Staring up at Major Wood, I struggle to find my bearings as Juggs Judy nearly falls in the suicide seats.
Daddy Ho’Maker throws chocolate coins to the crowd as Spider-Man dances in his seat.
My friend gets hit on by two cougars to his right as the girl to my left spills a beer on me.
“It’s kind of like figure skating meets ‘The Road Warrior,’” explains avid fan, MacLaren Jones.
This is a typical bout at the Nashville Roller Derby, where costumed characters are easier to find than individuals I would describe as fully clothed.
“I’ve heard it called speed chess while getting hit by bricks,” describes Jon Bates, or Master Bates, official of the game. “Roller derby is the only sport I know that doesn’t stop to assess penalties, doesn’t stop to assess score—it’s constantly going.”
Prior to attending the game, I met with Paige Craig, fan of the derby since 2008, who attempted to explain how a typical game works.
“Basically, there’s a track, and each team has one jammer, who can get points, and five blockers, who try to keep the other team from getting points,” said Craig.
To get points, Craig explained, a jammer must break through the blockers and skate around the entire rink. For each time she gets through the blockers, she scores a point for each blocker she passes.
While Craig and I met for more than an hour to discuss the ins-and-outs of the derby, the information flew out of my head when I arrived.
Jones greeted me with a Nashville Roller Girls shirt and a season pass ticket around his neck.
“We saved you seats!” he shouted as he pointed to the rink.
Unknowingly, I had agreed to sitting in suicide seats, or a small section about 10 feet from the actual rink distinguished by red tape where Craig explains “you are liable to get kicked. And you will.”
Eager to experience my first derby bout, I sit cross-legged by the rink, ready to observe the game and its attendees.
As soon as I sit, the B-team, or the Brawl Stars, comes on the rink as the suicide seats empty. The fans know it’s time to greet the derby girls as they all line up to high-five the skaters.
It becomes immediately apparent to me that I am a sore thumb in this arena.
The fans here have pre-existing norms that must be followed to the T.
They are fiercely loyal. They not only know each Roller Derby girl by name, but they have cardboard cut-outs of their faces, which are proudly displayed during bouts.
“It’s a very close-knit community,” details Craig. “You see the same fans every time you go.”
From what fans have described to me, once you attend one game, you become hooked.
Craig described one fan who has been to every game Craig has attended since 2008. Each bout, Craig said, this fan comes decked out in black and blue attire, cheering in the suicide seats for the Nashville girls.
“You’ll know her when you see her,” said Craig.
That fan is Mary McCormick, sister of roller girl Four-Leaf Roller and fan since the team was first founded.
“I’ve been going since 2006,” said McCormick. “I’ve been to pretty much all of them except for two home games.”
During the first bout, I become instantly lost. What fans see as jammers and blockers foraging for points, I see as a conglomeration of skaters pushing each other over with nothing but malicious intent.
Throughout this match, fans around me turn and explain different rules that can only be understood while watching the game in person, little intricacies of the game that can only be picked up by the truly faithful.
While I pretend to understand and nod my head, the rules of the roller derby are lost on me, at least for the first half.
As the game progresses, I start to understand that the girls with stars on their helmets are the jammers; that the refs who wave their arms are following the non-lead jammers; and that the whole point of the game isn’t about winning or losing.
Daddy Ho’Maker, announcer at this bout, boasted several times that “win or lose, this is about the greatest sport on planet Earth.”
The girls are there to have fun, but they do take the sport very seriously.
Craig explained how she once considered joining the Nashville Rollergirls. To join the team, interested parties are to attend Derby 101 hosted by the Nashville team. Though it may just look like girls on skates pushing each other around, it’s much more difficult to join the team.
“We were there for maybe an hour and it killed me. We had to do sprints back and forth all along the track—on skates. It is difficult,” said Craig.
Once the All Stars roll out, it becomes evident how hard these girls work to stay in top shape.
While I sit in my seat quietly contemplating joining the Rollergirls, trying to decide upon a clever enough name for myself—we decided upon Kate Winslut—the two girls to my left are pummeled by a blocker from the Atlanta Dirty South Derby Girls.
Instantly, I spring to my feet to help the poor girl up, but almost as quickly as she crashed into the crowd, she is back on the rink. While my first instinct was to ask if she was okay, the fans jeer as she skates back into the jam, sent off by an affectionate slap to the rear by one fan toting a 22 oz beer in one hand and a cardboard cutout of Lady Fury in the other.
At any given point, the girls are on the floor as much as they are skating around the rink.
Hippy-Ki-Yay, Rollergirl since 2010, acknowledges the risk the girls undertake on a daily basis.
“I see my friends break different things all the time. You know, you have these talks with yourself like, is this really worth it? What happens if I break my leg or tear my ACL and have to have surgery? But at the end of the day it’s still worth it,” said Hippy-Ki-Yay.
Though the girls lose both bouts, they are all smiles after the game is over. Unlike basketball, soccer or any other competitive sport, the girls rush to the fans after the last jam is over.
Since the Rollergirls don’t get paid to participate in the sport, they rely upon fan support to continue funding and foster relationships. They greet fans, sign autographs, and even sell merchandise once the game is complete.
I proudly walk out of the Municipal Auditorium, newly purchased t-shirt in one hand and autographed poster in the other. Should anyone like to join the Rollergirls with me, find out more about Derby 101 here.
Visit their website to purchase tickets for the 2013-2014 season here.