Roller Derby and the Value of Having Space to Suck at Something New

By Kim Claire

During a long overdue visit last summer, my long distance best friend, Cait, stood in my kitchen, their luggage still hanging off their shoulders, and gushingly they blurted out, “I joined a roller derby team!” 

Just the words “roller derby” sent me careening back in my memory to a time when joining ranks of “derby girls” was our shared dream. In junior high school, we sat screaming in the crowd at local bouts, buying t-shirts and merch, idolizing the skaters, and fantasizing about the day when it could be us on the track.

Of course as junior high schoolers, that day was far off—our dream sat safely on the horizon, where we could look at it, dazzle in its novelty, but we never had to deal with the terrifying prospect of working to make it come true. 

But here was Cait ten years later, standing proudly in my kitchen, a newly inducted member of the Dire Skates. By then I had come to terms with the unlikelihood of my derby dreams. It had joined the ranks of my other childhood dreams of becoming a famous rock star and marrying Harry Potter in unreality. Not because skating was such a ridiculous idea, but because I was afraid to try out.

I’m obviously not the first person to grow up socialized as a woman, or black in a white neighborhood, but the pressure that comes with those identities a profound effect on me. When I walked into a room, spoke up in class, or tried anything that fell outside of my assigned stereotypes, I knew that to many onlookers I represented all women, all black people. I grew up in a fish bowl and the weight of so many eyes gave me a crushing fear of trying anything new where I might stumble in front of a crowd.  

Trying to enter the tight knit community of roller derby, not knowing the rules or how to go about it, and skating for the first time in years? Checked all the wrong boxes. So rather than feeling the excitement of possibility at Cait’s news, I may have felt a tiny bit jealous. Cait had done the impossible. 

Luckily Cait is also a very good person and friend who, probably noticing my jealousy and being kind enough to push past it, sat me down and told it to me straight. 

“Look, you could do this too,” Cait had said, unpacking their bags.  “It’s eas—” Cait stopped. “It’s not easy. But it’s possible!”

Was the pep talk enough banish my anxiety and buy a pair of skates that night? Hell no! But it got me googling, and under Cait’s persistent pressure it was enough to get me to sign up for Green Mountain Roller Derby’s rookie bootcamp.

I showed up to that first practice sweating before I’d even gotten through the warm-up. I laced up my borrowed skates with shaking hands, covertly checking out the other rookies. I could tell from sight that our group ranged in age, but what I couldn’t see was the real diversity of the rookies. We were recent college grads, moms, business owners, and people just trying to figure it out. When everyone was ready, we circled up on the track. We shared names, pronouns, professions, and skating experience. Most in the group had never skated, or at least hadn’t skated in years. 

The vet skaters gave us a pep talk, something about how just by being here, no matter the skill level, we were doing more than most others to become skaters. It was reassuring, made me smile for sure, but for the most part it was talk. What really let the tension out of my gut was what happened next.

“Alright, we’re gonna start with the basics,” one vet skater, Folsom, said. I wasn’t sure what that would mean. Basics of skating? Hitting? Would there be a speed test? (That last guess was ridiculous of course, something I saw in a movie.) “First we’re going to learn how to skate in derby stance, then we’ll move on to how to fall.”

That was the first thing we learned—how to stand and how to fall.  And we did fall. A lot. Like, a lot a lot. More than I’ve fallen in years, certainly more than I’ve allowed myself to fall in front of others. But that’s the thing about derby—falling is bred into its DNA. 

Any teacher, yogi, sensei, sage, or mentor will tell you that there’s value in failure, but we don’t exactly live in a society that encourages it. By the time I started the rookie boot camp with GMRD, no one had really asked me to do something new, like new new, like no-clue-how-never-tried-it new, in at least a couple years. 

It is humbling but also freeing to try something, to know you’ll suck because that’s how it works, and be supported in trying it anyways. Roller derby provides that space to folks who, in my experience, could use a bit more space to try, fall, and try again.