Life has been a bit of a whirlwind lately, lots of derby and little time to write, but I managed to find a little bit of time off to cobble together a quick Austin recharge vacation.
Skates always in tow, I had the good fortune of joining the Texas Rollergirls Rec-n-Rollerderby as a guest skater. I pulled into the parking lot of Playland Skate Center the way I have a million times before, but this time, instead of 13-year-olds smoking cigarettes, there were improbably tall and strong-looking women in compression leggings jogging in the parking lot: Texas Rollergirls Texecutioners. I don't know if you've ever had that moment when you show up early for something that you're nervous about, and you sit in the parking lot agonizing. Even though I've been skating for a while now, and I passed my WFTDA minimum skills over six months ago, my mind was racing. It's all a variation of "what if they don't like me? what if I'm not good enough?" What if the girls I skate with have been taking it easy on me because I'm small (turns out, they're not), and I get my ass handed to me (turns out, I didn't)?
Meet the lovely ladies of A.R.R.G, the Ann Richards Roller Girls at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. Founded last year by Alison Chains and mentored by the legendary Cherry Chainsaw and several teammates from the Cherry Bombs, these girls are part of the first-ever school athletic junior derby team. This team is the pride of TXRD Lonestar (cheering on their mentors to the big win of last year's Calvello Cup), and is featured front and center on the Ann Richards School website.
I only have a little moment to update because I am traveling today. This means that I'm packing and stuffing my bag with as many bags of Limon Lays potato chips as possible. We'll be back to your regularly scheduled derby programming in a moment.
If only there were a way to bring home Kerbey Queso...
After all of yesterday's cooking (and EATING!) I decided to hit the town. I tried to go ice skating at Whole Foods first, to see if I'm any good at ice skating, and second, for the sheer novelty of ice skating on top of a supermarket in 70-degree weather. Unfortunately, the rink wasn't open yet, so I decided to catch Harry Potter at the Alamo Drafthouse.
To kill a little time, I walked over to the Arthouse at Jones Center, a free (!!!) art space. Even though I've been to major galleries and museums in various cities, I'm not a huge visual art appreciator in the same way I love narrative media like film or theatre. It's not too surprising, then, that the exhibit that I found the most remarkable was a short film "Cities of Gold and Mirrors" by Cyprien Gaillard (description/review here). The film is mostly static shots of Cancún in all its hedonistic glory: lights of a discotheque, American college students binge drinking and vomiting, dolphins swimming lazily in a hotel pool. These scenes are set to the soundtrack from Mysterious Cities of Gold, a 1980s animated TV show about Spanish conquistadors (that I used to watch as a kid!). As the brochure pointed out, the specific synth riff used is the one that signified contact with pre-Columbian culture, so it creates a really interesting conflict in the juxtaposition of the grotesque glitziness and the crumbling decay.
The scene that was the most striking to me is one where we watch a gang member clad in red from head to toe dancing and flashing gang signs at the El Rey ruins. He's standing alone, and the dance is in slow motion that makes it look like some sort of ancient ritual dance. I found myself wondering for a moment whether he knew anyone was watching, and how the film maker avoided getting killed. The movie also inspired me to drunkenly tweet what I think will be my new mantra:
Just a quick thought:
An underlying question this entire trip has been why? Why did the roller derby revival start here and not someplace else. The totally viral way that it caught on makes it clear that there was plenty of tinder waiting for the spark. But why Texas? Why Austin?
Apart from the coincidence of Devil Dan rolling into town, I think the answer is in the special blend of Texas and not-Texas that is Austin. I'm pretty sure that we have more underemployed rock 'n' roll 20- and 30-somethings, and more tattoos per capita than anyplace else in the state. We also are smack in the middle of a state that is fanatical about team sports in a way all its own. You've got a bunch of body-modded, hard-partying women who were probably forced to play some sort of sport during their adolescence, you've basically got Ann Calvello. The rest of us (likely) grew up watching football and gathering for sporting events a la "Friday Night Lights," so you have an audience primed for a violent, fast-paced sport.
Since the start, when you say "roller derby" in Austin, even the unitiated say "fuck yeah." Not everyone thinks that way; more often than not they ask "but don't people get hurt?!" Whatever it is that made this place fertile ground for roller derby, it's the Texan in us that makes us physically unable to stop reminding people that TEXAS IS THE REASON.
The next set of skates I want to honor are not actually one pair of skates, but rather a whole slew of them. I want to raise a glass to the "brownie" rental skates from Skateworld in Austin. There's nothing intrinsically special about them; they're the exact same skates every other rink in America carries. I don't know who makes these, but I salute them--these skates were an integral part of my growing up.
You see, my parents were pretty strict. Not just pretty strict, ridiculously strict (by American standards). So when I was in elementary school, the highlight of my school semester was skate night. For three hours, I was free. I would put on those funky smelling brown skates and skate in circles to Madonna and Kajagoogoo. I'd skate on one foot, tuck into a little ball, limbo like a wiry little monkey. I was a champ at red light/green light. I would flirt furiously with my crush du jour, trying to make it clear what a great partner I would be for the couples skate. That only worked once, and that was at a skate party in high school -- the agenda was a little different, I guess.
I can still remember video games and pinball machines where the cool boys hung out, and the wood and formica tables at the snack bar, where the girls would crowd and whisper. I still remember the bathrooms that for some reason had no doors on the stalls; you always had to take a friend as a lookout. Even decades later, I register a tic of surprise when a bathroom at a skate rink has doors. Most of all I remember the smell of the place. I opened my skate bag this morning, and was hit with simultaneous waves of nausea and nostalgia. It's funk, but it's a familiar funk: sweat, feet, and leather. (It also means it's time to clean my elbow pads, ughhh).
Skate nights were over when sixth grade rolled around, but we'd still go back from time to time for birthday parties. At some point, there was gay skate night, which was the best party a kid could get into on a Wednesday night. No matter how we changed, there were some things that always seemed to stay the same: the music, the faded decor, the hokey pokey. Eventually the place was closed down -- not just closed -- was bulldozed. Yeah, Playland is still around, probably kept alive by roller derby and eighth birthdays. I even plan on going to practice with my baby sister when I visit home for the holidays. But Skateworld, and hundreds of pairs of those beloved skates, like so many of the things those of us who grew up there love about Austin, are gone.
Every road has a beginning. This one started on June 21, 2002. I know this because it is memorialized in print.
It was probably about 4PM, too late for the lunch crowd, and too early for the early birds. I was sitting at the bar of the restaurant where I was a waitress, shooting the shit with the busboys and making fake Orange Juliuses out of Bluebell vanilla ice cream, Sprite, and Goodflow orange juice (it's damned fine, trust me on this). Even between semesters, I was in the habit of flipping through the Daily Texan from the stack of used newspapers left by customers. Usually I'd just do the crossword and read Creased Comics, maybe glance at the letters to the editor.
June 21, 2002 was different.
Mixed in there with all the AP wire pieces and editorials was an article, Rooooll Models by Stephen Palkot (PDF courtesy of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, text below), about something called "roller derby."
Even though I had never seen roller derby or RollerJam on TV, I think that I must have had some image in my head, some inkling of what roller derby was, because I immediately knew that this was totally rad. According to the article, some badass chick-types were practicing at Skate World, my childhood haunt, and they were going to be having an exhibition bout that weekend. The article got some of the details wrong (hint: "Patas de Fuego" means something very different from "Putas del Fuego" -- and look! it's my all time favorite skater! "Miss Conda" [Miss Conduct]!), but it got all the excitement spot-on. By the end, I felt like Ellie Dalton--she discovered roller derby by overhearing a conversation at a coffee shop. Afterwards, she strode over to the women talking and told them "I don't know what this is, but I want in." I was ready to put on my skates and knock some bitches down.
But roller derby giveth, and roller derby taketh away. The very next paragraph broke my heart as it explained that skaters had to be over 21. Derby dreams would have to wait.
There is a lot about the sport that ended up differently than originally planned. The fake fights and hair-pulling went the way of the 1970s rigged bouts. Spank Alley was turned into a line of audience members, and eventually retired when the penalty mistress tragically passed away. But you can definitely see the glimmer of the real, serious, athletic sport to come. I'm sure that you can also see the makings of a roller wannabe--I had no idea it would take 8 years, but I knew my turn would come.
Rooooll Models by Stephen Palkot, Daily Texan Staff (transcribed by yours truly, as-is)
When I thought up the idea of the Roller Reviews, this was the review that I had in mind. In fact, full disclosure, it was watching this movie that inspired me to follow through on my roller derby dreams. Hell on Wheels is the definitive story of the DIY all-women roller derby revolution. No question.
When this movie came out, I was a little surprised. Not surprised that there was a movie about roller derby, but surprised that it hadn't come out already. The film was in production what felt like forever, and I could have sworn it was debuted at SXSW as early as 2005. Whatever time it took CrashCam Films to put the film together, it was worth the wait. A friend of mine described it beautifully: it was like a story about raw capitalism purified by a workers' revolt.
Indeed it was. I don't think that Bob Ray could have ever known what he was sitting on when he started filming. From the very beginning, everyone knew that an all-girl roller derby would be a sort of "hell yeah" fun time sensation - definitely the kind of stuff Austinites eat up like migas. But in the early days at Jackalope and Casino el Camino, with "Devil Dan" Policarpo dreaming of flaming bears on unicycles, there's no way that they could have foretold what this would have become. But that's not even the start of it!
With the exception of maybe Grizzly Man, this is by far the documentary with the most edge-of-your-seat suspense and drama that I have ever seen. Grizzly Man only wins because nobody gets eaten by a bear in Hell on Wheels, although they were filming during the untimely passing of Amber "Amberdiva" Stinson, and THREE totally gross-out tibia-fibula breaks (aka rubber foot hanging off the leg). What makes this documentary truly remarkable, though, is that it catches the most intimate moments of the Icarus-like rise and fall of the She-E-Os.
I am sure that you can paint a really unflattering picture of even Mother Theresa if you edit your film just so. My honest opinion is that even if he wanted to, Ray couldn't have hidden the ego and power hunger that fueled the early days of Austin roller derby. You just can't make this stuff up! This was a very brave film to make. Starting when it did, prior to the first exhibition bout, there was absolutely no way of knowing whether this would be just a bunch of chicks rolling around in uncertain circles and people getting drunk, or whether it would be a real documentary-worthy event. But by the grace of god and Texas women, Bob Ray ends up with a riveting story of ambition, betrayal, and greed. Most importantly for my purposes, this movie documents beyond the shadow of a doubt that many of the foremothers of the roller derby could. not. skate. And they nevertheless went on to be awesome athletes, which gives me hope and constant inspiration.
I have a lot of skate heroines, but in this film I think I identify most with Amy "Electra Blu" Sherman. Apart from her git-er-done work ethic on developing the flat track we know today from old banked-track diagrams, something about her sense of justice really speaks to me. You can see a look of "wtf" incredulity on her face as Anya "Hot Lips Dolly" Jack nurses what appears to be a huge margarita and slurs about how they are the "She-C-Os" and everyone is going to make lots of money. I've seen that "crazy bitch" glint in someone's eyes, and I've been the one cutting my eyes away in vicarious embarrassment for the person I'm talking to. You can see Electra trying hard not to look at the camera in a Jim Halpert-like wacky take, and I was just like "oh I feel you sister." She and Laurie "The Wrench" Rourke really shine as the ones who rallied the skaters to take control over the business of roller derby. The bad blood has since subsided, but the sport never looked back.
In fact, it was precisely because the original incarnation was so poorly run and so susceptible to strong-willed spotlight hounds (first Devil Dan, then She-E-Os) that the derby we know today is so successful. Irony of ironies, the suit TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls brought in advised them to do what the skaters who would become the Texas Rollergirls had demanded: make the league by the skaters, for the skaters.
I don't want to go into too much detail because the movie is so great and has so many suspenseful moments that you just need to see it for yourself. Rating: Eight wheels. Plus a grand slam. This movie is one of my favorites. Not just favorite roller derby movie or favorite documentary - favorite movie, period.
In fact, I just discovered that Bob Ray's Down & Dirty Austin Film Tour will be passing through town on my birthday, so I know what I'm doing to celebrate. And apparently the DVD has some really awesome special features, so if you want to know what to get me for my birthday...