On Friday night, I went up to Hunter College for the semi-finals of the Gotham Girls Roller Derby, featuring the Bronx Gridlock vs. the Queens of Pain. My good friend the Twisted Fister was kind enough to get me a press pass, so I got to spend the evening sitting right by the edge of the track and snapping close-ups as the skaters hurtled past.
It was actually my first experience of roller derby and despite having had supper with the Fister and a few of her fellow skaters, I hadn't really formed a clear picture of what is involved in the sport. It turns out that, for all the arcane Quidditch-esque vocabulary – pivots, jams, lead jammers, bouts, blockers – the basics can be simplistically summed up as follows: roller derby consists of skating round and round in circles, very fast, while trying to stay out of the way of your teammates and get in the way of your opponents. 'Getting in the way' is actually a euphemism for the managed application of non-lethal violence. The rules of the sport and a general atmosphere of 'fair play' discourage anything likely to cause serious injury or lasting resentment, but it's a pretty physical affair nonetheless.
As a sport, it has all the campiness of pro-wrestling but nothing is fixed in advance, which makes it genuinely exciting – not to say nail-biting – to watch. The main qualifications for skaters seem to be skating ability, stamina and complete imperviousness to pain and fatigue. It was actually a little unnerving to watch them bounce up off the track after the most ferocious pile-up or high-speed wipe-out and lunge straight back into the fray as if nothing had happened. I begin to suspect that these women are not entirely human as we usually understand the term.
There doesn't seem to be a particular body type associated with the sport: the skaters ran the whole range from willowy and extremely fast to sturdy and extremely fast. At the 'willowy' end of the spectrum, Bronx Gridlock jammer Bonnie Thunders was pure elegance, faking left and right and then shimmying abruptly sideways through a hairline gap between opposing skaters. Meanwhile, her opposite number, Queens captain Suzy Hotrod, would simply come charging up behind the pack going like a bat out of hell and then suddenly appear in front of it, apparently without having passed through the intervening space. I was never quite sure how she managed this, but I'm keeping an open mind as to the possibility that it somehow involved either teleportation or electron tunnelling.
My loyalties lay with the Bronx Gridlock, partly because they were my friend's team and partly because they were the more photogenic of the two teams in their yellow and black-and-white checks. While I was mostly preoccupied with the technical problems of the photography – shooting fast-moving action in low light calls for better equipment and more skill than I have – I was pleased when they came back from many points down and went into the final jam with a four-point lead. But it was not to be. Suzy Hotrod pulled off what even the most partisan observer would have to admit was a superb run and claimed the victory for the Queens of Pain.