Down and Derby: The Insider's Guide to Roller Derby
By Jennifer Barbee and Alex Cohen
Paperback, 224 pages
Soft Skull Press
List price: $14.95
If reading the rules of the game didn't scare you away, you might now be asking yourself, "Am I a derby girl?"
We remember very vividly the days we asked ourselves that same question. We both wondered if we would be tough enough, athletic enough, rock-n-roll enough, or hot enough to stand up to the other derby girls.
Back then, in 2003, the L.A. Derby Dolls league was only months old, still skating with its figurative training wheels. We had no notion of what to expect when we showed up to our first practices. One of us was a lapsed athlete worried that she'd encounter a rogue pack of SuicideGirls in an inked up beauty contest on wheels. The other was a 5'2" thirty-one-year old, fairly certain that her size and childhood dread of P.E. class would make her instant meat in an Amazon sandwich.
We arrived at Skateland, the Derby Dolls' practice venue back then, where an unlikely shift change was about to occur. Deep in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, the parking lot was teeming with excited women waiting to begin practice, looking as though all they had in common were their ovaries and the skates slung over their shoulders. Strains of Christian rap music filtered out of the front doors, accompanying an exodus of teenaged holy rollers and making way for the entering derby hopefuls.
We met brainiacs, brickhouses, and will o' the' wisps. We laced up next to tattooed punk rockers and elementary school teachers, cops and reformed delinquents, loudmouths, and wallflowers. We were relieved to realize even though there were tough girls who embodied all our imagined fears, there were also plenty of others who looked just like us. They also skated just like us—which at that point, wasn't saying all that much.
Then again, back in our early days of skating, things weren't quite what they are today. This version of roller derby was so new and skaters were so scarce that if you showed up — Congratulations!
You were on a team. In more recent years, the standard of play has escalated to heights of athleticism scarcely imagined back when we first ironed out our strides. To watch a game today — with all the screaming fans, jarring collisions, and lightning strategy — and think, "Hey, I can do this starting tomorrow!" is truly a brave aspiration.
The skaters in their war paint and personalized uniforms look like a gang straight out of The Warriors. They are intimidating.
The action is raw, and painful-looking. Bones are broken on a regular basis. This is something that people do for fun? You're damn right it is. Catch a skater coming off the track after a game and look in her eyes, and you'll see something confident and attractive. That's called pride. Tenacious new girls by the dozens step up every month to learn how to get that look for themselves.
Of course, it had to be more than quads and chromosomes that brought us all to the rink, right? Is it an elusive set of inner desires, something wrong in our heads, or perhaps a genetic disposition to be a capital-B Badass? Maybe it's an outlet for people who like to think of the word "can't" as a challenge rather than as a dead end. Or an all-consuming hobby for those who have always wanted more than they were allowed, and weren't afraid to get physical to get it.
Natily Blair, a.k.a. Ginger Snap of the Gotham Girls Roller Derby, once put it, "You don't become a rollergirl, really, you realize that you are one already." But maybe you're still not sure if this describes you. Maybe you are still asking yourself if you have it in you. If you haven't already run out to buy your first eight wheels, maybe this quiz we've devised can help you decide.
1. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of roller skates?
a) Jam skating to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" at the local rink when I was a kid.
b) That Baywatch-esque rollerblading phase I was in back in the early nineties.
c) The horrific memory of all those skating parties I spent clinging to the wall as a child.
2. Which of these best describes the amount of free time in your schedule?
a) Let's put it this way, I've seen way too many reruns of The Golden Girls lately, so I'm wide open for an exciting hobby.
b) I'm pretty busy with work and family, but I still try to take some time for myself.
c) Things are crazy; I barely have time to answer this survey.
3. What would you do if you got a black eye?
a) Immediately take a picture of it and put it up as my Facebook default.
b) Slap a steak on it and hope it goes away before anyone starts to worry about me.
c) Stay home until I could cover it with makeup, because I can't stand going out looking less than perfect.
4. How would you describe yourself socially?
a) I'm the life of every party. I love to be the center of attention . . . or so I'm told when I wake up in the yard wearing someone else's pants.
b) I can seem a little shy when you meet me, but I come out of my shell after a while. Or after a few tequila shots.
c) I try to avoid crowds, because strangers really creep me out.
5. Your friends invite you on an extreme sports vacation, how do you react?
a) Heck yeah, man! I'll try anything once, and probably twice. Let's go, like, yesterday.
b) I'm not into sports, but my friends are fun, so I'll give it a shot.
c) I don't like sweating, and team sports are totally gay, forget it.
6. When you see an Ultimate Fighting Championship match on television, what do you do?
a) Play a drinking game for each time someone bleeds.
b) Pretend to be reading my copy of US Magazine, but take note of a few good moves for self-defense.
c) Iron my tie-dyed "Give Peace a Chance" t-shirt, then go out and combat senseless violence with free hugs.
If you answered "a" to most of these questions, you are definitely roller derby material. You are no stranger to roller skates, you're not afraid to get out there and try new and potentially dangerous things, and you've got time to devote to a new hobby. Essentially, you have "Potential Derby Cult Recruit" tattooed all over you.
If you answered "b" to most of these questions, there's hope for you for sure! You might not think you are very bold and adventurous, but that fire in you isn't just heartburn. Trade those roller blades in for quads and introduce yourself to your inner badass.
If you answered "c" to most of these questions, roller derby might not be for you. It looks like your schedule may not permit you the practice you need, and the potential for injury in front of a big crowd could scare you off derby. But, if the fact that we just suggested that you can't do this makes you so irritated that you want to try anyway . . . there might just be a rollergirl in you yet!
Excerpted from Down and Derby: The Insider's Guide to Roller Derby by Jennifer Barbee and Alex Cohen. Copyright 2010 by Jennifer Barbee and Alex Cohen. Excerpted by permission of Soft Skull Press.