At the beginning of February this year, I got some incredible news. I had passed assessments and was now a member of the Black n Bluegrass Rollergirls! Sounds cool, right? But what you can’t know is how long and hard I’d worked for it. I started helping out at derby practices last year in April. My friend, Shaken and Stirred, had joined the league and that was her first season. We all know what derby looks like on the surface: fishnets, short skirts, attitude, beauty, and skates. It sounded fun. I imagined myself in a derby outfit, similar to what I’d worn 15 years before on a weekly basis at the old Warehouse nightclub sans skates. Now it sounded even better. Come and help,she said, We always need people.
So I went one Thursday, the night they practice scrimmage. I walked in the door of the practice space and looked around. It was frightening. There were 40 girls skating around the track when I got there, warming up. They were in full gear: helmets, knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, mouth guards. Like hockey players in tights. I watched their faces as they went by me: determined, sweating, angry, desperately straining. No one spared me a glance at all, including my friend. I managed to find a seat on a bench, amongst all the empty equipment bags and tried to shrink into myself. I felt out of place and awkward. What was I doing here?
Later on, I’d come to realize they were doing a drill called the Push-n-Pull. Everyone lines up and the girl in front pulls the entire line of girls behind her, each holding on the hips of one in front of her, with no help from any of the others. After a half a lap, she falls to the back and pushes the whole line once again with no help. Itâ€™s grueling and hard as hell. Everyone’s holding onto you, the weight pulling at your hips, so you bend over forward as far as you can to avoid being pulled backwards. You’re afraid to wheel lock anyone, so you’re kicking out to the side – not the normal skating movement. You’re digging your toe stops into the super slick floor and praying you don’t fall over. Each step forward is an achievement, a triumph, a step closer to-Someone-Else’s-Turn. So now I know why they didn’t have time for me. How can you watch the sidelines for a new person, when you’re trying to stay upright by force of will and pulling 10 girls along with you?
But that day, I didn’t know that. I thought about leaving after 20 minutes with no one saying a word to me. My friend, Shakes, rolled over to say hello, but she was panting and sweating and clearly just wanted a drink of water. Then, one girl, with shocking orange hair in pigtails, came over to me. She wasn’t skating, but she looked like a skater. Striped knee highs, her face pierced in at least 6 places – oh and don’t forget the derby attitude. It oozed out of her pores like sweat. But she was nice and she was the first person to say hello, and I’ll always love her for that. She introduced herself as Emma Peelout. I quickly forgot it, and I’m sure she forgot my name about 10 seconds before that. She handed me a clipboard and a piece of paper and told me to keep score. I had never been to a derby bout. I had no idea how someone even scored points during the game. She pulled me to the center of the track and told me to watch one guy, a referee. After each jam, he’ll tell you the score, she said,There’s a black team and a blue team. You’re watching the blue team’s jam ref. And that was the extent of my instructions. Okaaay. I stood there, feeling dumb, as a group of girls lined up on the track.
Then the whistle blew. For the next hour and a half, at the end of each jam, the jammer referee yelled out how many points the blue team had scored. I faithfully wrote down each one and tried to keep a running count, unsuccessfully. But in between, I watched. I watched some fly into each other at top speed, hearing their shoulders smack, as one girl would knock another completely off the track and onto her butt. I watched the girls with the stars on their helmets (jammers) speeding around the track, stepping agilely around opponents hopping from one foot to the other, fighting their way through the main pack of girls, and in one glorious moment, one of them jumped the apex of the track – one leg outstretched like a ballet dancer, leaping into the air at the turn and coming to land in front of the entire pack on one foot, never losing her balance and continuing to skate. It was amazing. I watched the blockers working together, pushing each other into the opposing team, like slingshots. They’d fall down, they’d crash, they’d get back up, and skate hard to catch up. They would wall in the jammers with hard shoulders and big hips. I watched one girl get hit so hard, she curled up in a ball, and when she could finally stand, she took off her helmet and threw it across the floor in exasperation. And my only overriding thought was, I want to do this.
When the night was over, I stood outside by my friend, glued to her side for comfort. One pretty pink haired girl, with glittery cat eyes, sincerely thanked me for helping out. Her name, I learned later, was Mellkat, and like Peelout, she made me feel a little more welcome. Some of the girls introduced themselves and I once again forgot every single one’s name. And they flat out told me they wouldn’t remember my name. “What’s the point? Someday you’ll have a derby name, so why bother learning your real one?”
“So what did you think?” asked Shakes as we walked to our cars.
I’ll be back next week, I said.
And I was.