By Eduardo Cavalcanti
Having recently moved from a city that offered little cultural diversity, I made a resolution to explore as much of New York as I could once I settled in. Before long, I had signed up for museum memberships in all five boroughs, newsletters, walking tours, and lectures on arcane topics. That’s how I found myself, a few Saturdays ago, staring at an email that promised an event I would be sorry to miss: the opening match of the Gotham Girls Roller Derby season. The teams? Manhattan Mayhem vs. Queens of Pain. I would be sorry, indeed. I knew nothing about roller derby, except what Drew Barrymore had shown the world in the movie Whip It, and was intrigued. Even my husband, Patrick, agreed to come with me.
The match was held in Midtown, at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The stadium itself was smaller than I expected—essentially just a reappropriated basketball court—which was sufficiently elevated by the high level of excitement. Soon the players, each with a funny nom de guerre (“Puss N’ Glutes,” “ShortStop,” “Miss U.S. Slay,” and “Violet Knockout” were some of our favorites), had taken their positions on the track and were clomping about in a confusing struggle. Our neighbor, “Cathy,” saw our expressions and, taking pity, provided the necessary explanation: A designated “jammer” from each team had to break free from the scrum and lap the last member of the opposing team. This last member must try to stop the jammer from advancing while simultaneously helping her own teammate. Countless other rules and nuances complicated the game, but Cathy saw that even the basics stretched our understanding, so she left it at that.
Cathy herself played roller derby in New Jersey. She told us that the main reason she was there was to see ShortStop, the jammer for Queens. We soon understood why: ShortStop was the star of her team, and unquestionably the crowd favorite. Hardly five feet tall, she could zoom, bullet-like, past an impenetrable human barricade. Before we left, when it was announced that Queens was up by double digits and ShortStop had scored the most points, I thought I saw a flash of infatuation and pride in Cathy’s eyes.
On the taxi ride home, I read online that roller derby is being considered for the 2020 Olympics. I will be sad, I think, if it were approved. Among its peers, roller derby seems unique for its sense of identity: Its strong commitment to feminism, progressive politics, and punk aesthetics make it feel less like a sport and more like a subculture, like the drag ballroom communities of the 1980s. Surely the Olympics, in which individual expression is superseded by national identity, will require a level of professionalization that is incompatible with such values.
The next match between Bronx Gridlock and the Queens of Pain is on May 6th. Visit www.gothamgirlsrollerderby.com for more information.