Sunday, April 15, 2012

Banked Track Babes

I had a chance of a lifetime to go to this thing called the “ProRollerDerby Invitational” in Glendale, Arizona.  So I took it.  The chance, that is.

It was a fun road trip & girl-bonding sort of thing, decorated with the austere reality that we were there for a workshop session with none other than a couple of world-renowned coaches, Bonnie D. Stroir (pronounced “Destroyer”) – founder of the San Diego Derby Dolls, and Heather ‘PITA’ (“Pain In The Ass”) Martin, of the Orange County Roller Girls and the L.A. Derby Dolls.  And dolls they were, the both of them.  For their worldwide celebrity status among the derby community, these chicks were just folks – sweet, friendly, welcoming, utterly charming folks

We had originally signed up to do some flat track training, ‘cause that’s what our WFTDA-hopeful league does – the “FT” in there being “Flat Track” and all.  And just for funsies, some of us also signed up to try out the banked track, which is basically the same size and shape of a flat track, but raised on the outside all the way around, so that when you skate on it, you’re tilted sideways, just a skosh.  (OK, maybe it’s a bit more than a skoshBut don’t worry – I’ll get to that.)

Did I mention that this whole thing takes place in the Arena, home of the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team, seats close to a bajillion people, a total rush if you happen to be the center focus of all those bajillion seats?  Yeah, that’s the one.

A bajillion seats shall surround you...
So we’re all gearing up on the entry-level floor when the elevator doors suddenly swish apart, and PITA and Bonnie emerge and introduce themselves.  By now, we all have glitter in our eyes, and then one of them (I’m not really sure which one because, you know, glitter…) politely inquires, “Is anyone completely freaked out by the idea of doing banked track?” 

Why, of COURSE none of us are!  We’re not freaked out by ANYthing; we’re derby girls.  (As a rule, freakouts are never admitted in person amongst ourselves, and most CERTAINLY not in the presence of a coach, captain, trainer, or famous derby skater.  Freakouts are best reserved for… blogs.)

Anyway, the next thing we know, we’re all being herded into the elevator and taken down, down, down – to the main floor, where a gleaming white banked track had been set up the night before.  And there she lay, glowing white hot in the arena lights – inviting, beckoning, taunting, seducing us into trying something that, compared to our home track of painted ovals on a securely horizontal surface, looked mighty dangerous and weird.

Thar she glows!  And the track looks pretty cool too.
(photo by Fern Aldahyde)
Everything about the banked track seems different.  There’s even a special way to get onto the darned thing.  You gotta crawl up through the rail and get onto your knees, then right yourself, but then you’re standing sorta sideways, so you can’t just stand there – you have to do a special coordination thing with your wheels and your toe-stops in order to even stay put long enough to begin skating.

So here we are, a bunch of flat track girls – most of us have only been skating derby for a few months – and we’re trying very hard to play it cool as we all creep under the rail and onto the top of the track, then linger on our knees just long enough for the brain to exclaim, “Hey WAIT a minute, what the HELL do you think you’re…” – then we switch off the brain’s warnings, get up, figure out our footing, and start skating.

The first thing you notice is the sound.  Once a dozen or so sets of wheels start spinning along that raised surface, it creates the coolest sort of “Hommmmmmmm” that you usually only hear from the depths of the grittiest spaceships in the darkest science fiction films.

NOT for little girly-men.
Then you realize you’re skating on a 30˚ lean, so a whole different set of muscles in your legs and lower back begin to materialize out of nowhere, and just like that scene from Hellraiser, suddenly growing new tendons, nerves, and blood vessels on the fly can be… rather painful.

Meantime, they’ve had the house lights on while we’re skating away & getting our groove on, and then all of a sudden some techies come in and start messing with the switches and levers and thingamajigs, and the lights go down.  Music booms in, and multiple spotlights start streaming around the track.  The brain switches itself back on and screams, “I reiterate, WHAT in the HELL…” so you switch off the brain again, and let the spaceship fly. 

Then you realize, it’s not the spaceship that’s flying… it’s YOU.

This is because you very quickly learn that allowing yourself to slow down on the banked track is a bad idea, especially on the curved ends of the oval, where it’s even steeper.  So the brain gives up on all the warnings and switches into pure survival mode, and that’s exactly when you figure out how to let the track itself propel you.  Down toward the center floor on the turns, then up toward the rail on the straightaways.  Down toward the floor, up to the rail.  And so on.  That’s what keeps up the momentum, and turns everything into controlled flying chaos.  Like the little silver ball on a roulette wheel - "Round and round she goes..."

After about 10 minutes, the music winds down, the house lights clank and buzz back on, the spaceship lands, and Bonnie & PITA enter the track.  The workshop begins.

We went through all different kinds of drills and tried out various new maneuvers.  Some were easier than others – ALL were riotous fun – because we were doing them on the BANKED F’ING TRACK!  The very first drill stands out in my mind, because I got lots of attention for it.  Stood out in the crowd, if I do say so myself:

You know how I mentioned that you can’t just stand on the track?  Well you’re really supposed to use your toe stops, and ideally not hang onto the rail at the top.  So they were showing us how to actually slide down backwards from the top of the track to the bottom, using just our toe stops.

Now, when you fall on a flat track, it makes a cute little “ka-whack” sound, and sometimes you can’t even hear it over an entire pack of girls skating around during a scrimmage.  You can sort of sneak back into the pack and act like everything’s fine.  On the banked track, it’s a little different...

You don’t just fall.  You tumble, then slide the rest of the way down.  So on a raised floor, the sound goes more like this:
“BUNK, THA-DUNK, CHONK!  Smeeeeeeeeee…”

And that’s the sound I made when I attempted to slide ‘gracefully’ down the track backwards on my toe-stops.  Everyone turned around and looked at me.  It was awesome.

Me and BeyoncĂ© - we understand each other.
There were other drills that I was able to do pretty well, even a few of the more difficult ones, like weaving yourself up through a pace line of girls – easy enough to do on flat track, a whole different ball game on the banked.  But then we went back to learning how to slide our skates backwards down the side of the track and off the little curb onto the center floor - this time with one toe-stop sliding while the other skate rolls.  I can skate backwards.  I can.  Really.  But skating backwards down a hill, over a curb, and onto a flat surface without wiping out?  Notsomuch.

So I kept trying.  And wiping out at the bottom.  And trying again, and wiping out.  I did this close to 20 times, wiping out on my arse every time, and each time I wiped out, my inner insecure child whined, “You’re never gonna get this!” while my inner warrior said nothing, took over physically, and forced me to keep trying.  And then, remarkably, around the 21st time, I managed to slide-roll down, make it off the curb, stagger about for a spell, but stay upright.  I did this about 5 more times, then all of a sudden, I managed to roll all the way down, off the curb, and stand there – perfectly upright, amazed and triumphant.  No stagger – not even a swagger!  I immediately sprinted right back up the track and rolled down again, made it off the curb, and lingered, tall and light, the embodiment of Princess Grace.
I bet it took at least 20 tries even for Lady Grace
herself to skate down those stairs backwards.
Especially in that dress.

Now, I could get all mushy and philosophical again about how the little triumphs you get from roller derby can be directly related to lessons in life, but that will just make us all blubbery, and I like to keep things light-hearted and fun.

But it was pretty freakin’ awesome. 

So the other part of the whole “Invitational” thing meant that we could watch two different bouts that day by professional derby teams – one of them being our beloved home AZDD "Hot Shots" team, plus the Orange County and Charm City Roller Girls, who really tore it up out there, and yet another being the much-admired-by-me Rat City Rollergirls, and yes, I caught a glimpse of their coach – my idol – Quadzilla.  We got to witness some of the most amazing jammers and blockers in the sport show off their banked track badassery, while listening to the infamous witticisms of Tara Armov and Dump Truck as they announced the game plays.

It was an utterly magical day full of celebrity sightings, invaluable training, and bonding with the girls.  We all got to know each other a little bit better that day, and the next day we drove back up the mountain and went to our regularly scheduled practice, refreshed and giddy from what we'd learned, accomplished, and dared ourselves to try.  Everything we learned on the banked track could be applied to the flat track – even the sliding backwards down-the-hill-and-off-the-curb thing.  Because that was something I couldn’t do, still couldn’t do, kept on trying to do… and now I can do it.  So bring on the next challenge!  Because I know that if I can’t do 'X' the first 20 times, I’ll get it on the 21st try.  And by the 25th time, I’ll have it down like disco.

My new BFF, Bonnie D. Stroir (the cute one on the left).
Right: My post-workshop hair as flat as the track back home.