When I returned to Carbondale four years ago to pursue a doctorate in English, I didn’t anticipate joining a roller derby team. I came to the Southern Illinois Roller Girls as a spectator just looking for something to do on a Saturday night. That lasted about 10 minutes, before I asked Dread Pirate Robyn how I could eventually join. Her response: “Start now. We need some volunteers.” I was voluntold to hold a scoreboard in the middle of the track, not knowing anything about the game that was happening around me. All I knew was that I was very excited and very confused, and that I wanted to come back for the next bout and the one after that. Although a friend in my program came with me to that first bout, she never returned, and I came to the Fresh Meat program the following spring on my own. I remember talking to Devil Doc, Jr., one of the other non-skating officials, about wanting something to do with my free time, and her response was, “you won’t have any if you do derby.” She was right. I have had to work to balance my career, friends, and derby, and I’ve not always been successful with it.
I rely heavily on my brain for my income, livelihood, and enrichment, as most people do. As a teacher and researcher, critical thinking is imperative. What I didn’t expect was for my skills as a teacher, student, and collaborator to be relevant on the track. It is. And I’m finding that those skills are far harder to build than the athletics involved in derby. Now, I’m not saying that derby isn’t physically challenging. It is. But the ability to work with other women, with varying personalities, to step back from myself, to take criticism, to absorb strategy, these are all brain based activities. No matter how strong my body is, if I can’t make it work with other people, I don’t belong in the game.
I’m not always successful at working with the other girls. Not one of us IS always successful at it. I have thought through things, then over-thought them. I have made some of the best friends of my life. I have hurt people with my comments. I have been hurt by others’ comments to me. I have confronted other girls about their comments to me, and have lost those girls as friends. I am flawed as a human and flawed as a skater, and derby forces me to work on my shortcomings. I have to confront these flaws head on and make decisions about who I am, what I want, and how I am going to get it. Derby has made me a better thinker, communicator, and problem solver, both on and off the track. But it’s not easy. It’s not always giggles and butt touches. Sometimes it is humbling oneself in front of my team, in front of my coach, in front of my mirror.
Sometimes, strength comes from unexpected conversations, realizations, and confrontations, and not from exercise. The rest of the time, though, to quote RuPaul, “you better work”! I am stronger, physically, than I have been since I was a competitive highland dancer in my teens and twenties. I am not smaller. In fact, I am at a heavier weight than I have ever been in my life. It’s both demoralizing (when I can’t fit into my pants) and self-affirming (when I see myself power through a pack as a jammer). But again, it’s not easy. I struggle with body image issues. My arms are large - well, with as many push-ups as we do and as hard as we push, of course they are. My calves, thighs, and ass no longer fit into anything that is not constructed using elastic - nor should they with the number of squats and hours of skating. Yet, these are not feelings that sit easily with someone who was told to take up smoking to keep her weight down as a ballerina. I have to work to keep the evil in my head at bay. To tell myself that strong is sexy. That these arms, because they protect my teammates, are beautiful. That the giant calves I have cultivated don’t need to fit in jeans, they need to get me through holes in walls.
Earlier this year, I participated in Cory Laymon’s Body by Derby for SIRG. I was the first to step in front of the camera, and although the images are lovely and show me in all of my sports bra/hot pants glory, they aren’t easy for me to look at. I see the flaws, not the strength. And I make myself look at the pictures he made to appreciate myself. My work. My struggles. And I hope that the images inspire others to do the work required by a strong body, that others work to cultivate a balance between the brain and the body through this amazing sport that values all bodies, all women.
Derby requires discipline. I can go on all day about exercising right, eating clean, and staying sober, but none of those things are really concerns for me. The discipline I have to exercise has to do with saying ‘no’. And I hate to say no, especially with my belief that there are, to quote Empire Records, “twenty-four usable hours in every day”. This is, by the way, untrue, and I struggle to remember that every time I see a request for derby volunteers, extra bouts, more practices, and social events. I have to remember why I came to Carbondale to start with - to finish my education. And most of the time, I do. However, derby has proved to be an education all on its own.
I have learned that I can lead on the track. I can jam. I can block. I can soul-crush. I can pick my teammates up off of the track when they have a bad day. I can let myself be supported when I’m sad or injured. I have learned that I can’t be friends with everyone. I can’t say ‘yes’ all the time. I can’t rely solely on myself, nor can I rely solely on my teammates. I have to take time off of derby to achieve my goals; I have to take time from my personal life to help others reach their goals on and off the track. I have to strive for balance. It’s tough. And it’s been a hell of a learning curve.
Now, I’m finishing my doctorate and Derby 101, and am moving on to Colorado Springs, where the (currently) #34 team in the nation resides, practices, and plays. I have to determine what my new balance will be, and where I will fit, if at all, on a team that is so different than this one. I am coming to terms with the fact that no matter what team I play for, or don’t play for, I began here, with the inspiring women who shout “Wu-Tang!” before we “Kill, Kill!” on the track. And the “Wu” is strong with these women. Hella strong.
Last weekend, I played my last game with the Southern Illinois Roller Girls, after having bouted with them for nearly three years. I bonded with girls on the drive, got to know our freshest skater, Slayor Swift (who did us proud on the track during her first bout!) and stayed with Splatter’s extremely generous family. Unfortunately, I got hurt early in the second half and sobbed like a small child when I was told to go to the hospital instead of playing or even watching through the end of the game. In the larger scheme of recent injuries within our team, mine is minor - a hand contusion that requires me to wear what is, essentially, a derby wrist guard for a couple of weeks. But I am heartbroken that I missed those last minutes with my team. We were down when I left, and we came back strong to win with some of our friends and family looking on; I could feel the “Wu” all the way at the hospital.
I’ve cried off and on through the writing of this blog, trying to figure out how to get to this part of it. This morning, I folded and packed that unattractive, yellow, black, and grey jersey. Don’t get me wrong about my dislike of the jersey...(I am a pasty girl who should not wear yellow)...I have come to love those colors. I have had to earn the right to wear that jersey. I have had to work for the right to declare that I, Belle Bruising, can and will kick some ass. I cried while I carefully placed it in a suitcase. I will miss each and every person associated with this amazing team of women. I will miss our Brigade of Handsome Gentlemen. I will miss the butt tickles, and the crass jokes, and the pocket sandwiches we sneak into games. I will miss our supportive fans and reaching out to the Southern Illinois community. But black and yellow is in my blood and blood does not forget.