A Derby Skater Abroad, Part 2: Reflections on Community

With the highly anticipated Gotham vs. London game this weekend, it makes me wonder how the #1 team in the world gets ready for a game taking place thousands of miles away from home. Maybe they know some tips for travel and game prep that I don’t (see my previous post about tips for traveling abroad). Watching all the videos London has made leading up to the day also brings back memories of being on the track with these lovely ladies during Anarchy. The sport has spread quite far within our little iota of the universe we call “the derby community” (because even today, you still get non-derby initiates who don’t know it exists, which can come as a shock to us who live in it 24/7).

As a sociologist, it’s my job to interrogate concepts and generally critically analyze everything all of the time—especially the things I love, such as derby. What is the “derby community?” Who is part of the “community?” Who tells the story? Not long ago in derby’s lifespan, as a U.S. based organization, WFTDA was still operating on the North American centered “Regionals.” The growth of the sport forced the opening up to international rankings, and we’re finding that many of the non-North American teams are sorely under-ranked. One of the WFTDA divisional playoffs are, for the first time, not in the United States, a nod to the growing understanding of “surprise, derby is worldwide.” And finally, the second iteration of the Roller Derby World Cup is set to take place in Dallas this year, three years after the first.

Most anecdotal and sociological accounts of derby include skaters/officials praising this “community,” that it’s not quite the same as other sports—an ode to the DIY ethic foundation that if you ask in derby, you shall receive. One thing that hasn’t seemed to change as the center of the “community” expands beyond North America is the camaraderie that one typically finds and celebrates within derby. That transcends international borders.

It’s camaraderie and the prospect of learning that allows things like my team scrimmaging alongside Dublin Roller Derby on a Monday night, and then hanging out with them for a drink and some nosh at a pub before jetting to London. Camaraderie even enabled us to get to and from the practice space in the first place—if my group hadn’t randomly stumbled into Dublin’s head NSO on the bus, we might not have made it to practice on time. We might have to level up our visiting team gift baskets to match that kind of camaraderie.

The crowd experience at Anarchy was drastically different from my experience at other tournaments in the States. Going to the Midwest BrewHaHa and other WFTDA-sanctioned tournaments, there tends to be a sparse crowd, mostly filled with people from teams who are also playing at the tournament, local leagues and fans in the area, and super-fan contingents that tag along to support their favorite teams. The Guildford Spectrum hosted a packed house. And while London was the home team, the fans cheered for everyone. I will never forget the explosion of noise during the Detroit/London game when, after being held scoreless for half the game, I earned lead jammer and earned the first points for Detroit. “What, they’re cheering for me?! When does this ever happen?!”

My teammates repeated it over and over: “Everyone’s just so nice here!” Even after our thorough whooping on the track, there were smiles on everyone’s faces. It does take removing yourself from your own waters to appreciate cultural differences—and to wonder what we’re doing back at home.

As I also learned, the idea of “community” can also be as small as your own team. The intimacy you already share by grabbing and knocking each other’s bodies around on the track five nights out of the week is already deep, but you get to know your teammates and league compadres on a completely different level by being an international tourist with them for a week. As a person who typically struggles with social interaction, there was no escape from creating new memories. Watching your teammates look puzzled as you excitedly devour a fried Mars bar. Scarfing deli chicken and turkey from Tesco on the cab ride back to the hotel because there isn’t a mini-fridge in the room. Earning the nickname Dr. Slaughterburgh while filling out customs cards in Amsterdam (even though you tried to explain you’re not even close to your PhD). Filming your first ever ice bath while eating a Toffee Crisp because chocolate sure does make that 15 minutes of intense cold a lot easier. And probably the best bonding of all: listening to the online stream of an intra-league game at home, cheering on your league-mates just like they cheer for you when you’re traveling.

Derby unity for the win, from the micro-level to the macro-level.

 

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