Published on July 17th, 2013 | by Guest Contributor0
Charlie Horsepower by Eric Korn
By Charlie Jenna Stone
On toes, crouched low, ready to sprint. Hummingbirds for fingers, twitching at your sides, fluttering with half excitement, half fear for your life. Ribs rattle from the incessant pounding of your heart. Blood rushes to your face boiling off the sweat accumulating on your brow. Tunnel vision. You can only see knees suffering from nervous earthquakes and the mobile roadblocks hovering inches from you, so close you can smell their pungent agitation. They eagerly await your arrival, hopeful in their destiny of bringing forth your annihilation. Half of them will let you pass, but the other half, oh the other half, they want to destroy. They want you to die. Perhaps not extinguish your last breath like the hands of a toddler forcing all of the air out of a Barney birthday balloon, but to murder your determination. They want you to give in, be willing road kill, an apparent suicide. They want your spirit to die. You know once the man calls out, “Five seconds,” and that whistle blows, that you must not let them succeed. Two minutes, just two minutes. You just have to survive a maximum of two minutes and you will be honorably discharged from your duties. You can do anything for two minutes, even if that two minutes is an attempt to escape the confines of purgatory.
This is not a dramatization, a reenactment of a post-apocalyptic marathon, nor a remake of The Running Man. This is just what it’s like to play roller derby.
According to an article published last year by the Virginia Pilot, roller derby is simply a, “contact sport played by two teams of five members roller skating in the same direction around a track. Game play consists of a series of short matchups (“jams”) in which both teams designate a scoring player (the “jammer”) who scores points by lapping members of the opposing team. The teams attempt to assist their own jammer whilst hindering the opposing jammer—in effect, playing both offense and defense simultaneously.” That doesn’t sound all too complicated or even all that brilliant, so what is it that excites such a riot in the hearts and minds of thousands of women around the world? Thousands of dollars are spent a year, relationships and free time sacrificed, all for what? No one gets paid to play roller derby. People may get paid to coach occasionally, but this is not a single person’s full time job. We are all volunteers. In fact, we all pay to play. We pay for rink time, practice space, gear, clinics, uniforms, traveling, and for any and all injuries that will most certainly arise. We volunteer our time to a world beyond the skating alone. It is not just practice that creates a strain on your body and brain. Teams are run by themselves. One might expect that these glamorous maidens of the flat track leisurely varnish their faces with glitter war paint, purposefully and decisively unmatching their sexy text socks prior to a bout, not a care in the world, but this is a tragic falsehood. Stereotype as you wish, but be wary that all of these women in their short shorts, tutus, glitter, and sweat are business women at their core. All that you see in roller derby is because these women said it must be so. The hours off the track by far surpass those on. Fearless, their passion is undeterred by failures, fractures, or blood splattered rink rash. Bills must be paid, jam lines laid, and a true love commitment, unconditional at its core must be given for derby to succeed.
A majority of the time, it is not love at first skate. Fear courses through the veins of some girls. It overwhelms and consumes them. They don’t get a thrill from getting elbowed in the stomach, to smell the rancid and still-wet-from-sweat-at-practice-three-days-ago safety equipment. It is not a sport for the squirmish, for the faint of heart. Those that have extreme personal boundaries will not last long. Low pain tolerances and those who will not graciously accept criticism need not apply. Derby dreams die every day on the flat track once the initial thrill disappears. It is not easy, as sexy, or as straight-forward as most had hoped. Roller derby defies its own stereotypes. This is to the dismay of those whose embryonic love for the sport stems from them. The sad truth is that for most, playing roller derby will be a small blimp on the timeline of their lives. They are deserters. They pine for the roots of modern-day roller derby, scoffing at its evolutionary form.
Roller derby began in 1935. Throughout its evolution it has seen times where it was overwhelmingly entertainment-based, where fights would break out, planned and staged in their roots, unbeknownst to the fans cheering from their couches and the crowd. When roller derby began its ascension from under the radar again in the early 2000s, it kept this uniquely staged drama, much like the world of professional wrestling. Vulgarity and sexualization of the sport created a purely for-entertainment purposes game. Penalties were served by spinning a wheel that would stop on risqué consequence. For a back-block major you were perhaps spanked by a line of people from the crowd, instead of the much less embarrassing stay in the penalty box now that is the repercussion for straying from the rules. The thrill of being a vixen on roller skates, and the points of cool accumulated drew in a crowd of spectators and skaters alike. Unfortunately for those who found their place in this kind of derby, they would be abandoned soon like the exploits of our youth that we grow out of. These Barbie dolls and G.I. Joes would no longer have room in life or in roller derby.
Biologically speaking, modern roller derby girls have genetic make-ups similar to that of the average human. Despite popular belief, scientists have recently debunked the myth that roller derby is a group of women on roller skates wearing lingerie and attempting to demolish each other with their fists. These women do not all carry the “Warrior Gene” (although when you are on the receiving end of someone relentlessly smashing you with their entire body, it may seem so), their alleles have not twisted and mutated, psychological flaws are not the common trait amongst the thousands of women and girls that have come together to play. Nor do they all have tattoos and pink hair, or bullet-holes for ear lobes.
There has to be something in common that all of these individuals share; some form of homologous structures at their core. We gladly accept and thrive on the never-ending challenges posed. The transient nature of game play, with its ever-changing rule set and strategy become an addiction. We get high on the smell of burnt rubber from our toe stops slamming into and streaking the polished wood floors. None of us were the most popular girl, all fitting somewhat outside of the traditional social hierarchy in life, but social leprosy is not a defining characteristic. Are we all thrill-seekers? Athletes? Counter-culture enthusiasts? Yes, yes we are. There is something else though too, something not so tangible. We all might just be slightly masochistic.
It may not be divine pleasure achieved from the friction burns, bruised and battered egos, or broken noses, but we wear them with pride. Overcoming the pain transcends all other achievements. Being able to say that you survived a sternum check from Kimpending Doom dwarfs all other forms of life’s pain. It is an escape from the monotonous void that is life part of the time, or most of the time depending on who you are. The roller derby community can shelter you from the chaos of your existence. For many it is the net that catches you when the scales tip and balance is lost. From the moment you lose your maiden name, your life has changed. People will no longer know you as Cecilia, but as Re-AnimateHer. You won’t be the girl you were in high school, but the woman you’ve made yourself on the track. It’s a chance to change your stars, your birthrights are void, and you are whoever you are meant to be.
The girl looks in the mirror. She wears thigh high striped red and black stockings held up by a mid-century white lace garter belt, 1950s style matte black high waistline shorts, and a belly-button bearing cropped red Lycra top. Each hair has found its ideal niche on her head, each and every eyelash has been strained to reach the peak of its potential, and her lips have been stained the color of blood. A year ago, this girl would have been appalled by her own destiny to dawn this uniform. In fact, she would have been appalled even looking into the mirror at all. But much like the creatures of the primordial ooze, she has evolved, and this girl today is just having a normal Saturday night.
I did not know what I was getting myself into the first time I laced up my skates and put my cheaply formed mouth guard in. It made me drool and spit when I spoke. Audible grunts and moans escaped my chapped lips. Sweat molecules combined with mascara to cause partial blindness, and my cheeks were eternally red; the sign of discomfort. I was terrified. Would I be good at this? Would the bullying from you youth follow me here? I did not want to be that girl anymore. I needed something to change my perspective on myself. It had been morphed and skewed. I saw a Picasso in the mirror each time that I could conserve enough courage to even look. I did not have the strength to overcome the decrepit demons that followed me into adulthood alone. Maybe this would be my salvation from myself.
The moment that I made the team, that moment that I could scrimmage, my life forever changed. The first time I jammed, my heart raced. It was the scariest moment of my life. I failed. I was destroyed. Something happened as I returned to the bench as a defeated wannabe warrior. I was intoxicated by the freedom of making it through the horde of blockers. I had finally earned my name. The honor of having a roller derby name, that thing that your sweat and tears go into creating; your persona, well she had finally been born. She was a new woman to me entirely. She was one that I actually liked. She was sassy, and for the first time in my life, this woman felt sexy. She was sexy. She was the woman that I was always meant to be. If I would have known that all it would take was putting on a pair of skates and some high waisted short shorts for Charlie Horsepower to be a part of this world, I would have come out of the womb rolling.
Something so simple: ten women, five from each team, a race against each other and the clock, all on roller skates. One exceptional woman from each team dawns a star cover on her helmet. She is the jammer. She jukes, runs, jumps, and jams herself between blockers to gain ten seconds or less of freedom as she crosses one leg over the other, seeming to defy the speed of light. Her red and black striped stockings blur from the power of her form. She is everyone’s hero in that moment. She is her own hero in that moment, and once in a while, that woman is me.