Heart, Sweat & Derby

Heart, Sweat & Derby
Audrey Dimola for Missfits Magazine

It’s a Saturday night in New York City – music is pumping, the air is charged with energy, and the stands are filling in the Hunter College gym. A red, white, and black banner is hanging behind the announcer’s table – emblazoned with the visage of a fierce-looking lady sporting a sly smile, brass knucks, and a Statue of Liberty crown – as “jeerleaders” shake their shimmering pom-poms and skaters zoom around a flat blue track lined with electric pink tape. It’s the ladies in black versus the ladies in blue tonight as athletes such as the cheekily-dubbed Anne Phetamean, Megahurtz, Sexy Slaydie, Anaïs Ninja, Pippi Strongstocking, and Puss N’ Glutes are preparing themselves for the bout. This is the 2012 home season opener of Gotham Girls Roller Derby, and they are ready to blow your mind.

Modern women’s roller derby is a sport as much about skill and physical endurance as it is about altering the public’s perceptions, shattering expectations, and overcoming boundaries. Founded in 2003 and first bouting in 2004, Gotham Girls is NYC’s only all-female, DIY, skater-operated roller derby league, made up of four home teams and two traveling teams, all of which compete through the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association – the international governing body founded “by the skaters, for the skaters” to promote flat track derby. The WFTDA is a non-profit organization and so is GGRD – there are no salaried employees, which means there’s a lot more to roller derby than just skating around and elbowing people. These women are doing double duty as not only the competing athletes, but also the professionals who manage the administrative, promotional, and production needs of their organizations.

The pure passion these girls have for roller derby is immediately apparent – how else could they devote so much physical and mental strength to it, both on the track and off? Tonight at Hunter College, the Queens of Pain are up against the Brooklyn Bombshells in an intense reprise of 2011’s bout of the year, from which the Bombshells emerged victorious with a 149-139 overtime win. Sitting on the sidelines (in a tiny glittery hat!) is Dainty Inferno, a player from GGRD’s Bronx Gridlock team who has come to support her fellow derby girls. Miss Inferno, who just celebrated her five year “derby-versary” at the beginning of the year, doesn’t hesitate for a moment when asked what keeps her engaged in the sport.

“The energy. And it’s not just the energy of the game,” she points out. “I mean yeah, it’s a fast-paced game – but the thought that goes into it, too.. There’s a lot of planning and strategy. There’s also the energy off the track,” she says. “My team is a bunch of people I love spending time with, on skates and off skates. It’s a great network to have – one of the greatest things is that I can go to any place in the world that has derby and say, ‘Hi, I’m from Gotham Girls Roller Derby, can I crash at your place for a week?!’ and they’d be like, ‘Hell yeah!’” She laughs. “Once you have this thing in common, you’re instantly friends. That whole energy and sisterhood, and even brotherhood with the guys who play – that’s really what keeps you here.”

Dainty though she is, Miss Inferno also makes the case for how remarkably inclusive Gotham Girls is. “My thing is – people are like, ‘Aren’t you too small to be doing this?’ And, well – it takes all sizes. There’s definitely a range of sizes, there’s a place for everybody. I think the conception is that we’re all these big bruisers and we eat babies for breakfast and that sort of thing,” she jokes. “I think people think you have to have some sort of mean streak, too, and I’m like – no! We’re nice, we’re not mean! We’re not gonna punch you or anything! We’re everyday people just like you.. We just have an unusual hobby.”

In a few moments a lady in black and silver rolls off the track in helmet and gear to chat – there’s mere minutes before the bout begins and adrenaline is high. This is Splint Her’s second year with Gotham Girls and her first bout with the Queens of Pain. And what a bout to begin with – the crowd begins to roar over the echo of the announcer, and she raises her voice to reflect on her derby experience thus far: “It’s constantly a challenge – things just keep on evolving. It will never get boring! I think most of us are the type who don’t like to just sit in the gym and do the same thing every single day. This is always changing, always a challenge,” she shares before heading off to join her team on the flat track battlefield. “You have to be on your feet, thinking about what’s going on around you.. or else you’ll get knocked down!”

The bout tonight strikes the balance between grace and aggression, with the active players linking arms, hugging the turns, pressing against and through opposing team members, deftly switching directions, bumping each other out of bounds, and sometimes even hitting the floor as their teammates and coaches look on, both seated and standing around the rows of chairs in the center of the track. Em Dash, an All-Star player and vice captain of the Manhattan Mayhem in her fifth season with GGRD – who happens to be wearing a wicked pair of tights covered in punctuation marks – sits down for a few moments on the sidelines in between fielding press inquiries and keeping a close eye on the game. She offers an easy explanation of derby rules: “Each team will have a player with a star on her helmet, and that’s the jammer – and the four other people on the team are blockers. Each jammer wants to get past all the opposing blockers on the other team, then lap the pack, skate all the way back around, and then pass them again,” she says. “On the second and each subsequent pass the jammer scores one point for each opposing player she passes legally – so the blockers are trying to do both offense and defense at the same time.”

Sorting out the rules isn’t the only important point when it comes to derby education. The term “roller derby” was originally used to describe roller skate races in the 20s, but the foundation of the team sport we know today was laid in the late 30s. Roller derby then continued to metamorphose through the decades until flat track derby finally emerged relatively recently. For fifty years the sport was played primarily on concave or “banked” tracks, but starting in the early 2000s this new wave of derby – which is totally unscripted with real rules, fouls, athletes, and champions – started sweeping the globe. “Primarily I’d like people to know that [roller derby] really is an athletic endeavor,” Em Dash remarks. “It’s not all WWE, campy, fixed outcomes – because that’s the perception a lot of people have about it, and I think [2009 film] Whip It really helped to change that a little bit. But I’d also like people to know that you don’t have to have been an athlete for your entire life to play derby. It’s still such a new sport that people from all different backgrounds are coming to the sport, bringing what they have to it, and finding success in different ways.”

The roller derby of today fights to assert its authenticity, and its formidable female athletes are perpetually doing the same. “Typically in our culture men are the ones who are violent and aggressive,” Em Dash says, “so I think people are very surprised when they meet a woman who seems maybe a little bookish, and find out that she’s aggressive or violent – that totally doesn’t fit with their image of what a woman is, so I think that we’re working to expand people’s ideas of what a woman is.” The women of GGRD – who Em Dash describes as “passionate, hard-working, team-oriented, and driven to excel,” certainly break the mold, and the ladies competing at the season opener tonight are no different. The bout is hot all the way through, with both teams clawing tirelessly towards victory – tying and surpassing each other’s scores several times as the crowd erupts again and again each time a jammer breaks through the pack, until finally… The Brooklyn Bombshells once again force the Queens of Pain to submit with a 178-162 win.

The beaming Nikki Nightrain is one such elated Bombshell in blue, who has only been skating with GGRD since May. “Who is a derby girl?!” she exclaims at the question. “Any woman who wants to put on a pair of skates can be a roller derby girl. All it takes is a desire to do it and a willingness to learn, and if you want to challenge yourself and get fit and work with a team of amazing women, roller derby’s for you!” Mid-chat, a group of three little girls in Bombshell blue – one even wearing a bright blue wig – come up to her, all smiles. Nikki is clearly thrilled as she signs their souvenirs, poses for pictures, and engages them in sincere conversation. “Do you guys love roller derby?!” she inquires, to a loud affirmative shout from these special fans. When they leave, Miss Nightrain assures me: “That’s another reason I love roller derby. Having children – ten, eleven, twelve year old girls – come up to me.. I was just telling this little girl that I have a niece – she’s one of the most amazing people I know in my life, so it’s so great to see these young girls come out and see us doing something positive and working ourselves really hard to be good role models.”

Upon exiting the gym that night, it couldn’t be any clearer: roller derby is a full-contact sport, but not only in the way you’d usually imagine. These incredible women are constantly slamming up against stereotypes, age-old misconceptions, and straight-up sexist bias, proving – time and time again – that roller derby girls possess admirable physical strength, but also strength of the mind, and, of course – strength of the heart.

Find out more about GGRD at gothamgirlsrollerderby.com.

[PDF version in the magazine]

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