Friday, November 12, 2010

A Crash Course in Roller Derby

note from Dawn: This was written while working on an article for Downtown Life Magazine in Merced. Special thanks to the Merced Rollin' Roulettes, Bryce Robinson of Roll-er Land, Kim Gong, Roulette's coach, and Tom Price, publisher of the DLM.

Nacho Mama—whose derby name was suggested by her husband because she’s always telling him, “I’m not-cha mama”—asks “Hell” if she’ll give me a quick course in falls. While the thirty-odd other women continue their warm-ups, we skate to the far side of the roller rink—Roll-er Land in Merced, California, a well-worn facility near downtown that hosts school and church fundraisers most weeknights, and that hosts the Merced Rollin’ Roulettes practice on Tuesday and Thursday nights from 8-10 as well as their home bouts.

I’ve been outfitted with a pair of rental skates from behind the counter—the same type and color I wore the last time I roller skated, in 1982 or 83, toward the end of high school—at another Rollerland in another California city. Back then, my stomach filled with butterflies over boys, wishes, and daydreams—I’d skate in circles as the disco ball turned, my mind’s eye picturing possible futures. None of them—I can safely say—looked anything like the life I’ve grown into. And I certainly never thought I’d be learning roller derby from the inside and writing poems and articles about the derby world. However, I wouldn’t trade this life for the soft-focused waterbed world I floated toward back then.

Besides the old brown skates, I’ve been loaned knee, elbow, and wrist pads, and a helmet, and now I begin what Hell tells me is my journey in trusting my gear. I quickly learn four different falls—a fall for all occasions, though I doubt I’ll ever be able to manipulate the way I fall while I start to feel myself teeter while out there in the thick of the game.

Within fifteen minutes, I’m skating straight out and diving into what’s known as the “Superman” fall—and I am, indeed, flying—and feeling like the “rock star” of another fall’s nickname.

“Belle Wringer” switches out with Hell to train me and another newbie. Belle, who in her day life is an administrator for a veterinarian and mother of two, continues my fall practice and gives me a quick course in “hitting”—which is a bump with the shoulder of the other girl’s shoulder, and best if started from in front and below the target. This seems easy enough—when standing still next to the other new girl, but getting beside anyone on skates while in a practice scrimmage is another story.

Kim Gong, the Merced Rollin’ Roulette’s coach, has generously invited me to learn about the game from the inside while I’m working on a news article about the team as well as a series of persona poems about derby girls. He kept telling me I had to play to really understand the game. I secretly wanted to play, but thought I was too old, or too out of shape. All my excuses ended up batted back at me. Some of the key players are older than my 44 and some players came in starting with a shuffle and sticking near the walls as they skated around the rink.

While I was doing the warm up laps, trying to speed up after the whistle blew for a timed speed run, the cross-over technique came back to me. And when we stopped for water, I remembered how to rex (skate backwards), and a new confidence rose in me.

This confidence was quickly lost while being played in all the different positions during scrimmages. I could only laugh at myself as the blockers blocked my jamming, as the jammers ran my blocking, and I was the only pivot in the history of pivots who wasn’t born with eyes in the back of her head.

Unfortunately, laughter is not good for physical stability, and as a joke, Randi—aka Anita Ley—gave me a pretend hit, lightly bumping me with the weight of a feather—and I fell to the ground which resulted in more laughter, along with a great photo opp.

They gave me a sense of the kind of encouragement the team offers each of its players, rooting my name as I finished out the night as part of a relay team, encouraging me to push to skate as fast as I could.

In the parking lot, I chatted a while with Connie Zimmerman aka Karmagedon, who, as she tried to describe derby to me, kept finding herself at a loss of worlds, “It’s unbelievable, unbelievable,” she repeated. “Karma” indicated that on her own, she was very little compared to the power she felt when she became a part of the group of derby girls. She chalks much of that power up to the fact that it’s a very physical game, one in which requires trust in each other and your teammates and physical contact.

A few days later, when I called Zimmerman on the phone—feeling awkward like I was a schoolgirl trying to ask someone “will you be my friend”—I said, “It sounds like you think of derby as a spiritual experience.” She agreed. There’s something in the power of the group, that particular group—all the women I talked with agreed that when they put on their skates and were with each other that the worries of their lives—kids, jobs, home-life, etc—melted away—and there was nothing but the game and the players’ bond with each other.

I realized as I drove away that first night on skates that I’ve already been pulled into the center of a warm, powerful sisterhood. And there’s no turning back.