Let’s Jam

Learning to skate with Dayton’s derby girls

By Katrina Eresman

Going to your first derby practice is like going to your first day of school, only there’s a much higher chance you’ll fall in front of everyone. You might not really know anyone, you might not really know the rules and you might not even be able to skate.

OK, hopefully you can skate a little. I spent at least one night a week for years of my childhood in my local skating rink—a regular “rink rat,” as I’ve heard them called. I forced all of my friends to come to that same rink for a recent nostalgia-driven birthday celebration. I have good balance, strong legs and I rollerblade outside all summer long.

Still, when I approached the front entrance of the Orbit Fun Center in Huber Heights, I suddenly doubted my capability.

To my relief, I found that I was not alone.

“I get skaters that come in that have skated years before,” says Coach Cpl. Punishment, who is in his sixth season of coaching for Gem City Rollergirls. “Maybe the last time they put skates on was when they were in high school or middle school … whatever the case may be. It’s just getting back on your skates, getting comfortable.”

Thankfully, once I had the eight wheels beneath my feet and took a few laps, I was back in the groove.

The Gem City Rollergirls find new players with open recruitment. There are two basic things you need to get started: 1. The ability to stand up on skates without being a hazard to yourself or others and 2. A mouth guard. Everything else is there for you to get started. They’ll show you how to stop, they’ll show you how to fall and they’ll provide a loaner helmet, wrist guards, knee and elbow pads, so you can do it safely. Getting your own gear is a bit of an investment, so no one asks that you find your own stuff until you’ve tried it out for a few months and are ready to commit. (Spoiler alert: I know what I’m doing with my tax returns.)

While you might be a little clueless about buying the right mouth guard, or you may get lost in the tangled straps involved in securing your knee pads, that’s as far as your concerns should go. There are no bullies here. No one is going to mock you for being clueless. Instead, they’re going to help you put on your wrist guards and advise you when to take out your mouth guard, like when you’re making an announcement in front of the group of 30 or so (advice given to me by my new friend, A-Hole, when I tried to slobber my way through the sentence “Sthankyoo sthsho much fr havn me!”).

A-Hole’s full derby name is Tara Hole-Inu. She was my first source when I initially reached out to the Gem City Rollergirls. At a bout in February, I approached the merch table, asked a girl named Pinky to direct me to someone named Linda, and learned my first important lesson as she looked at me with a blank stare. “Linda?” She consulted her neighbor at the table and finally had an epiphany. “Oh, A-Hole!” It is rare to find a rollergirl who knows her teammates by birth name. With all the sincerity in the world, they will refer to one another by these punny epithets.

This was the first thing that led me to believe there was something seriously badass and special happening here. The derby name is more than a fun way to express your creativity. When I hear the girls refer to each other solely by their derby names, it immediately establishes the feeling of a tightknit community.

“We don’t call each other by our real names, just because it’s too real for us. Because we’ve been our skater names for so long, it’s just weird,” Pinky says.

These names, in addition to the skates, are the one definite similarity between these girls, and they show just how much it doesn’t matter what kind of girl you are when it comes derby.

“There are 18-year-olds all the way up to me,” Snarlett O’Hara, says. “There are all kinds of body types. … We’ve got stay-at-home moms, we’ve got preschool teachers, we’ve got college professors …”

Snarlett, who is 48, joined the derby two years ago upon the encouragement of her son’s friends who skated in the junior Gems. “My husband said, ‘No, you’re not allowed to,’” she says. Her response? “Watch me, I’ll be back in two hours.”

In the two years since she’s joined, Snarlett has broken both of her ankles. At the time of this conversation, a late-night Thursday practice, she was off-skates because of a cold.

“Why did I drag myself off the couch? … It’s because you get—honest to God—addicted to being here and seeing this and being a part of it,” she says.

That’s why I’m here on this late Thursday night. I’m one practice in. I came too late to practice tonight, but Thursday is the night of the weekly scrimmage and now that I know the basic rules, all I want is to watch these girls play.

It takes some time before a derby girl is eligible for scrimmaging, and then even some more time before you’re put on the roster for a bout. There’s no definite schedule—it all depends on the individual.

“Don’t measure yourself against another person,” Willy Nilly advises. “It’s all a personal growth pattern—you’re just trying to get better every time.”

The first step is passing your basic skills. This is where I, like every other “fresh meat” skater, started. These are things like basic skating techniques, balancing, stops and falls. A-Hole skated some laps with me and gave me some tips on T-stops—breaking by dragging one skate perpendicularly behind the other—and knee-taps—key for a safe fall. Because, face it, you’re going to fall. So, you may as well practice doing it safely. (Tip: If you’re in a pack, fall small! It’s less likely someone will roll over a limb.)

After my first week, my knees hurt from falling drills and the less substantial padding of old, loaner knee pads, but I’m confident that I actually know how to skate—and my crossovers and plow stops aren’t too bad, either. Maybe I could actually figure out this fancy footwork (which calls to mind Tara Lipinski figure skating) and play this sport successfully. Despite my unusually quiet demeanor at practice—partially due to mouth guard-driven stage fright—I’ve had a good time chatting with A-Hole and have met many other promising, potential companions.

I wonder whether part of the reason these girls bond so much is because they have to skate so literally side-by-side. I watch them move in their tight packs. Could I ever do that? Could I ever trust myself and the people around me not to knock each other over? The blockers must form a wall to keep the opposing team’s jammers from getting through and scoring points. Does this strong union extend beyond the rink?

Week two.

My second practice starts off with a bang. I’m instructed to join in with the rest of the ladies as they skate laps in a tight, single-file line. One at a time, the skater from the back of the line makes her way to the front, weaving between each other girl. The more advanced skaters roll backwards, keeping with the pace and dodging out of the way at the last minute. “Stay low!” voices say. The lower you are, the more stable. Somehow, I make it to the front in one piece.

Another drill has me in a double-file line, this time, paired up with Racey Rocker. Together, she and I are to weave in and out of the line as before, but as a duo. She helps me along the way. Stay low, stay close, keep shoulders together … and we make it.

Lucky for me to have such a solid partner for my first drill like that. Racey has been on the team for nine years—almost since its inception.

“I roller-skated as a kid growing up,” Racey says. “We’d have family nights at the rink, and it was 18 years since I’d skated. I said, ‘I’ll try this out.’ And, you know, you just get hooked. It’s the healthy drug,” she laughs.

Racey is vivacious and skilled. After the drill was complete, she happily helps me with some advanced footwork before I was called over to join the rest of my fresh meat girls. The lot of us work on passing off the various basic skills we still needed to complete before we’re to move up and join the rest of the team. Helga Huffletuff—who befriended me the moment I first walked into the rink—works on her crossovers, a skating technique where one leg crosses over the other (good for keeping speed around turns). I try for passing my plow-stop, where the legs start wide and come together with force bringing you to a halt. It’s a no go for me, but progress was made.

By now, I’m addicted to the calming, meditative swirling sound of the skates rolling along the hardwood rink. I’m dreaming up derby names. I’m waiting eagerly for the next bout, and for the chance to befriend more of these badass skaters.

By my third week, the roller derby has completely won me over. There is no going back. The victories are too exciting, the encouraging behaviors of the team members too welcoming. Coach calls me be my adopted derby name, and I’m in.

Practice starts with some footwork way beyond my skill level. I fall down and get back up. What else is there to do?

The falls feel good—empowering! Beyond that, the skating is so fun no one wants to waste time sitting on the ground.

If the Gem City Rollergirls weren’t all about getting back on their feet right away, they may not be here today.

“They had a large amount of girls, two teams at the time,” says Racey of the team’s start in 2006. But then, there was a falling out. By the time Racey joined, there were only nine girls on the team. “We just reformed for many, many, many years and struggled.”

But when you get up from the falls, victories await.

For me, on this third practice, I go on to pass several more basic skills, honing in on my side-to-side movements, and to skate 30 laps in a tight, fast-paced pack, skating shoulder-to-shoulder with the other girls.

Well … nearly 30. On the 29th lap, I fall but get up and finish with Blitzkrieg Becky who falls over me. She was like my guardian angel, skating behind me, helping and encouraging me. Meanwhile, others were telling me, “You’ve got this,” “Move your feet,” “Stay low,” “Keep going!” Would I have collapsed earlier without these voices? Probably. Twenty-nine makes me proud!

As for the whole team, one of their biggest wins to date happened this past November.

Racey remembers vividly. “Us winning that tournament back in November! I still get goose bumps on that one,” she says. “That one was a—[sighs]—a deep breath, a deep sigh. Like, we did it. We worked well together. We gelled.”

Each derby team must apply to be in WFTDA—Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. Once you’re in, you’re ranked. For several years, the team had trouble meeting various requirements within the association and had to reapply multiple times.

“There were quite a few years of that,” Racey says. “Then we finally got some girls within the league that took care of business, got us back to where we needed to be, got us ranked again. … Each year, we’ve been working our way up, and here we are at 112, and our goal is to be top 100 this year. Each win is getting us there, and it’s just getting even better and better every time.

“There’s a good amount of girls here that have been solid for four to five seasons,” Racey continues. “You keep those solid years in and keep building, and you get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and that’s how we win.”

A lot of girls decide to give derby a try because of its initial intrigue. A-Hole stumbled across a poster for the team when she was looking for inspiration for her derby girl Halloween costume. Becky saw a poster for open recruitment online and decided to see if her rollerblading skills would transfer.

The initial draw of the sport sticks. Within the team alone, there’s plenty of admiration.

“That jammer, Supersonic,” says Emmy, who joined the fresh meat crew in January, “she’s amazing to watch. She’s so skilled.” (It’s true, I’ve seen it.)

During bouts and scrimmages, the team members are always watching each other in awe and looking for ways to up their own game.

But what seems to really keep people around is the fulfillment that comes from the group bonding aspects.

“The decision to play roller derby, I wouldn’t change it for anything,” says Stitch me Pink, aka Pinky. I spent a couple of hours speaking to Pinky when I met her at my first bout. I was nervous, at first, to admit how much I didn’t know about what was going on. But Pinky has a particular enthusiasm for the sport and was happy to chat. “I don’t think I could’ve gotten luckier with any other team than Gem City. I think in a time where I needed something, they filled that void.”

Men’s derby teams do exist, even as close as Cincinnati. And even while some of these guys come up to practice with Gem City on occasion, the sport, overall, really feels like a
“girl power” thing.

“It is girl power,” Racey agrees. ”It got me through some really rough times. And I’m not the only one. There’ve been many girls that have come through personal [stuff], and this sport has tremendously helped them. So, it’s good in all aspects … Very empowering.”

Snarlette agrees. “I had no idea that you could be skating with your teammates and work your hardest to hit them out of bounds and then help them up and then you’re still good friends,” she describes. “We exercise together, we sweat together, we hit each other and there’s a real team feeling.”

Emmy nods, “That’s what I’m here for, too.”

Derby is a challenging sport, there’s no question about it, and the risk factor is higher than others (in order to join you must have insurance, plus purchase the special WFTDA insurance). But is it worth it? Most people who have ever decided to come to open recruitment would say yes. And the group of girls who make up the Gem City Rollergirls, along with Coach Cpl. Punishment, will support you, celebrate with you and sweat with you along the way.

Just keep coach’s advice in mind:

“Don’t give up. Keep your knees bent. And go forward.”

Ay ay, captain.

The Gem City Rollergirls have their next home bout on April 30 at Hara Arena, 1001 Shiloh Springs Rd. in Dayton. They will have open recruitment during the month of May, with an optional meet and greet for new skaters on Sunday, April 24 from 11 a.m.-12 p.m. at Orbit Fun Center, 5001 Nebraska Ave. in Huber Heights, or you can stop by on Sundays, 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and Thursdays 9-11 p.m. anytime in May. To participate, please bring a mouth guard and proof of insurance. For more information, please visit gemcityrollergirls.com or email recruitment@gemcityrollergirls.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer Katrina Eresman at KatrinaEresman @DaytonCityPaper.com.

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