Skating is a freak of nature compared to traditional sports, or even other “extreme” activities. It evolves at such a breakneck speed that new generations of skaters have no idea about different strains that came before them. Entire styles are bred out when they become too weak. In the short space of a decade, freestyle skaters around the world learned this. Their type of skating went from being a significant part of skateboarding to … well, nothing.
“Artistic expression in freestyle can take infinite forms, but some of the key elements would include musical interpretation, one or more changes in tempo and/or mood, and the evolution of a feeling or idea through the course of a routine,” says Dan Gesmer, explaining a freestyle contest run. “And all of these elements must be supported by technique that is constantly progressing and harmonized with genuine style–if anyone knows what that term means anymore! There is a classic and timeless dimension to performing skateboard routines choreographed to music on flat, open spaces.”
Unfortunately, performing to music on flat, open spaces, for all intents and purposes, was wiped from the face of the Earth when street skating devoured it and spat out the parts that didn’t taste right. From the 60s until the dawn of the 90s, freestyle contests and demos were held all over the world, and every major board company had a couple of freestyle pros. After the last major contest in 1990, where the anemic crowd of bystanders who stumbled across the outdoor event made it clear: freestyle was pulped road kill. The rest of the industry quickly skated away without looking back.
Now, just like fashion, everything old is “new” again. You can watch reruns of old TV shows on Nickelodeon’s TV Land, and now you can watch retro skating at a slalom or freestyle contest. And it’s rawer than ever. Compared to the good old days, when it was the mellower, nerdier brother of vert, freestyle is now–in a way–more hardcore than it’s ever been. It’s not popular compared to street or vert, there’s no money in it, at least not yet, and corporate America hasn’t sank its teeth in to take a bite. Freestylers are skating because they love skating, with no distractions from money or fame.
In November of 2000, Dr. Bill Robertson, a freestyler and Ph.D. holder from New Mexico, organized the first major pro-freestyle contest in eleven years in San Francisco. He worked a deal with the organizers of a bike contest who allowed him to use their event space when they were done. Former Powell Peralta pro Kevin Harris and Stefan “Lillis” à…kesson tied for first. Since then, grassroots contests have been popping up around the globe with a growing number of participants. But you probably never heard about them. “We have had several freestyle contests lately and none of the commercial skateboarding magazines covered them,” says à…kesson. “They only cover what the majority of their readers are interested in, only what sells. They have no vision of promoting skateboarding and the beauty of skateboarding.”
Five years before the contest, when freestyle’s popularity was so low that enthusiasts developed the bends, Swedish freestyler à…kesson wasn’t giving up. Gesmer attributes freestyle’s revival to the longtime Swedish champion: “In 1996 he began publishing a freestyle magazine, Flatline, which he distributed internationally free of charge. Around the same time, à…kesson also formed the International Network of Flatland Freestyle Skateboarders (INFFS).”
“I never considered freestyle to be dead,” à…kesson says, when I asked him how he felt trying to keep freestyle alive. “Yes, it was dead in the media, but freestylers all around the world were still into it. Some of the top pros had moved into the industry, but they were not the only freestylers on this Earth.”
The INFFS is also a Web site where freestylers around the globe can connect. “I joined forces with à…kesson as coeditor of Flatline from 1997 rough 2000,” Gesmer says. “By then the ?zine had morphed into the INFFS Web site, now known as F Magazine at www.reversefreestyle.com/f/.”
Across the world, Bob Staton hooked up with Gesmer and à…kesson, and they organized the World Freestyle Skateboard Association in California. The WFSA is “the proactive arm of the INFFS,” according to Staton. According to its Web site, the “WFSA acknowledges freestyle skateboarders as whole and complete individuals with many goals and responsibilities in life both in and outside of the freestyle community.”
“We want to revive the art of freestyle and preserve it for the future,” says Bob Staton, the founder of the WFSA. The association has area reps who do whatever they can to encourage the growth of freestyle. Lynn Cooper, a rep from Denver, Colorado, recently made a video, and Casper Industries also made a movie that delves deeper into the history of freestyle.
“I recently completed a high-concept artistic freestyle video with Finnish filmmaker Robert Kitilla, who worked with Stacy Peralta on most of the early Powell Peralta videos,” says Gesmer. “To prepare for the taping, I dropped fifteen pounds and went into full fitness training! I expect the three-minute piece to find broadcast slots on European TV and hopefully beyond.”
Capital and Reverse Freestyle are two companies that produce freestyle products. à…kesson, a pro for Reverse Freestyle, has a pro model designed like a traditional freestyle board. Narrower and shorter than a street board, it’s basically symmetrical in shape with a mellow, upturned snub nose and tail.
Both Staton and Kevin Harris say that the most encouraging aspect of these contests is the number of young freestylers popping up. Everybody expected the retro crusties to blow the dust off their freestyle boards, but nobody really expected to attract fresh kids so fast. “Seven or eight years ago, I was embarrassed to pull out my freestyle board at a skatepark,” says Harris. “It was too close to the end of freestyle. Now when I do it, kids get all excited.” According to Staton, a growing number of the hundreds of WFSA members are kids aged sixteen and under.
One contribution to the renewed interest in freestyle came from the master himself, Rodney Mullen. The odd thing is that he’s better known as a street skater now. But that doesn’t bother a lot of freestylers. Harris, for example, uses a street board. It’s the perfect evolution for him. A board with a longer, upturned nose and straight rails. He likes it better than any of his pro-freestyle models. Apparently it doesn’t slow Mullen down, either. Check out his part in the new Globe video, Opinion, it contains the best traditional freestyle footage seen in a decade–on a street board. Mullen apparently feels confident enough to incorporate more of his roots, and by doing so, is making the greatest contribution to street skating in the past few years.
Mullen will take an ancient trick like the Casper and build a street trick around it, creating something nobody had even thought of, freestylers and street skaters alike. And the new breed of street skaters have let him know what they think of his mixture of old-school freestyle and street. Mullen won the 2002 TWS Readers’ Poll Award for Best Skater.
“Freestyle can never be as big as street skating,” says à…kesson. “Street skating is more of a lifestyle, whereas freestyle is more of an athletic art. The freestyle tricks we do are not harder than street tricks, many times our tricks are even easier, but freestyle is so much more than just tricks. Just watch the top pros in a contests and you’ll know what I mean.”
But what may be responsible for freestyle’s rebirth is that enough time–almost a generation–has passed. Kids look at the past with no direct experience with it or preconceptions. No magazines or videos or pros have told them if it’s cool or not. And Harris thinks that’s exactly the point: “Street skating is now incorporating more and more of freestyle, and it adds something to the entire skating scene.”ing more and more of freestyle, and it adds something to the entire skating scene.”