I never thought I’d go out looking for violence.
Growing up geeky, when I look back on high school, I tend to have to admit that I missed out on most of it because I was busy reading.
And in recent years, I’ve come to realise why I got so many frustrated responses to my “what did they say?” questions in gym classes.
My teachers and coaches understood what I now realise are auditory processing problems as a disaffected teen’s refusals to listen to instruction.
These things, added to a myriad of other moments in my growing years would make my coming to women’s sport a less than likely activity – and yet, here I am.
Lately I’ve been busy looking for contact of a kind different from any I’ve ever experienced: Roller Derby.
It’s a sport that consumes you when you find it, takes over your head, your heart and your every spare waking minute.
It’s also a sport that’s so defined around women’s bodies that the definition of what a ‘shoulder’ is (a necessary thing for such a curved object, when a referee is trying to determine the ‘legal’ from the ‘illegal’ contact moment) is operationally imagined by the line of a bra strap.
It’s a contact sport in which there is no need to add ‘women’s’ to the tag ‘Roller Derby’, because that’s what kind of body goes with the sport, by definition. Want to know more? Look it up online – that’s how most of us found out about it!
There’s a very special place in my heart for this sport for so many reasons. They tend to be as multiple as the gutsy, vulnerable and warm community of women I’ve met within it.
The experience of these particular kinds of violent moments is an unusual thing in many people’s lives.
‘Violence’ is such an inadequate word, however – flashy and ultimately failing to accurately portray the moments of contact in what is affectionately known as ‘Derby’.
‘Contact’ is the best word I have – it suggests the touching, the bruising, the feeling and abrasions that make up the sport and its community.
Yes, the experience of such intense moments of contact is rare for many. Usually we seek personal space. We shy from hits, and we certainly don’t ask for them, or see their trading as a marker of respect. We see bruising and sore skin, abrasions, as negative things to be hidden, covered and ultimately best avoided.
Not in Derby.
No, Derby gathers together women who fit all kinds of different moulds, none of which really look much like the stereotypes of ‘mother’, ‘maiden’ and ‘hag/whore’ that women have been handed time and again over the years (of course one could add a number of further stereotypes to this list, including ‘worker’).
The one thing they seem to have in common with any predictability is their enthusiasm for the sport.
These moments of contact built into derby seem to me to defy a classic transformational rhetoric.
Some people see it as anger management, in the sense in which Gloria Steinem pronounced her desire to make buttons emblazoned with the tagline ‘The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off’.
Some people use this community as I do, to work with the beat of my underlying anxieties, next to those with a great probability of understanding my experience, and do the scary anyway.
To meet another body intentionally, risk a moment of harm and come out unscathed and more tactically or bodily aware shifts the spectrum of my life’s possibilities slightly.
Apply two to four times a week.
Add cheering audience.
And now you have a community built around principles, which understands the unshrinking hard, tactical bodily block as a sign that you respect me, my ability, want to train me, work with me, love me, be my community and meet me eye to eye, sweating beside me, uncaring whose sweat is whose as they mingle, knowing we’ll have this moment in our memories as just as strong a moment of partnership and camaraderie as the drink we might well have together in the pub afterwards.
(Note: afterwards, kids – this kind of demanding athletics has no time for players who aren’t focused, with their heads in the game).
Genevieve D Berrick is also known as The Notorious E.V.E., and has been associated with Roller Derby since 2007. She skates with the Victorian Roller Derby League (VRDL), and has had the good fortune to travel and skate with leagues across the world. She has lectured and presented at conferences on Roller Derby, but her favourite was running a derby geek workshop at Rollercon 2010. She is also a postgraduate student in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.