“Don’t apologize.” Slaughter whips by in tie-dye leggings and a flapping gray hoodie. I wobble a few feet behind her, my legs shaking like a newborn calf’s.
“Sorry,” I blurt out.
“Derbies don’t apologize,” she repeats. Her ankles weave over the rink and a brown curl crosses her cheek as she turns to face me. “Derbies beat bitches.”
It’s my first roller derby practice. I’m “fresh meat.” I’ve roller-bladed twice in my life and both times are lost in the muscle memory of my eight-year-old self. When I rented “quad” skates for the first time from Gayl, a retired derby who works at Great View Rollerskating in Enfield, New Hampshire, the creamy brown skates surprised me with their weight. The orange wheels were scuffed and the leather was worn. They seemed iconic. I'd heard so much about roller derby—had seen so many pictures of laced up derby skates donned by fish netted derby women—that just holding them felt like my first rite of passage into derbydom.
I was going to skate with the Upper Valley Vixens. I first saw them on a postcard at a cafe. Hot pink skater wheels, starred helmets, knee socks. The elbow pads. Roller Derby, it said. I gave it a quick Google when I got home. The results were colorful: girls in faux Catholic schoolgirl uniforms, a team decked out in heavy eyeliner and tiaras. Lots of black and pink and “good girl gone bad” rhetoric.
I almost missed Great View Roller Skating the first time. From the outside it looks like a warehouse. It’s the shape of a shoebox and the color of gravel. Inside, the walls of the lobby are cyan blue. On the right side are racks of skates—rows upon rows of bright orange wheels. A group of women were lacing up. From the lobby I could hear the sound of Velcro and their light, teasing laughter.
“Is this ‘fresh meat’practice?” I asked. I looked around, doe-eyed.
“You’re new?” one of them called out. When I nodded, they burst into cheers and loud whoops.
One of the women came down from the booths. She had a whistle hanging around her neck. Her glasses were curved librarian-style, and her eyes were shale-gray. “You’re here for fresh meat practice?” I nodded again.
Her name was Alyssa. “Have you ever skated before?”
I laughed. “Not really, no.”
“Don’t worry.” She led me over to a black box of equipment and sorted through heaps of pads and Velcro before handing me a pair of matching knee pads.
“Do you have a mouth guard?” she asked.
The veteran derbies were suiting up as well: knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, mouth guards, helmets. I recognized one of the women—a platinum blonde in venom-green tights. She was featured in the team’s Facebook page, lounging on a bearskin rug with her skates crisscrossed behind her head. She had one hand to her mouth and she looked up into the camera with wide, coquettish eyes. Her socks and underpants had stars and stripes on them. In white letters above her head, it said: “Swede Ass Pi.”
Derby names are a big deal. It’s part of the “alter-ego” culture of derby—women leaving their day jobs behind to skate fast at night and knock other women on their asses. It’s also a symbol of a certain derby status, like a black belt in karate. You have to earn your derby name. It’s the making of your alter-ego. In choosing a derby name, you choose what you stand for on the track. The name should also be unique. Registered derby names are kept in a master roster online; duplicates are strongly discouraged. Once a name is finally chosen, your name on the track is your derby name, and your birth name becomes secondary.
For some derbies, the name is tied to who they are outside of the rink—hobbies, profession, wordplay on their real name. Ivory Tower, for example, is a Vixen whose name refers to her day job as an Ivy League dean. Her derby number is 4.0; Swede’s is 3.14. For others, a derby name is about asserting a certain presence on the rink: Courtney Shove, Anna Frankenstein, Puss n’ Glutes, Husslepuff.
They also separate derby life from the quotidian. For example, Alyssa, or Slaughter Melons (“Just call me Slaughter”), uses her mom’s derby name at practice and her real name at home. Her mom, Toadally Chaotic, or Toad, is the oldest member of the Vixens. She’s fifty-two. The rest of the Vixens are scattered mostly between the early twenties and mid-thirties. After attending five fresh meat practices, I’ll be the youngest Vixen, 21-years-old.
“I think I’m ready,” I said. I was finally wearing all the protective gear for practice. Slaughter covered the straps in a second layer of duct tape. The tape had flames printed on it. I felt like I’d been packaged by Hot Wheels.
Smack. Someone skated behind me and gave me a loud slap on the ass. I spun around, blushing.
It was Swede. “What?” she quipped as she skated backwards on the rink. She looked hazy through the plastic curtain.
“You’re a derby now.” She grinned at me, her orange mouth guard gleaming.
* * *
The day before fresh meat, I visited Great View to observe the varsity Vixens practice. These were the skaters that would compete in this season’s bouts.
Each bout is split into periods. Each period is then split into several jams, each of which last at most two minutes. A jam is a race between each team’s jammer—the skater with the starred helmet. Every time a jammer passes a member of the opposing team, her team wins a point. Everyone else on the track is a blocker, clumped together in a “pack” to prevent the other team’s jammer from passing through. The “pack” is a thick mass of skaters—four from one team and at least one from the other. This is where the hitting happens. It’s a chaotic jumble of skaters, each one trying to block the other team’s jammer as she comes up from behind to squeeze through the pack. Everything is in motion.
When I watched the Vixens scrimmage during practice, all I could hear was the cracking of plastic knee plates, the clatter of skates, and the yelling of each blocker as she tried to bump the other team’s blockers off the track or onto the ground.
“If she tries to pass you, hit her!” Slaughter yelled at one of the jammers as she glided by with the other jammer hot on her heels. She checked the time on the stopwatch.
Suddenly, there was a pileup. A woman fell forward and the team collided over her body. Slaughter blew the whistle. They started to pick themselves up, but the woman at the bottom remained on the ground.
“Are you gonna have babies in your lifetime?” a derby named Sliver called from the center of the track. There was laughter and the woman on the ground pushed herself up. She massaged her lower abdomen. It was Repunz Kill, a derby with a long blonde braid down her back.
There were two men at practice—the referees. One had a sign sewn on the back of his black and white striped shirt: “My Baby Daddy.” The other referee went by his real name—Yasser. He’s a French professor at Dartmouth College. Given that it’s a sport infamous for track brawls and "alternative" dress—tattoos, piercings, no pants—there are a lot of don’ts in derby. You could get thrown into the penalty box for hitting with the forearm, the elbow, above the neck, below the knees, or from behind. If you fall on the track and trip someone as you stood up, you could get sent to the penalty box. “They don’t want girls starting fist fights in the corner,” Slaughter told me one afternoon before practice. “Or people running off the track and punching somebody that’s in the stands.”
Did she approve of the new rules? Wasn’t aggression a big part of derby?
“I think it’s a good thing.” Slaughter paused. “Before there were negative connotations with derby, like it’s just girls in scandalous clothing, hitting each other.”
“That’s not who we are anymore,” agreed Ivory Tower when we spoke on the phone. “The sport is being considered for the 2020 Olympics.” With the new rules, “the game will be faster, more spectator friendly.” Quite a few Vixens are moms and their kids and husbands often attend bouts. Slaughter, a 5th and 6th grade math and science teacher, has students who want to cheer her on at her bouts.
“But we still have the miniskirts and fishnets,” Slaughter assured me.
The outfits at the Vixen practice I visited were eye-catching but fairly tame: zebra striped socks, fluorescent blue underpants, white booty shorts covered in kiss marks, lacy knee socks. I saw a pair of ripped fishnets, but they were nothing like the red corsets, the sports bra and hot pants, the rhinestoned tube-tops, or the belly-shirt-and-mini-skirt combos I saw on Youtube after searching “Texas roller derby.”
There are marked differences between the Texas Roller Derby (TXRD) league and the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), the league that the Vixens skate under. TXRD uses banked tracks. TXRD also seems less concerned with pitching derby to families or justifying it. There are countless scenes of women slugging each other in the face, flipping each other over rails, shaking each other in headlocks, or grappling in the middle of the track. Some TXRD bouts implement a “Penalty Wheel” spun by a “Penalty Mistress.” The punishments doled out by the Penalty Mistress range from pillow fights, to arm wrestling, to something called “Spank Alley.”
On Spanking News.com, an editor explains TXRD’s Spank Alley: “Tickets for a draw are held at the beginning of each event, with the winners sitting in a special section on the sidelines ready to be called into duty. If the wheel lands on Spank Alley, the young lady must skate by the raffle winners with bottom presented to be spanked.... I’m not sure who dreamed this idea up, but I fully support it and wish it could be applied to other sports such as Women’s Beach Volleyball, Figure Skating, and Tennis.”
“We’re all T&A on skates,” says Ginger Snap, a derby from the New York City Gotham Girls, in an interview by OurSceneTV. “That or we’re all bull dykes. It’s one or the other. It’s like whatever they want us to be, that’s what we are.”
Defending roller derby as a real sport came up over and over again as I surfed Youtube and picked through Google. The bruises are real. Most of the players emphasized their experience in speed or figure skating, or sports like soccer, wrestling, and basketball.
I asked Slaughter why she skates. “It’s derby,” she said. “There’s not much else like it. Nowhere else can you go with twenty other women and beat the crap out of each other all night and compare bruises the next day.”
* * *
Back at fresh meat practice, it’s just me and Susan, another fresh meat skater, huffing along on the side of the track. My shins burn a straight line from my ankles to my knees. Susan’s in pain too—her blonde hair is stuck to her forehead in a paste of sweat. It’s her second fresh meat practice.
“Ass down, tits up,” Susan mutters to both of us. We sink lower into our “derby stance.” I feel like I’m perching on the edge of an imaginary chair held up by my thighs, which are on fire.
“Shoulders back!” Slaughter tells us as she skates by, pulling back her own shoulders to show us.
We skate a couple of laps before meeting in the center of the rink to stretch. Swede has to lead me by the hand to the center because I don’t know how to stop yet.
“Stripper pose,” she says. Everyone lies chest down on the ground, our legs forming a diamond, the bottoms of our feet touching. Our backs are slightly arched; our asses in the air. It’s a stretch for our inner thighs.
Vixens come in all sizes and with varying degrees of experience. Make It Lorraine is short with round cheeks; Rita Hateworthy is a reed-thin brunette with legs almost as long as Lorraine’s whole body. Swede has about a year of skating experience; Slaughter started with none. Now Slaughter coaches both fresh meat and Vixen practices and Swede is looking at a second season of bouting.
Slaughter leads us through a series of exercises: weaving between cones, jumping over cones, practicing plow stops (“Spread your legs,” she barks), and practicing proper falls. I fall on my butt twice, and my tailbone starts to feel tender.
Our last exercise for the night is called Endurance.
“The goal is to skate twenty five laps in five minutes,” Slaughter explains. Everyone splits off into pairs. One person will skate while the other counts. Susan and I stick together as the two freshest fresh meats.
“Everyone ready?” Slaughter holds up the stopwatch. The derbies on the track get low. Someone does a coyote howl.
Everyone tears down the straightaway. I clamber down the track, trying to stay in my derby stance. Swede floats by, her legs crossing over and under as she rounds the corner. I coast around the curve of the track, pedaling with my right foot to make myself turn.
On my tenth lap, a skinny derby in black by the name of “Rolla” clips the back of my skates as she swerves around me. My legs are flipped out from under me and I land on the rink with a hard smack. A splintering pain shoots up my backside.
“C’mon Eva! Get up!” Susan yells from the center of the rink. The pain in my tailbone feels like it’s cutting my body in two. I roll over on the track onto my knee pads, push myself onto my feet, and hobble forward on my skates.
“There you go! One more lap!”
I shuffle forward, the pain softening with each step. When Slaughter calls time, I slide onto my knees and stay there.
“That was a hard fall.”
Yike, another fresh meat, skates over. She has short black hair and her cheeks are flushed from skating. “I know exactly how that feels.”
“Yeah, I heard it all the way from over here,” Susan says and grins at me. I laugh with them and a twinge of pain shoots up my spine.
* * *
In June, I joined the Vixens at the Lebanon Skatepark. It was their end-of-season celebration and a chance for new members to rub shoulders with derbies who had competed all spring. Even though the idea of skating over half-pipes made my tailbone ache, I begged Yike for a ride.
Derby-wise, I didn’t have much to celebrate. Despite having skated for three months, I was still fresh meat. After two attempts, I still hadn’t passed my R1 assessments, a test that covered roller derby basics, such as jumping over cones, skating on one foot, braking properly, and “sticky skates” or skating without lifting your wheels off the track. I kept failing Endurance—I wasn’t fast enough. I had also developed a semi-permanent bruise on my tailbone. Over the course of the spring, I’d fallen on my ass so many times that it was starting to resemble a bruised peach. It was sensitive to the touch and responded to everything: hardwood floors, carpet, yoga mats. Whenever I sat down, I’d wince and remember. Derby.
At the skatepark, I didn’t fare much better. Yike and I were one of the few freshmeats and we stuck to low ramps, skirting the larger formations. Arms out and wobbling, I skittered down ramps like an amateur surfer. Getting to the top required me to crawl on all fours. Meanwhile, varsity Vixens like Make it Lorraine were arcing over the half-pipe, their limbs swinging with ease.
“I’m gonna give this a go.” I pointed to a series of quarter pipes that were lined up back-to-back, forming the shape of a wave –up one pipe, down the other, repeat. “Want to join me?”
Yike laughed. She spun around on her skates, feet pivoting. “Nope.”
I clambered up the ramp. From the top, the quarter pipes looked impossible to summit. They were so curved the light from the noon sun seemed trapped there, burning the gray metal into bright white. I could see myself landing belly up in a few seconds, with my skates dangling above me. But I had to do it. I wasn’t a daredevil; on the contrary, I was skating the quarter pipes out of fear. All spring, I’d watched as my chance at derbydom shrank with every fall, every subpar Endurance exercise. I desperately needed a positive tagline to my derby persona, a reason to stick around: Eva’s not a great skater, but at least she has guts.
I crouched at the top of the ramp, pushing my derby stance to its extreme. The first quarter pipe rose above me as I propelled myself down the ramp. I swooped to the top, teetering briefly at the juncture between the pipe and the one adjacent to it, before slipping over the other side. I spun around, sliding backwards, ass first.
I lay at the bottom of the pipe. Hot metal burned into my back as I stared above me. The blue sky floated there, unapologetic. I blinked as sweat trickled into my eye. I could hear Yike’s laughter from faraway; soon I joined her. I got up, brushing myself off.
“Well, at least I tried.” I stood and looked at the quarter pipes. They looked so small, like slides at a child’s playground. Yike grinned. She nodded at the other Vixens by the half-pipe, who were skating towards the gazebo where lunch and family were waiting.
“Come on,” she said. She cupped my shoulder with her fingers, stiff in her black wrist guard. “Let’s eat."
Originally published in 40 Towns, June 2014.