,Photos by Leif Zurmuhlen
The table I’m sitting at, filled with members of the Albany All-Stars Roller Derby team, has started screaming in unison. “B9! Come on, B9!”
“Be mine?” yells a guy from a neighboring table, and he smiles to himself, like he’s single-handedly reinvented humor. Everyone ignores him.
We are at Center Square Pub in Albany on a Thursday night, playing pub bingo. The team is here because it is sponsoring a raffle giveaway for charity — all proceeds go towards the Special Olympics. At the end of the night, the team will pull tickets from a hat and distribute prizes to its fans. But right now: these women are playing bingo. And they came to win.
The hostess calls out a different number, one that isn’t B9, and a collective groan goes up from the table, followed by laughter. The table loses this round, but hallelujah: it wins the next. The prize is a round of cherry bombs. Di Tryin’ — that’s a derby name, obviously — looks at the lack of drink in my hand.
“Hey, do you want me to get you one?” she asks, kindly.
“Oh, no!” I say, quickly. “I’m fine, but thank you for the offer.”
Di smiles at me, and the derby girls cheer as they take their shot. I look on, and for a moment, I’m really disappointed I said no.
First thing you need to know about derby is that you have to be fucking insane to play this sport.
You have to be out of your goddamn mind to strap wheels on your feet and careen into a pack of solidly-built women at a high speed, women who have absolutely no compunction about pushing you over, knocking you down. Oh, sure, not everything is legal. You can’t elbow a girl or block someone from above the shoulders. But judging by the number of times the players are sent to the penalty box, illegality seems to be taken as seriously as the no-fighting rule is in ice hockey.
It’s Saturday night, and I’m watching Albany play the Hartford Wailers at the Albany Capital Center. The convention hall, usually used for conferences and workshops, has been creatively transformed into a rink. A hard floor has been erected on the carpet, and women are whizzing past me. The substantial audience roars every time Albany scores; the excitement in the room is infectious.
If you don’t know how roller derby is played, you’re not alone. This week I tell a lot of people that I’m writing about roller derby, and most say the same thing — they hear it’s a cool sport, but they know nothing about how it’s played.
There are two teams—each has four blockers and one jammer. The goal of the jammer is to break through the pack of the other team’s blockers. The goal of the blockers is to help their team’s jammer through the pack and impede the passage of the other team’s jammer. Points are scored by the jammer; they are calculated by how many times the jammer manages to break through the pack of blockers.
Pretty simple. And amazingly physical.
Unfortunately, the All-Stars are getting crushed. A ten-point point deficit widens precipitously at the end of the first period, and there’s one main reason for it, as far as my untrained eyes can tell. The Wailers’ favorite jammer, Sabatage Sabal, is a goddamned beast. She hurtles into the All-Stars with the force of a tsunami, leaving destruction in her wake, her long blonde braid trailing behind her. Some of the moves she makes have me breathless with admiration — she jumps over the blockers, twisting in mid-air. She pirouettes on her skates, at a high speed. She breaks through the pack with brute force. The final score, 196 to 251, reflects her domination of the game.
That’s not to say that Albany didn’t put up a hell of a fight. Particularly notable is jammer Slamchop, who passes the pack easily, skipping and jumping and pushing her way through. Each time she passes the blockers, the crowd screams with appreciation; if she’s on a streak, passing the pack multiple times during a two-minute jam, the crowd is that much louder.
I’m struck by the number of children in the audience. The vast majority of kids watching are girls. There are a few who have dressed up for the occasion, blue stars painted on their faces, oversized Planned Parenthood t-shirts thrown on over their dresses. (Planned Parenthood is the charitable organization that will benefit from tonight’s bout.) But there are boys in the audience as well. Justin Santiago, age 10, is a big fan — it’s his second game. “On a scale of one to ten, roller derby is like, an eight,” he tells me. “It’s really interesting to watch.”
Di Tryin’ had never heard of roller derby when a friend she had made through a workout class asked her if she knew how to skate. The friend, who was on the All-Stars, invited her to a game. “It was love at first sight,” Di tells me, sincerely. She tried out two months later, and joined the league. “I was immediately welcomed,” says Di. “It wasn’t just a superficial welcome, it was like joining a family. It was a great feeling.”
“There’s a femininity to this sport as well,” says Di, thoughtfully. “It’s not just, like, this is a masculine sport that women happen to be playing. It’s our own. Not only is it a contact sport, you can wear fishnets. You can wear make-up. The aura this sport offered — it made me want to be like them.”
“Joining derby was one of the best decisions I ever made,” says Di. “I feel like I’m more confident in not just my body, but more confident in who I am. It’s brought out a part of me that nothing else has ever been able to tap into.”
Ema Killjoy, another skater with the All-Stars, echoes Di. “I think I’ve learned not to say sorry so much, which is something I’ve always struggled with. I think as women we’re taught to please all the time. I think it’s been useful to have the reminder from my teammates to not apologize for taking up space.”
Ema is still new to the sport and the league. She has skated for less than a year; she has just made the B roster. She played multiple team sports when she was younger. “My brother played men’s lacrosse, and I always thought it was unfair that he got to hit and I couldn’t,” says Ema, laughing. “I was really missing competitive team sports and the camaraderie you get from that. And I was missing the women-led space; I was missing the presence of strong women.”
In her non-derby life, Ema is a social worker. She works in mental health outpatient services. “Sometimes the world really sucks, and I’m on the front lines of it, a lot of the time. That’s why it’s so soothing to be here,” she says, gesturing at the rink. “I think it’s pretty common to have people in the helping professions doing roller derby.”
Tricia McNab is a new skater — so fresh she doesn’t have a derby name, yet. She’s been attending practices for two months. “[Derby] has helped draw me out a little. I am your classic introvert, classic B-type personality. And how welcoming everyone is, it makes it welcoming for me.” There are other things about derby that McNab appreciates as well. “I was worried about body type. I was thinking, ‘Am I too old, am I too big for derby?’ And it’s been nothing but an encouraging, positive, and engaging space.”
“It’s a very body positive space,” Ema adds. “All body types are welcome. We all fit in here. We all have a role to play.”
McNab nods. “And it’s also about not comparing yourself to other people. Because we’re all at different levels and different abilities. I can do what I can do, and other skaters can do what they can do, and it’s okay. Don’t worry about where other people are. We’re all somewhere. And we make a team together.”
“It’s both a positive and competitive space. Everyone’s so supportive, yet we’re also pushed to be our best,” says Ema.
“It’s nice to see you here!” says Ema, giving me a big hug. She is wearing fishnets underneath her shorts, and is holding a big sign in the shape of a question mark — it says “Ask Me About Roller Derby!” Ema, as a member of the B-team, is not playing tonight, since it is an A-level bout.
“Cool, you guys have a mascot!” I say. There is someone in a five-point star costume running around, taking pictures with fans.
“Yeah! God, that costume took so long to make,” says Ema, laughing.
I watch as gap-toothed little girls clamor for a selfie with the mascot, cheesing for the camera. The music from the DJ’s booth swells, the horn blows, and the skaters begin racing around the track, the crowd cheering as Albany, finally, precariously, takes the lead.