Stories Punchberry Jam - james simpson

Published on December 10th, 2012 | by Punchberry JAM


Punchberry Jam - james simpson

Roller Derby: The Great Social Equalizer

Part 1 of Roller Derby Makes Me Brave

Two years before I wiggled my feet into a pair of rental skates and ever heard the terms plow stop, rink rash, or derby wife, I saw my first bout. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel that first time. I’d seen the pop culture hoopla about derby, and I had some vague ideas about this alternate universe. I was nervous, wondering if I’d be cool enough, gritty enough, something enough to fit in with the crowd. Here’s what I learned:

Roller Derby is the great social equalizer. It is a land of freaks and geeks, of unshaven blue collar men and smoothly shaven young people of indeterminate gender, of interracial couples and Girl Scout troops. You can be yourself at Roller Derby, and it’s all good.

I arrived at the skating rink early on a cool spring night, hoping to snag a ticket at the door for this Steel City Derby Demons bout. On my way to the entrance, I passed a cluster of men and women hanging out near the side door ― the door that the insiders used, the entrance that means “I’m with the team.” They were dressed in biker black and were smoking cigarettes. Suddenly it seemed like my outfit (a navy dress over jeans with a little lime-colored cardigan), the one that feels so funky in my suburban neighborhood, marked me as a newbie, a roller derby virgin, a goodie-two-shoes who couldn’t hang with the big girls. But I kept walking, head held high and eyes averted. I glanced to the left to see if anyone had noticed me, and here’s what I noticed: Nobody gave a damn.

Waiting in line turned out to be a microcosm of diversity. I struck up a conversation with a man who reminded me of my father’s factory worker friends. I told some young hipster guys that yes, they were in the right line for tickets. A geeky guy bummed an American Spirit cigarette from one of the hipsters, and then had to ask for a light, too. A young woman in a wheelchair told the small crowd, “If they say the tickets are sold out, just pretend you’re with me and I’ll look real sad!” Not long before the doors opened, my husband arrived, fresh from work, and even he didn’t look out of place, despite wearing a dress shirt and slacks and being the only non-white person in sight. No one batted an eye, because damn, this was roller derby, and we were all here to have a good time.

At this point in the story, maybe you’re like: What’s with all the judging-books-by-their-covers? All I can say is: Appearance is the first thing we see, so yeah, I’m a bit of a book-cover-looker. But I’m less concerned with judging others than of being judged. And now, maybe you’re like: Whoa! Insecure much? And I’m like: Well, yeah, occasionally I’m insecure despite all my efforts to be a strong, confident, self-actualized person, maybe-just-maybe I sometimes worry in new situations. Just because I act like I’m all self-possessed and brave doesn’t mean I’m not shy and cumbersome on the inside, okay? And now you’re like: Um, okay, chill out and stop putting words in my mouth, because, dude, I’m just trying to read about roller derby. And now I’m like: Frickin-a!

Inside the building, the joyful melange of people expanded. I didn’t feel out of place at all, because it was impossible to stick out. Goths and punks and bikers co-existed peacefully alongside whitebread families with adorable toddlers. There was no baseline for normal here, which meant that everyone got to be beautiful and wonderful in their own way. If only the rest of the world were as integrated as the crowd at a roller derby bout!

Dare I say it? Roller derby is the key to world peace.

I suspected then (and I know now) that roller derby is the only thing (besides sex) that could convince me to enjoy sweating. I’ve never liked to exercise or do anything that requires me to catch my breath. I’ve always been a sedentary sort of person, but I’ve also had secret dreams of speed. I used to fantasize about flying around the ice as a figure skater, but now I’m hooked on old skool roller skates. The spandexed people of California can keep their inlines. Give me a boot with four wheels, one at each corner of my foot.

I watched those women skate and block and fall, and I wanted to be one of them. I was so quiet during the game that my husband asked me if I was bored or tired. No. I was focused, intently studying the techniques of this beautiful, bizarre game. I’d never played or cared about a sport in my life, but there I was, trying to figure out if I’d be a better blocker or jammer.

When I told a friend that I wanted to be a roller derby girl, she said, “You’re too nice for that.

“Oh, I have a dark side,” I said.

But I know what she meant. I’m not the kind of girl to wear fishnet stockings, to have tattoos or piercings, to know how to move my body in time to the rhythm of music and skates, to be strong and confident in my own skin. But I could be. I tap danced for eight years as a kid, and I’m sure one of those costumes came with a pair fishnets. On Saturdays my dad would drop off my friends and me at the roller rink, where I skated with all the bad-assery I could muster at eleven-year-olds, moving in time to Tina Turner’s “What Love Got to Do With It?” round and round that rink like I owned it, even though I had no idea what the song was about.

Sometimes I feel like 11-year-old me had more bad-ass potential than 30-something me does. Knowledge may be power, but innocence has a force all its own.

It would take me another two years to muster up enough of that innocent courage to strap on some skates and inhabit my inner badass. But once I did, there was no skating back. Watching that first bout was just the beginning of an unexpected journey.

Punchberry JAM is a writer, editor, and creativity coach who lives in landlocked southwestern Pennsylvania and dreams about the ocean. She skates with Westmoreland Roller Derby and dreams about passing the WFTDA skills test the first time she takes it. When she’s not playing derby or writing about it, she’s working on a collection of essays about spirituality and landscape. You could call her diverse. Visit her in The Word Cellar, where you could call her Jenna McGuiggan.

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