Lessons learned as a Roller Derby parent

When I found out that I was pregnant in the summer of 2004, one of my first concerns was about what I would teach my child: after all, how much did I really know? One of the more pleasant surprises of the actual experience of parenting is how much I am learning from her, including new life experiences that I would never otherwise have chosen or anticipated.

On the occasion of her 10th birthday, one of Gigi’s Godmothers gave her a fateful gift: Roller Girl, a graphic novel by Portland OR-based author and Rose City Rollers skater Victoria Jamieson. It’s a wonderful, humourous, touching story of friendship and overcoming challenges based around a girl who gets bitten by the derby bug. Gigi devoured it within hours and shortly thereafter we were googling whether this excellent activity existed in Vancouver. We quickly learned that indeed, there was a Junior league as well as a full-fledged adult league.

Never having been much of a sporty type myself, I have instead relied on deriving my personal sense of strength, accomplishment and teamwork in primarily non-physical ways. As a youth Gigi’s age, I tried a few of the more physical-contact oriented options out there (soccer, karate) and wound up feeling overwhelmed and intimidated. Without getting into the details, let’s just say that I am not a naturally physically imposing person and typically shy away from any form of sporting competition.

And yet as a feminist I was intrigued by the idea of Gigi trying it. What might I have missed out on by not having learned to fully express myself in this way? I have experienced my share of physical intimidation and even force imposed on me as a woman: how might things have been different if I had had the skills and attitude to literally stand up for myself? And yet: full contact? Was it safe?

Her Dad and I surprised Gigi a few weeks later with a field trip to see a Terminal City Rollergirls bout (derby match). We had actually told her that we were going to see an opera (an idea also inspired by Roller Girl, where the protagonist’s Mom takes her to tedious “cultural enlightenment” evenings, one of which turns out – fatefully – to be derby), a plan to which she was vehemently objecting until she spotted a “Roller Derby Today!” sandwich board outside the venue and the penny dropped.

Gigi was riveted, practically levitating with glee off the bench as we took in our first taste of derby. For anyone who has not yet had the pleasure, I often explain derby as rugby meets roller skating meets Red Rover, with a side of Halloween. It is fast, rough, complex and thrilling. I have yet to determine the finer points of scoring, however it basically rests on the lead players – Jammers – busting their way through the opposing team’s four Blockers.

Witnessing the awesome skill, raw strength and open fierceness of the skaters was unlike anything I have ever seen: urban amazon warriors in ripped stockings, fearsome makeup, emblazoned with edgy “derby names”. Derby names are the best: “Princess Slay Ya”, “Merry Chris My Ass”, “Brawl Flanders”, “Lady Trample”, and so on. I love the idea of skaters having a persona or alter ego, not just a number or position. The camaraderie between all of the players regardless of team affiliation was also palpable, and expressed itself with jokes and hugs even in the midst of intense play.

One of the things that struck us as we entered this new world is that it was unlike any sporting event that we had ever attended: we – particularly Gigi – felt distinctly welcomed. The crowd was full of piercings, body art and spooky makeup, but, as Gigi quickly observed, “everyone is so nice!”. Following the bout, the crowd surrounded the track to high five the players as they skated by, who then happily stuck around to autograph t-shirts. The kid was over the moon.

IMG_20161119_190142Come September, we signed up for the Junior league, got G Force (Gigi’s derby name) kitted out at a local derby specialist (conveniently located in a former dance hall, complete with a free, derby-themed pinball machine) and got her – well, rolling.

Again, not what I would have expected: while it was mostly girls, there were also a few boys, and the age range is immense: literally grades 1 to 12. I can think of few sports or physical activities that are as age and gender inclusive.

Including such a full spectrum lends itself naturally to mentorship, and it wasn’t long before an experienced Grade 11 skater generously offered to take Gigi for a spin around the seawall to work on her skills. Gigi was beyond thrilled and they had a great time. As it happens, Roller Girl protagonist Astrid is surreptitiously encouraged via an exchange of notes by Rainbow Bite, one of the more fearsome Rose City Rollers skaters whom she idolizes.

Now back for her second season, G Force is following her mentor’s lead and paying it forward herself, supporting and encouraging the new kids. She is confidently skating, jamming and blocking, and is eagerly anticipating becoming “combat cleared” (full contact) as soon as possible (the minimum age is 13, and requires passing a variety of skill and safety tests).

Physical confidence is one thing, but I am also noticing something else that I have not seen much of out there: the healthy expression of aggression. I hadn’t realized how even I – card-carrying “girls can do anything” type that I am – would not necessarily have sought out such an experience for my daughter: it’s rare that girls – or adult women for that matter – are taught how to literally fight their way through something, or to express these types of natural, inevitable feelings in a socially sanctioned way. And it is precisely this that is being done within a container of one of the most diverse, supportive, fiercely proud communities that I can imagine.

I know that there will come a day when she will take a big hit, and we will gasp and shudder from the side of the rink. But it feels worth the price to see our confident, joyful, connected tween blossoming in the meantime: may her derby days serve her well in all facets of her future.

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