The Wheelers: A Roller Derby Meditation
In those first few days of practice, you line up, rickety. Knocking wheels, it sounds much sexier than it is—it will take weeks before you can tolerate that tripping feeling, like stepping on your own shoelace, without panic. In general, your body wants to be more in control than it is; it is always on point, eager to run a rescue mission, to overbalance, overcompensate, throw out a flailing arm. Fall on your butt a couple times—everyone does, before the drills wear into you that kneepads are there for a reason—and you'll have the fresh realization that your ass is, after all, the very bottom of your back. Those threaded segments of spinal column: a butt fall jangles them like a ziti necklace. The best kind of fall is no fall, obviously, but next best, that skimming rarity where you lower to just one knee, sliding—one quick training wheel, a rudder deployed then retracted—and hop back up without ever using your hands. More often, it's a two-knee fall, or a four-point fall, that is, wrists down too: they are named for the parts of you that touch the floor. But you imagine, darkly, that it is also for the number of points the scorekeeper will wipe away as you continue to be absolutely terrible, a hazard to yourself and others, to reinvent, again and again, the whole act of falling. This is how roller derby starts, and it is the worst, in fact, at anything, you have ever been.
Rarely have you touched or smelled women this much. They smell like patchouli, like mold, the soured syrup smell of limbs that have been casted. It is nobody's fault, "the pads." All that protective gear, it soaks up sweat in successive rings like a tree trunk, oil from hands and heads, bacteria. No matter how often you wash them, they still smell like that. Derby teams smell like the early stages of mummification, like zombies. But still of women, distinctly, not some crass vaginal smell (the fanboys wish), but something gendered, laden with pheromones, yes. Every so often, in the moment you go down on someone's back (that is dangerous, a bad way to fall: the vulnerable neck exposed, those five or six inches that can't be protected) you get an unexpected whiff of clean shampoo.
"But isn't that dangerous? And won't you get injured?" And it's true, legs get fractured, shoulders smashed. There's a decent probability of you eventually becoming a little bit bionic, map pins in your thumb joint, collarbone, ankle, showing the places you have been. But those lasting injuries (you reject the word, "serious," you reject the word "permanent"), if they happen, come down still like a lightning bolt, something no more reasonable or expected than if you were hit by a bus walking along the street. There's no resignation to injury, no pre-acceptance of it. This is not practice in steeling yourself towards entropy, it is practice in thinking past it, riding above it, in tearing yourself free from it, debilitation the glorious exception, never the rule. But you've seen it, of course: the swooping stride, so lovely, raptor/rapture, crushed mid-motion by the well-timed hit. More often than not, the shared half a laugh, the mutuality of arrow and target: either way, there's something delightful in the artistry of impact, the way it sweeps you literally off your feet. But the spinning fall, and only then, laugh arrested, the sudden tremendous contracture. Something hurt, not just hurt-hurt, something shattered. The game stops for that, whistles bleat—skaters, even those on the sidelines, fall to their knees. So injury, it enters like that: an invader, something sacrilegious, foreign—an irritating side-effect, entirely beside the point, the same irrelevant relevance lead poisoning might bear to Renaissance art.
So getting hurt, that's not really part of it. But yes, to be honest, there is some activation of hurtness, something maybe less than actually getting hurt—"exertion," "engagement," "being pressed," the way a boxer presses, rallying in, in, in, over and through a volley of punches. There is certainly hurting right up to and occasionally including the fact of getting hurt: but that Venn diagram, "feeling hurt," "being hurt," "getting hurt," is much more spacious, its overlaps more forgiving and elastic, than you may have previously known. Not all pain, you'll learn, is suffering. It comes in far too many textures; how could anybody ever talk about pain—athleticized, sublimated pain, pain applied as a unit of strategy, a tactic—as if it were only one thing? Bruises alone—pain's visible ghost, its ruddy afterglow—come in so many distinct varieties. Deep squashy squid-splats are the engraving of fallen-on wheels; thin grieving armbands the lance where shoulders struck. Brown fingerholds climb your sides, never hurting—those are the work of your teammates, moving you, stopping you, clutching you close. But funny-bone tender, always, the scissoring hipbone bruises where another ilium struck yours with knockout power, crest clattering on crest.
But don't think of the bruises—too obvious, easy: again, for the fanboys—think like we do, of all the things you'll get to be! Sometimes you are the predator, and sometimes, taken unawares, or all-too-awares—a twitching hip flexion, out of the corner of your eye, predicts it, she is lunging, coming for you—the prey. And sometimes—rarely at first, but more and more often, a two-minute gameplay period leaves plenty of chances to rinse and repeat—you are invincible. You are, improbably, the star-flashing Mario Brother that nobody seems able to touch: scampering, gamboling, while all around you the sliding tiles of other skaters are just a moment too slow. You are the pack—the beast of many backs—that evolving, protean mass (it must contain the majority of players from both sides; it must not extend beyond a car's length radius) that bobbles, coalesces, and breaks like mercury globules. You hunt, at a leftward-slanting lope, in step with your sisters: their hips are your protection, their hips are claws and teeth. The opposition dolphins into your stalling backs, is pinned and swiped satisfyingly out-of-bounds: a three-person effort, bait, cast, hook. You are the fishermen, the nets, the whole damn armada: from the waist down, front knees pointing, sailing, a clipper ship; up top your own carved figurehead, a Valkyrie.
You will not get to be these things, of course, until your body earns them. First scrimmage, you pick your way to the line on the track—there are bodies all around you, the parts of them the closest all bulging and intimate: the parts, on a crowded bus, that you'd normally strain to avoid. You try facing, it seems logical, the direction in which you'll be skating, but feet snake between yours at awkward angles, it is a Jenga puzzle, Twister, your struts already hopelessly tangled. You begin shaking—first your tensed calf, and then it spreads up your body, upper half slightly out of sync with lower half, juddering. The whistle blows and it is total chaos—you run forward, try to run, are hit down in a quick business-like way, economically, before you manage a second step. You stumble up, no-handed, as practiced—better than expected—but already others are ripping past you, the whole pack is churning, and the point of your juddering, the instinctual message of it, is clear like it never has been before: you will be left behind. You are skating forward somehow, swimming towards safety, when you are walloped—there's no other word for it—clear off the track. A soft ribbon is driven from you, half a spoonful, maybe, of urine. You are up again, even faster—adrenalin expands all fuzzy and quantum—but you are hit to the ground, hard, again. And this is what it is, you know it now—to lose hope, to acquiesce, to give up your throat. The rabbit is quiet in the lion's mouth. Your body gives you no choice—the game is over, today, for you. Your juddering is an earthquake, the pit of your stomach so hollow and floating that you could be peeing on yourself again, who knows? You possess a snarled Swiss-Army knife of a body; you are Inspector Gadget experiencing a malfunction—you have at least three legs, telescoping arms, when the tool you were fumbling for was an extra set of eyes for the back of your head. You might not believe it is like this, some version, the first time, for almost everybody. You might not believe that you'll ever want to do it again.
But you will. Want to. Want to master it—that limbic embrace. And as you skate longer and better, hidden geometries of the sport will slowly emerge. Circles (the desired path of a centripetal object), ovals (the shape of the derby track), and lines (the straight rows of wheels on your quad skate, which, no matter how you loosen the trucks, will never swivel the full way around). So, mastery: the crossover push that muscles a curve out of flat thrusts of direction, the plunging squat—"skater stance"—that holds your centripetal self to the earth. Euclid might like it: stark horizontals, verticals, all bent into manifolds—the sidetwisting "juke," tossing empty air in the space you occupied just a split second before; the various screeching stops, all of them frictional, forcing surfaces in directions they clearly don't want to go. It is a game that blooms in sudden absurd transcendent moments—where you stick, belly to back, in your opponent's blind spot, waist sucked tight against her ass-smashery; where you plant a foot, at velocity, through a mass of other legs to shimmy yourself forward, the derby Hokey Pokey; where, if you are lucky, you can burst off the whistle straight through a line of shuffling blockers, thinking, or even yelling if you want to, "Stripper Birthday Cake Surprise!"
Roller derby is, after all, a sport that doesn't take itself too seriously. But its unpretentiousness (something different, more conscious and respectful, than the giggling camp of yesteryear) should not detract from its epic sweep. It has, always, a meaningful narrative structure. It plays as a drama, human and basic—two girls racing, the "jammers," to break through and past a pack of impeding "blockers." It is the X and Y axis of all rising action: the struggle against external obstacles, the compounding struggle to best a fellow struggler much the same as yourself. The screaming whistles, the orchestra-conductor motions, the whole Copernican apparatus of referees rotating the rotating skaters on the track: that part is the theatre of dramatic interpretation, of decisive but mortal action (agile footwork, jostling bodies, slippery track) tied immediately, with bluster and authority, to a choral meaning. With each turn of the wheel, some players are punished, exiled, "boxed" with a gesture like a master admonishing a dog. Others will see their opposition, even a formidable wall of them, evaporate, "out of play!" for being too far from the shifting pack: a theatre of social alliance, of avoiding hubris and disdaining sloth. Meanwhile, the faster jammer, the one who first gains the clear road ahead, is marked in a mimeshow of manifest destiny: the referee locks on you, points, and stays pointing, tracing your path as you make a second pass through colliding blockers; the contrasting call, "you are not lead jammer," favors a man sweeping crumbs from his waist. That first jammer, lead jammer, wins the purest and most fitting right of all, the right to call the whole bloody race to a halt, to just plain stop, at least for that round.
And to persist in this sport, if you do—and you should—is, in the end, to see yourself transformed. Sure, the derby names get attention, and they deserve it: a genre unto themselves. There's the bawdy (Ivana Schoop, Queefer Sutherland, Susie Crotchrot), the boasting (Kim Mortal, Helsa Wayton, Hero Shima), the militant (Uma Bomber, Loretta Beretta, Matza Ball Breaker), the mordant (Celia Coffin, Ghoulita, Bloody Elle), the occupational (Busty Broke'Her, Scream Printer, Mia Bustya), the metafictional (Valerie of the Dolls, Sylvia Plaster, Sneer and Loathing), the pop cultural (Maimy Winehouse, Rude E. Huxtable, Brawly Shore), the intellectual (The Apostrofiend, Lexistential Crisis, Freudian Tripp) and many, many more. And then there are the physical changes: ask the veteran skaters, now shaped like bells with robust, voluptuous clappers. You aren't a true member of the team until you split your pants getting up from a chair. Those legs are the reason Victorians put socks on their pianos: their quadriceps suck down like plungers, the word "ham" is not misapplied to their hamstrings. It is a bodily visage both stern and succulent (and you'll see a lot of it, know your friends' backsides much better than their fronts), a physique designed by R. Crumb, making thicknesses of us all.
And reputation for gratuitous violence aside (and unfounded—the mandates against punching, elbowing, or kicking are, in the modern ruleset, clear), roller derby is not a sport for genuine hotheads. It is far, far too regularly frustrating. Taken to technical perfection—both jammers perfectly held by opposing blockers—the game becomes only a sort of organized immobility, gridlock. Any sense of "play" in the play depends on the continual forcing of errors: sliding, falling, losing track of your teammates, mistaking the scorers' positions, a moment's complete inattention to the whole thrust of the jam. The laundry-list of penalties that accrue in a typical bout, are, in that sense, not for playing badly, but just for having played. And yet these errors, expected, even necessary, are diabolically easy to internalize. You cut the track, stepping illegally in front of another's advantage: in what other ways are you impetuous, hasty, do you cut corners? You shove clumsily into someone's back: how else are you a klutz, where else do you cause—or take—unnecessary damage? Why do you continually attempt to bullrush the outside line, the longest, and thus most strenuous route, when other paths, with a little more cunning and patience, might open for you? Must you always make a beeline, dumbly, for what you want, could you ever be convinced of the wisdom of a more circuitous route? How many times—final question—can you be knocked down and keep coming back?
So after all the poetic license and wordplay, the language you pile up, derby's biggest lesson is the confrontation with your own inner silence. One last new drill, perfect for new recruits, "fresh meat". Skate together in a tight pack, round and round the track, "but you must keep talking, you must communicate with your teammates. Say, the jammer is coming! or on the inside! or just, I'm here, I'm here, I'm here!" You wobble on your toe stops, wipe the sweat from your upper lip, that sounds comparatively easy, no problemo, go. You start: and you are, as usual, surrounded by commotion, but you find you can't say a single thing. You gum your mouthguard, try, ummm, okay. Okay, okay! But nothing happens, it dies in the vault inside you.
You want to scream: No fair! Stop! Wait! I have it all here in my head! The whole game, all of it, all those impressions, conceptualizations: you jostle, roil, careen—you are crowded, then carried, one skate losing contact with the floor. Pushed from behind, whipped hard from the side, that strange moment of redoubling, taking on another's force, momentum: you lurch, stagger, and are through. You are something unwitting and raucous, the rampaging Wheelers of Ozma of Oz. You are relaxed, in that slightly lunatic way of a person exercising under conditions of constructed terror. But you still haven't made a sound. You are an offering, a sacrifice stuffed in the mouth of your own limitations. But "I'm here," you manage finally, "I'm here": not very loud, but at least, at last, in a way that doesn't only sound like a total lie.