Opening Letters

Vicarious Roller Grrrl

roller derby is an exercise in empowerment – for fans as well as competitors

Laura Lash, photos by Luong Huynh |

As we enter the sports center, the matchup has already begun. The Chippewa Valley Roller Girls are hosting the Keweenaw Roller Girls from Hancock, Mich., and the Dead River Derby’s Rolling Riptides from Marquette, Mich., for a Harry Potter-themed doubleheader. Surrounding the track are fans of all ages, from stroller passengers to a few senior citizens in wheelchairs, the crowded area completed with people in folding chairs and lawn chairs. I wondered for a moment if I stood out as a newbie there – wearing my collapsed lawn chair slung on my shoulder – as my friend and I looked around for a spot. We wandered in and out of the open ends of the rink until we decided upon “suicide seating” – on the floor, trackside, eye-level with the wheel bearings of the ladies’ skates.

As a seasoned fan who watched many bouts in Chicago, when I’m in the presence of roller derby action I move through stages of viewership. At first, it’s the overstimulation: the lights, the clap of the wheels on the cement floor, the score, the energy on the track – it’s huge. There is a gigantic effort unfolding in front of you.

There is a molasses momentum to the gathered women in front of her quietly struggling to hold and move at the same time, all while this tiny one leans on to shift it forward.

Upon settling in, I can begin to talk with my companion. Viewership transitions to baseball game mode – maybe a drink in hand, exchanging conversation about people, places, and things – all as the bout grows in competitive energy in front of you. You interrupt yourself mid-sentence, “So then I moved from New York to – Ooh, that was amazing! Did you see that how she just whipped right along the outside? – OK, so from New York to …,” and derby becomes a spectacle before you that you respectfully participate in as a viewer. You are being entertained by the feats and stunts.

And, finally, the stage of being energized by what is happening before you. As a mere spectator, I begin to attune to the different styles of each skater. And given the claustrophobic nature of the 10-woman pack as it moves down the track, you are not viewing the style and execution of figure skating. Rather, you tune into each woman’s approach to skating. There’s “Stunt Double,” No. 25, with her long, straight limbs, akin to the way a child would draw arms and legs on a person. Her straight, long torso and limbs become this iron curtain, impassable by the opposing skaters even when she chooses, in a most natural and seamless way, to skate backward down the track with a mild, wordless taunt coming from the corners of her smile. From behind the pack, the petite jammer, “A-Moxxi-Villain,” No. 50, looks to penetrate, circumvent, or stumble her way to the other side. She watches, observing the movement of the swarm in front of her, and skillfully attempts a few passes.

First, she leans on the swarm. Career women are now encouraged to “lean-in,” to embrace challenges even if awkward or difficult. She is leaning into the energy before her – in reality leaning on the pack before her. Here I see that the pack is carrying her at the same time she is trying to slice it. There is a molasses momentum to the gathered women in front of her quietly struggling to hold and move at the same time, all while this tiny one leans on to shift it forward. She leaps at the bunch and doesn’t stick, kind of sliding down the wall like pasta that’s nearly ready to be served. This unanimous attempt by all looks like the movement of a community or society, in which we lean on, we squirm, we resist, we let go; all shifting plates at the same time, each emerging a little different than when we first went into it. She gently pushes herself off the pack and plots a new route. On twinkle toes – or rather on the stoppers of her skates – she is side-stepping around the pack, two hands in the air like a child telling her mom, “I didn’t touch it!” She sucks in her belly and moves past the crowd like a polite concertgoer exiting the floor to get to the bathroom. And she succeeds. In so many ways she succeeds. 

Cultural judgments of body types melt away. Like watching the Olympics, where you begin to watch the machine rather than the BMI, each body exhibits particular skill, value, and expression in the bout. Sure they are clad in creative gothic make-up, tights, and black hot pants or tennis skirts, and they are attractive players, but the attraction is how and what they can do far better than you – the strength and joy that gracefully make this bout possible.

You begin to feel empowered. You want to do something excellent with yourself. You believe you, too, could skate. You check the International Directory of Derby Names to see if the oh-so-creative spin on your surname is already in use by another skater. (“Lash LaRue” is available; should I sign up?) You plot your outfit, and you imagine the burn of your whole body participating in this concerted effort. You believe yourself to be entertaining, powerful, fit. 

In the last few jams of the doubleheader, the women are winded. The blotchiness has risen in their faces. Their tights have a few more rips. The pace of both teams has slowed to barely a swat at each other. The spectator respects that each woman has expended all available energy: a hard-won fight. As the last whistle sounds, claps resound for everyone that skated. I see what can only be the posse of boyfriends/husbands, eight of them together, approaching the tape around the track. In my childhood soccer games, one team would parade past the other, slapping hands: “Good game. Good game. Good game.” Here the entire audience is trackside as both the home and opposing teams skate around the track, huge smiles emblazoned on their faces, and every skater and every enjoyer gets a high five. You leave euphoric; grateful to have been witness to such a decent display of competition, skill, and camaraderie.