Look around the rink at any roller derby practice and you’re bound to see women of various ages, usually mid-twenties through mid-forties, and it will be safe to assume that the majority have experienced a coming-of-age event in her life, whether as part of a cultural, religious or familial celebration, or a more casual social event. Ask enough questions at the right time during an after party and you’ll hear details of bat mitzvahs, quinceañeras, confirmations or sweet-sixteens. Dig deeper, or buy a round of shots, and you might hear about other rights of passage that might not include members of the immediate family, guest lists, or places of worship, but may have necessitated covert activity, recovery time and/or bail.
What these momentous events usually have in common is that they generally take place before the age of reason (I’d like to think that’s approximately twenty-six), and that they change the participant into wiser women, when all is said and done and the dust eventually clears. Look around the rink again. Out of the forty or so women skating, there are twenty or so who are facing yet another coming-of-age event in her life, at a later age than any of them ever expected: her first roller derby bout. In front of people. Real live people. Strangers, friends, family, co-workers and neighbors. And she’ll be wearing less clothing than she might wear to bed.
Popping that first-bout cherry takes a lot – a lot of practice, a lot of patience, and a lot of nerve. For some it’s a long road getting there, for others it’s a short stride. According to a very scientific study on my part (posting on two separate roller derby forums), it seems that seven months is the average time a derby girl waits before she skates. However, some skaters (like yours truly) wait much longer due to injuries, skill levels, life in general, or particularly competitive league or team placement policies. No matter the skater or the schedule, it’s a day (or night) approached with excitement and terror, in equal parts. Will the months of preparation prevent you from committing major penalty after major penalty in front of your loved ones? Will you have loved ones? Will the adrenaline make up for the public falling? What if you sit on the bench all night? What if nobody can read your clever booty-shorts? What if you stand out – in the bad way? What if you don’t stand out – at all?
At our home events, as in many around the country, the announcers rouse the crowd in support of the skaters popping their cherries that night on the track, bringing attention to the fact that these ladies are competing in their first-ever bouts. You’d think this would be daunting, terrifying even, but the fans go crazy with support and every jam the girls are in, every fall, every recovery, every point scored, and every whip is cheered with extra gusto. It is truly heartwarming. You may be invisible for the rest of the season, but tonight you’re golden. And from now on you can call yourself a Bouting Skater.
The coming-of-age story in America is so common that it can take place, from beginning to end, within the confines of the half-hour sit-com format, complete with commercial breaks. In film and novels, whether you relate to Dave, the faux-Italian would-be bicycle champion of “Breaking Away,” or Scout, Harper Lee’s young heroine in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” there is no dearth of young pliable characters to track as they experience a life-changing moment, and take on the responsibilities of the adult world in all it’s ugly glory. How is the derby girl changed in one Saturday night? How are these fully- grown, married, divorced, child-rearing, employed, paroled, unemployed, educated, enlightened, jaded, sweaty women changed over the course of two thirty-minute periods of full-contact sport? How? I’ll tell you how. They have taken (not “been given”) the time to become eight-wheeled clairvoyant warriors, fully focused, fully present, fully passionate. This, my friend, is a rite of passage for anyone, at any age. I dare you to think otherwise.
If you’re in the Santa Cruz vicinity, I invite you to witness the rite of passage of no less than five new members of the Santa Cruz Derby Girls Harbor Hellcats, skating their first home bout at the Civic Auditorium on Saturday, October 24th. I’ll be out there for the first time – rolling, falling, recovering, sweating, popping my cherry with my teammates. It seems so appropriate that the derby prom is just round the corner…more on that later.
Enjoy this week’s photo by Boss Hogg, in which Demanda Riot of BADG breathes fuel on her legendary intimidation fire by blocking a Rat City player with her mind.