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Flat track roller derby is not just a sport, it's a lifestyle. League guidelines suggest a level of individual commitment that can be daunting: attendance at skate practices, conditioning, all-member meetings, committee meetings and league events is mandatory to remain in good standing. Add to that the financial commitment to equipment and monthly dues (ours are $25) and roller derby asks a lot. But somehow, even in a league that has never bouted, that just weeks ago gained access to a space large enough that skaters don't risk nausea from turning in tiny, tight circles or gravel burns from skating in parking lots, the dividends are more than enough.
The sheer joy of skating, the sense of common purpose, the sense of escape from ordinary life, of physical challenge, of performance and fun—all of these things keep me on skates at least three hours a week. And, surprisingly to me, the organizational part is rewarding, too. I've never been a joiner, but more of a Groucho Marx type: I'd never join a club that would have me as a member. As I get older, that outlook is changing. I credit the frustrations of the Bush II years for turning me into a great proponent of community involvement.
Social clubs always seemed outdated to me, but I believe that in this decade people my age started to realize we'd got it wrong. Yes, those old institutions like the Elks and the Eagles didn't seem to know what they stood for anymore. But as DIY and local-centric movements gained ground and pulled many of us out of our war-torn, regime-weary funk, the democratic, coalition-building force of the social club regained its appeal. This was about when youngsters started joining lodges again. They also formed roller derby leagues.
My cousin and go-to man on underground sports, Zach Dundas, has likened the organizational mindset of derby to the Anarcho-Syndicalist movement, an early 20th century revolutionary movement that combined the organizational framework of rank-and-file unionism with the anarchist concept of direct democracy. He may not be far off. Modern derby is fiercely independent and egalitarian. The WFTDA requires its member leagues to be at least 51 percent skater-owned and organized around "democratic principles." Historically, fraternal lodges were places where, often under the protection of a spooky secrecy oath, men broke out of their social shells and started getting ideas. Now women want a piece of that action.
Derby leagues don't have an oath of secrecy, but they do foster a sense of sisterhood. The derby clubhouse is a place where young women can talk about their lives, in a space outside of the domestic and professional spheres, and forge strong friendships with other Missoula women that they would never meet anywhere else. Even in a city this small, people move in their own circles. Derby provides a chance for those circles to intersect in playful, exhilarating and unexpected ways.
A casual poll of 23 out of our 34 official members, plus one aspiring ref, gives some idea of HGRG's demographic. Our median age is 29, and most girls are between 27 and 30. Our youngest member is 20. The oldest admitted age was 37. At least seven of us are moms, and most of us have pets. At least five of us are University of Montana students, and most of us have more than one job, including 10 in the service industry, two in the beauty industry, three in health care, three in law, one teacher and one pet store owner. Asked to describe the best thing about derby in five words or less, most people included words like badass, kickass, tough, strong; sports, athleticism; camaraderie, community, and new friends. A few girls also mentioned cool clothes.
Over the months, HGRG outgrew the space at Target Range School and we still didn't have a clubhouse—unless you counted the basement stockroom of Piece of Mind, where we held our monthly membership meetings while shoppers perused the glassware overhead. But on April 16, we held our first practice in our new home, a leased warehouse on Toole Street that could serve as both practice space and meeting room.
Finding a large home base with a skate-able floor was a major leap forward, but our new home has a few flaws. We're not handicap-accessible, which hampers our ability to stage public events, and we're renters, so we can only hang on to our space as long as we have funds and good standing with the landlords. At last count, 25 members were current on their monthly dues, which is enough to pay half of the monthly rent. In order to keep our current practice space and clubhouse—not to mention finding and securing a bouting space—we'll need to recruit more women and fundraise like crazy. But there's promise. We're a community now, and we're committed. We're dedicated to building the team, and looking forward to giving back to the larger community, including Target Range School and everyone else in Missoula who gave us a hand.
I notice now that I say "us" when I talk about roller derby, and I talk about "our" mission here. It feels good to be involved, but it's even better when you do it on skates and get to hit people.
The week we signed the lease at Toole Street, my derby skates finally arrived. The first time I stood up on them, I immediately sat back down, hard, on the cement floor. No dirt in the bearings meant no resistance in the wheels, and that spelled speed.
After a few wobbly starts, I embraced my newfound power and headed for the track. I can't begin to describe the elation I felt flying around the hand-taped, regulation-sized derby track on my brand new skates, or the sense of belonging I felt afterward, drinking my off-skates beer on the loading dock with the other girls. My only thought was that I had arrived—we had arrived. Missoula roller derby was real.
That night, around 25 skaters joined me on the track: enough to field two teams as soon as we passed our basic skills tests. We're all at different skill levels, from the freshest "fresh meat" still getting her skate legs to the hockey players and natural athletes who nailed their crossovers on day one, but every practice, we all improve. Many of us could have that skills test under our belts by the end of May.