.

The way ahead
Artistic roller skating as a full-fledged career option may be far fetched since it’s not part of the Olympics or the Asian Games (it was included only once in 2010) yet. However, parents are supportive. “It has improved Shriya’s physical strength, focus and improvisation skills,” shares Rao.

Singh is optimistic. “When I started, there was no professional training. Hopefully, our students will take up coaching and popularise the sport further.”

For enquiries, Call 9820461515 (Sweta Gandhi); 9867899955 (Adesh Singh)