By Laura Ann Klein
[Allow us to introduce to you another guest writer for the Urchin Movement. Who is Laura Ann Klein? We'll let her answer in her own words: I hate writing bios; it reminds me of the twee answers Miss America contestants give about saving the world while teaching kindergarten in Gary, Indiana. I have never been in a beauty pageant or taught kindergarten and I think saving the world would be a complex burden best left for the young urchins of the world. My story is simple: I go places. I see. I do. I write.]
2011 is my Year of the Fierce Woman. I’m watching the woman around me do amazing, brave things: a few weeks ago I was lucky enough to meet an entire group of fierce women when I invited myself to a scrimmage of the Denver Roller Dolls. My entry is a co-worker—Silver Fox, nicknamed Foxy—invited me to the scrimmage because she was tired of the eight thousand questions I had to ask about her hobby. Derby night for Foxy is Wednesday, and on Thursday, she is always battered, bruised, sore and tired. Despite the physical infirmities, she always seems completely on fire and happy. An adrenaline rush hangover, no less. Even though I didn’t skate at the scrimmage, I still had an adrenaline hangover the next day: I felt ready to conquer the world just from hanging out by the edge of the rink, watching the action, trying to absorb the rules, jargon, and scoring.
Roller derby was an offshoot of the walkathons popular during the Depression, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that the elements of burlesque and ‘skating phony’ were introduced so it could compete against wrestling on television. It’s too bad this is what most people (namely me) know about roller derby. The skaters’ names might be a little naughty and hint at violence, and the team names rely on a history of burlesque and cute puns as well, but this is where the cute stops.
I love a good pun so you can only imagine the absolute joy I had over some of the names: for me, the best name is Honey Punches of Throats. Additionally, I am completely and utterly physically incapable when it comes to sports, whether contact or noncontact, so it is magic for me watching women move effortlessly in their bodies, completely unfocused on the coordination it takes to skate, turn, hip-bump and avoid getting elbowed in the chest. I asked Foxy, who is a gentle soul when she is working with patients, if her first inclination wasn’t to stop skating and help the other gal up. She said it took one scrimmage to stop apologising when she blocked someone. Now she said she apologises to her teammates for not blocking hard enough.
I did a little research and discovered roller derby had the same reputation wrestling did for being highly-choreographed and staged. Derby now is neither staged nor choreographed; it’s a fast, hard-hitting sport that strikes an impeccable balance of taking itself seriously without taking itself too seriously.
Other writers have described derby as being a combination of burlesque and athletics. The other night at the scrimmage, the only thing ‘burlesque’ was a frilly skirt one of the women wore, merely because it was ‘bad outfit night’. Thirty seconds into her first jam, it was obvious the skirt was completely ironic: nothing frilly about this tiny bolt of lightning skating around the rink and through the legs of the blockers.
The team pictures, uniforms, and players’ names do hint at the burlesque beginnings of this sport. But the young women who organise the teams and the league are adamant about getting away from the myth that jams and blocks are staged and choreographed. The closest thing I saw to choreography was a couple of the skaters dancing to Cake’s ‘Short Skirt and a Long Jacket’.
Until a couple of years ago, I was unaware that roller derby still existed, until we met several of the skaters at a parade handing out coupons for bout tickets. They were pretty girls: strong, athletic and agile on their quad skates as they whooshed and whipped their way up and down Colfax Avenue. Before, if I heard the words ‘roller derby’, I pictured a mean-faced woman with missing teeth, her skate firmly planted on an opponent’s neck. Now, if you say ‘roller derby’ my mind calls up a lithe young woman with a dazzling smile and an MBA, planting a hip determinedly into an opponent’s side while keeping both skates firmly on the ground.
Keep reading: Part Two of Laura’s roller derby experience!