Community. Empowerment. Democracy. Roller derby? Believe it.
One of the best things about trying out different activities for this column, is that I often meet people who remind me that each of us has the power to draw the parameters of our own lives.
We get to choose the things that define us and tell the story of who we are — and we can change or re-define them whenever we want.
It’s a wonderful thought.
Yukoners live it: The 50 hour-a-week bureaucrat is also a volunteer dog walker; the single Mom renewing your license throws a leg over her bike and tears it up at the dirt park on weekends; the family-man driving around with antlers poking out from a tarp in the back of his truck will be kicking your ass at the Tuesday 5K before rushing off to chair an anti-poverty coalition meeting.
When I turned up at the Takhini Broomball Rink to check out the new Yukon Roller Girls League, I brought an open mind … but also a little bit of scepticism. I knew very little about roller derby, but based on what I did know, I partly expected to find a rowdy crowd of deliberately raunchy, über-aggressive women who are more intent on posturing and making a valid — but in my opinion at least – kind of boring statement about women in sport than anything else.
Wrong on both accounts. I guess that’s the thing about stereotypes.
The first thing you need to know about the Yukon Roller Girls is that it’s not just a name: men are relegated to the roles of coaches, waterboys, refs and cheerleaders — “… as long as they are buff, tan and topless,” adds Sarah Gallagher (AKA Profanity Jane).
The first two criteria have never been used to describe me, and when I accepted an invitation to join the Girls at practice, my offer to take off my top was politely declined (good call).
But a special exception was granted for me to lace up some borrowed skates under the one condition that I donned a “skort”, a favoured clothing choice.
It’s exactly what it sounds like. Suffice to say, it would have looked way better on a man who is even moderately buff and tan.
But it was worth it to get the chance to hit the floor with a bunch of women who were way cooler that me in high school.
Tattoos, dyed hair, fish nets and dark black eye liner are not obligatory to be a roller girl, but they won’t leave you feeling out of place, either. They’re reflections of the DIY spirit and punk ethos that are at the core of the sport.
Carrying on an established tradition, the Yukon Roller Girls are building a movement from the ground up, drawing inspiration from other leagues as they go.
Rotating coaches, democratic decision making and shared leadership are hallmarks. Like so many other grassroots, participant-driven movements, the Internet is also an important tool: “We started out at free skate at the Canada Games Centre,” explains Gallagher. “At one point, we realized nobody really knew how to stop, so we looked it up on my phone.”
Far from being merely a philosophy, the local girls appear to take the punk ethos to heart. During a conversation with Gallagher and Shauna Jones (AKA Rough Tough Creampuff), both clearly among the local champions of the sport, they seemed reluctant to even recognize the individuals who initiated the league, preferring instead to defer to the collective.
And “the collective” is striking in its diversity and inclusiveness.
A survey of the 40 or so women cruising the floor at roller derby practice on any given night would reveal prison guards, daycare workers, students, non-profit administrators … and an age range from about 19 to 60.
“We’re open to anyone,” confirms Profanity Jane proudly. “We’ve got the whole cross-section of society here.”
Which leaves me wondering what they could possibly all have in common. What is the mutual appeal for both the 23-year-old purple-haired barista with the full-sleeve tattoo and the 48-year-old stay-at-home Mom?
I put the question to Rough Tough Creampuff and her response was as insightful as it was unexpected: “It’s about shared experience, nostalgia and pushing past your fears,” she contends.
“It’s also about doing something for the community – spending time with an amazing group of women.”
Apparently for some, it’s also about getting a great workout and the cathartic venting of some aggression.
“I’ve never been so motivated to get out and exercise,” Gallagher asserts. “… and it’s not just to lose weight.”
Jones backs-up the hard-body physical benefits by pointing out, “I actually invited somebody at work to poke my butt the other day.”
Most of the roller girls I spoke to noted the various bangs and battle scars they have earned with the kind of pride reserved for those who don’t consider the day “seized” until there are a few bruises to bear witness to the fact.
All of this leaves me thinking about a paper I wrote in university where I monitored the sports section of a major newspaper for several weeks and noted the amount and type of men’s sports that got coverage compared to women’s. The results were predictable for anyone who had already figured out how to think critically about media, but for me it was a turning point.
The women garnered a fraction of the ink that the men did, and those women’s sports that did get coverage were almost invariably individual events that met our traditional societal criteria for femininity and how a woman “should” conduct herself (and skimpy uniforms didn’t hurt either).
Clearly, someone forgot to send the memo to the Roller Girls (if they did send it, it has probably long since been folded up and used as gauze).
But roller derby is not at odds with the notion of femininity, at least not in Gallagher’s opinion: “It’s very feminine,” she claims, “but it’s a femininity defined by strength and aggression.”
DIY. Punk credibility. Democracy. Femininity. Empowerment.
I push Jones on the question of whether her participation in roller derby is at least partly about making a statement, but again she deftly defies my attempt to put her in a box. “I don’t think that would be a very sustainable motivation,” she says, and I feel slightly guilty for inadvertently questioning her authenticity.
The inescapable truth is that roller derby has struck a nerve with lots of Yukon women mainly because it’s really, really fun. I know, because Jones was kind enough to let me borrow her skates so I could get in there and try it.
But I didn’t stay on the floor for very long, and it wasn’t just because I felt like I was denying Jones her roller fix as she stood there in her very non-rolly shoes. The truth is I felt pretty self conscious … and it wasn’t because I was wearing a skort. OK, that didn’t help … but mostly it was because I felt like a trespasser.
As welcoming as Profanity Jane, Rough Tough Creampuff and the rest of the Roller Girls were, I actually didn’t feel proud to be the first male Roller Girl in Whitehorse and I couldn’t really enjoy the attention I was getting from this group of very cool, very bad-ass women.
OK, that part was kind-of nice, but, mostly I kept thinking, “This is their thing. They love it. And I and every other guy should just let them have it.”
Curious about roller derby? As Maggie Mayhem put it in the movie, Whip It, “Put some skates on – be your own hero.”
The Yukon Roller Girls practice Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Takhini Broomball Rink.
The $5 drop-in happens Sundays from noon to 2 p.m. Bring some knee and elbow pads, wrist guards and a helmet (most of which can be borrowed at drop-in if you don’t have your own).
Info is available at [email protected].