This piece was originally published in Scalawag, which amplifies the voices of activists, artists, and writers reckoning with the South. You can read the original here.
Follow the Greenbrier River down from its headwaters at the north end of Pocahontas County, West Virginia, where the East and West Forks merge at Durbin. Meander with it south, past Hosterman, Cass, Stony Bottom, and Clover Lick. This is the longest unblocked river east of the Mississippi. As it rolls lower, it skims the base of Droop Mountain, then crosses into Greenbrier County. Thirty road miles later, the Greenbrier takes a sharp left under the bridge at Ronceverte. This is where we bear right, and head into the brief grid of residential streets between the water and a steep slope.
Here, under fluorescent lights at the Lions Club gym on North Avenue, I spent September 2013 learning to fall down.
When I arrived at my first practice with the Greenbrier Roller Vixens (now the Greenbrier River Rollers), I was sick with heartbreak and couldn’t stay upright on a pair of skates. I didn’t speak about the heartbreak, but I couldn’t hide my lack of skill. In my first months on the track, I slammed over and over again into the floor of the basketball court, skates flying out from underneath me. “That’s alright,” my teammates told me, “the way you hit the ground is great. Minimum impact on your joints, a quick stop. The rest will come.”
It did. I practiced skating, falling, hitting. And from my first week on the team, I was included, radically and completely. The Roller Vixens assumed that if you wanted to be there, you belonged.
In a derby match, called a bout, the crucial thing is to land well and get up quickly, because a skater on the ground is, legally, an obstruction, no longer in play. If someone from the opposite team trips over the fallen skater, it’s a foul, and the fallen player will get sent to the penalty box for a low block. A bout lasts an hour and is composed of two-minute jams. In the course of those two minutes, each team’s jammer will try to bust through the pack of blockers first, then whip around the track as many times as they can. After the first loop around the track, a jammer’s team wins points based on the number of players from the opposite team that the jammer manages to pass.
Mostly I played blocker, settling into position with three of my teammates at the start of a jam, locking hip to hand to shoulder. Our main job was keeping the other team’s jammer from getting ahead of us while helping our own jammer through. Our secondary job was causing havoc, intentionally or by happenstance, for the blockers on the opposing team.
Often I blocked with Ziggy, or Jac, or Bombshell. Ziggy frequently played the informal role of lead blocker, wearing the pivot panty on her helmet to indicate her status, calling out plays and instructions to the rest of us, and skating backwards when necessary to act as the apex of an especially effective three-pointed block. Ziggy is a lawyer by day, and as a blocker she was a master strategist with a keen ability to shift tactics on the fly. Jac was the team’s anchor; off-court, she acted as its good-natured mayor, organizing us to skate in a Christmas parade and jump in the river at Blue Bend for the annual Polar Bear Plunge. Bombshell veered from enthusiasm to anxiety, bringing her full self to each bout. She was the one who levelled with me about how long it might take to skate well enough to play, and she cheered the hardest when I finally did.
But it was Peaches-n-Scream who gave me my player number when I became a bout-eligible member of the Roller Vixens. A nurse and parent of four children, Peaches had an easy, unflappable way with people – except for referees, who often sent her to the penalty box when she cussed them out for a bad call. Teasing me mercilessly and lovingly for my big chest (Is that why I was off balance all the time, so easily knocked over?), Peaches asked for my bra size when I passed my skills test. Soon after, the back of my brand new jersey read “30G.”
Roller derby is primarily played by women (an identity I shared at the time I skated with the Vixens, though I no longer do), and it is visceral, violent, and very fast. Every week, my most skilled teammates pushed themselves to do better, to circle the track faster, to hit harder, to stay upright longer, and to get up quicker. Hard and soft, ambitious and welcoming – how can roller derby be all these things at once?
Skating fast on the track, to hurt someone or knock them over, you have to get right up next to them, toppling their body using the force of your own. It’s incredibly intimate, and freeing, to know that, on skates, your trajectory is bound up with your opponent: the momentum of taking down another skater might knock you over too.
Racing to knock a jammer out of play, I fell and I broke my coccyx twice. My teammates dug up a pair of padded shorts for me, and I kept skating, kept falling, obstructing the opposing team and clearing pathways for our jammers to get through. For a full year, my hips and thighs were covered in bruises. I never stopped falling, but I learned to get up faster, and once I had wheels underneath me, I knew how to move.
Roller derby challenged me to fail (fall) at a time when I was torn open with sadness and ignorant about asking for help. And it required me to see falling (failing) as an essential skill, a tactic necessary to win. My friend Laura later introduced me to the Jesuit theologian Richard Rohr, who writes about the idea of falling upward, of growth made possible only by reckoning with our shadow selves – with shame, hardship, and vulnerability. I’m Jewish and I’m from Massachusetts, but West Virginia roller derby saved my soul.
When I joined the Roller Vixens, I was doing the ongoing work of recovery from an eating disorder, and I was newly naming my queerness. I was learning to appreciate my body for what it could do, instead of for how little space it could take up, and I imagined that I might find queer community on the team. There were some other queer and trans people on the teams I skated against, but on my home team I found something I didn’t even know I needed: a community of women where anger was permitted and explicit, where catharsis was collective, where violence was celebrated on the track and then left there. I watched a teammate break an ankle during a bout as she took a fast turn and got caught between skaters from the opposing team. I watched the game halt while every player took a knee so medics could get to her. (Revisiting this memory in 2018, I’m struck by the solidarity and the unanimity in this gesture, and the way a similar gesture in football, used to protest police brutality towards Black people, has been met with shame and exclusion.) A few months later, I watched the injured player step shakily back onto skates, then help us win a game. I hadn’t imagined that caring relationships could be so physical, that belonging could feel so implicit.
Off the court, the Roller Vixens held each other’s hardships both with intensity and a casual ease. They cared for each other’s children, vented about the ordinary and crushing pressures of making a living in West Virginia, and offered meals and couches when home was too far away after a long bout. They held a fundraiser when a teammate’s child was hospitalized, and they offered advice to a new mom who had recently graduated high school and whose mother also skated on the team. Every question of survival was welcome. To be perfectly honest, I found making conversation on that team really difficult, but conversation wasn’t the point. My body knew it was safe there, knew that I was safe.
If you live outside of Upper Appalachia, then you might not know that the state of West Virginia, with a population of just two million people, supports eight major roller derby teams.
When West Virginia is covered in the national media, it’s usually because of a “natural” disaster. The chemical spill on the Elk River, which originates in Pocahontas County; the flooding of the Greenbrier the following year. Coal mining, for which the state is best known, is a long slow disaster in its own way. In a place that’s been handed so much harm, roller derby matters because it provides a concentration of catharsis.
In the course of writing this piece, I spoke to a number of former teammates who described the ways, that roller derby provided community they didn’t have elsewhere, or a space to take out anger that was unacceptable in other areas of their lives. How it allowed them to address harm, loneliness, and trauma – a catharsis just as powerful, but more intimate in scope. The track gave trans woman players a space to claim their gender, and my friends who had experienced assault an opportunity to articulate power in their bodies. My friends who felt isolated got to work collectively, and my fat friends got to take up all the fucking space they wanted.
By the end of my year on the team, I had, finally, quit communicating with the former partner I was so heartbroken about. I was eating when I was hungry, and speaking my queerness in public. I was exploring sitting in silence on the bench because conversation wasn’t necessary. What would it mean to believe I was wanted without having to perform intelligence, without having to entertain? Why was playing this game, which I was never especially good at, so much more healing than telling stories to myself or my friends or in my journal, again? What good is it to try writing about this experience in which words failed me, where failure was what I needed most?
I’m scared to make this sound like I’m healed, or like I’ve figured anything out. Even when when my team had won a bout, there was always another one to play. With healing, too, there’s always more work to do, even if it’s not work as we’re taught to think of it. The work of healing, as I experienced it in roller derby, is the work of physical play, of holding each other, skating fast, knocking each other down on the track. It’s a way to learn that falling is safe and recovering from it is possible. Trauma lives in the body, in community, and healing must live there too.
What if the work of healing must be collective, and ongoing? What would it look like to build a community in which all our bodies are loved and necessary, in which the harm we’ve experienced can be turned into collective physical force that allows us to win? Roller derby allowed me to start asking questions, but it doesn’t answer them, or even finish the conversation. Whose body is safe on the track? Whose body is able to be there? Who gets to live on the land where harm happened? What harm does the land carry in its own body, and what do we risk when we let that land carry us?
Author’s Note: “With tremendous gratitude to all my teammates, who shared their stories with me for this piece many years after they taught me how to skate.”
Diana Clarke grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Haudenosaunee and Osage land. They are a doctoral student in History at the University of Pittsburgh, and a managing editor for In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.