What Is it About Roller Derby?

I love roller derby. It’s one of the few team sports I’ll actually go to see. While I do keep up with general scores and standings of certain hockey teams*, and I’ve stayed up late to watch Ireland’s World Cup games, I tend not to watch team sports unless I know someone on the team. I’m much more interested in individual sports, like tennis and boxing, where I’ll watch a televised match or follow a tournament’s stats on Twitter. On the other hand, derby has been a part of my life for so long that I can’t stay away.

I grew up roller skating. There weren’t a lot of options for kids fun on a Friday night in the town I grew up in, but the next town over had a Roller King and my mom took us often. Friend’s birthday parties were held there. At least one school trip that I remember. We would line up in a queue, waiting to pay to get in, surrounded by decor that looked as if it were rejected from a bad Disney castle or Round Table Pizza. There was a food area, where could get sodas and pizza slices and popcorn, and a DJ that took requests but also set up mini skating “events” like fast skate, couples skate, black-light, etc. I was a middle-school kid when I went there (I think we stopped going when I was about 13), so I didn’t have a lot of chance for “couples skate” but I did the fast skate every chance I got. I loved to skate fast, to get down small and take tight turns, and even when it was the regular crowd skate I made a game of seeing how little I could move while still skating around people without touching them. I didn’t need anyone else, and could feel proud of myself for following my own rules: Never get between two people, never get in the way, just sail on by.

I couldn’t wait to get my skates on again each time we went.

When I was in my early 20s and living in the Bay Area I got to be part of a regular group of girls that skated a version of roller derby. We didn’t have a league, the WFTDA was ten years away from forming, but we were young and wanted to be tough and wanted to show that we were strong. Some of us came to it through dance (we had a few professionals) or martial arts or softball and a few just liked the idea. We loved the old school roller derby – most of us were old enough to have seen some on TV and the rest remembered the skate-heavy films of the early 80s (My favorite: Solar Babies). We formed a few teams, spent a summer skating bouts, and got a lot of bruises. It was fun but it wasn’t organized and it didn’t last.

When I moved to Sacramento a decade later, I discovered that roller derby was coming back, big. I used to go to bouts and watch scrappy, punk rock, women race around a track laid out in duct tape on a tile floor, and I missed the feeling of skating fast.

When my son was 2 and half years old, he was diagnosed with Autism. Living in California, we got “in home therapy”, which was a group of highly educated young women who came in for a few hours at a time, about 15 hours a week, to work with him on social skills and fine motor control and language. One of the women we got was Pegga. She was a roller girl, fresh meat for one of Sacramento’s teams**. She eventually moved up to being the supervisor of my son’s aides, so we’d have regular meetings, and afterwards we’d always end up talking about derby. She loved it, and I loved seeing how this resurgence of derby was affecting a new generation of girls.

Coming to the East Coast, I found myself at an Ivy League school where most of my classmates were much younger, richer, and local that I was. No one shared my commute back to NJ every night, and few people wanted to spend a lot of time hanging out with my small child. Living in a suburb of Trenton wasn’t exactly exciting – while my neighborhood is safe, it’s very dull. Everything closes early. There’s isn’t a cafe that isn’t a Starbucks. There are no museums, no mall, and just one small library. Great for kids, boring for me. Until I discovered that the Philly Roller Girls skated at my school’s rink.

This was big time derby compared to anything I’d seen before. Philly’s actually composed of five teams – three levels of regular derby, and two travel teams. The Class Of 1923 Arena is huge! It’s ice in the dead of Winter but the rest of the year it’s open to the Roller Girls, and I could get to their bouts by simply staying after class on Saturdays. There’s a NJ team that I’ve seen play too, the Jersey Shore Roller Girls, and they’ve got some great skaters, but it’s an hour each way to drive to Asbury Park to see their home bouts. Philly got my ass in their seats a lot more often.

And then I decided to move to Ithaca, NY. “Why?” I’m asked. “It’s in the middle of nowhere,” I hear. There are a lot of reasons, very good and important reasons, but I will admit – it’s partly because the town has its own league.

The Ithaca League of Women Rollers are fairly new, and in a lot of ways they remind me of when Sacramento was just starting out. They’re finding themselves as a team, they sometimes struggle to get volunteers and donors, but at the same time they’ve been giving back to their community. Not just by literally giving away a portion of their proceeds, but also in the Junior Rollers, an under-18 girls team they started to help build confidence and team skills among young women. How awesome is that?

Of course, when I talk about derby, I get asked a lot if I’m planning to skate again. I already have the requisite tattoos, right? The answer is yes and no. I have skates, I do go outside, and I do skate. I’m working on getting back into shape so I can go and skate whenever I want, for as long as I want. But will I ever be on a derby team? I don’t see it happening. I don’t have the time it takes to work hard enough to be a derby girl, to be that kind of athlete, and I don’t have reliable child care to make sure I could commit to a practice/bout schedule. But I support my teams (first Sacramento, then Philly, and now Ithaca) by buying their swag and getting myself to their bouts, and hopefully someday I’ll be able to volunteer as an NSO once in a while. I’m familiar with the rules, after all.

Until I move and get settled I have to take derby where I can find it. Luckily these days you can watch bouts from all over the world if your Internet connection is fast enough. And I managed to sneak two derby-related stories into my next anthology: one where the main character’s roommate is a derby girl, and another where the man character doesn’t skate but she is a kick-ass ‘Bluestocking’***, and that makes me smile.

Winter’s coming, so stories and recorded bouts will have to do for a while. I can’t skate in the rain or the snow and while I do have hard-wood floors, it gets a little boring to skate in my apartment (I’ve done it, but there’s nowhere to go). But don’t feel sorry for me. Spring will be here faster than you think, and then I’ll be able to get back outside, and get my skates back on. Eventually I’m moving to my lovely little town in the middle of nowhere… which will always be somewhere to me, as long as it has roller derby.

* Pittsburg Penguins and Trenton Devils

** Sacramento actually has two teams, the Sac City Rollers and the Sacred City Derby Girls

*** ILWR has two teams, the A-team (Sufferjets) and B-team (Bluestockings)

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