A community of women where hips don’t lie
By Carolyn Culbertson
In most contact sports, scoring points means getting some roundish object past some identified marker — skidding a hockey puck between the goalkeeper’s legs or running a football through a defensive line to the end zone. In roller derby, a skater with a star on their helmet (the jammer) earns points when their hips pass the opposing team’s final blocker. Kat LeeHong, a Columbia Roller Derby skater, calls this “a very feminist attribute.” Hips, seen for their power in childbearing and sex alone, become a material deliverer of tactical dominance. The whole game hangs on the jammer’s hips.
Players come from Charleston, from Rock Hill, from Augusta, from Charlotte. From the worlds of law, of medicine, of hospitality. One player, Ash Tray, who just joined the league, also plays with Team Indigenous, making her a roller derby celebrity. The league is diverse in the players it takes, probably because it has the kind of draw that LeeHong describes: “It’s a really good sport for finding community, finding supportive people who want you to grow.”
LeeHong, known as Painful Lee on the track, says she was “one of those internalized misogyny babies” in her youth, but roller derby helped her grow out of it. “The league just feels like home because it feels like we’re all just down to support one another,” she says. LeeHong joined the league in 2018 after talking to a recruiter one night at New Brookland Tavern. As she recovered from a break-up and the loss of her job, roller derby gave LeeHong the will to whip the pieces of her life back into shape. She thought: “I like skating. I want to skate. I want to skate and hit people and get hit.”
What roller derby participants get out of it
To try out for one of the teams, Columbia Quad Squad or the Soda City Jerks, players have to assess — a rigorous skills check involving 27 laps around the track within 5 minutes and other derby feats. Those who don’t assess might support the league by volunteering to referee, give feedback during practice, take stats, organize games, or do anything else that keeps Columbia Roller Derby rolling smoothly. As a sport developed by groups of women, democracy and self-sufficiency underlie derby philosophy.
Roller derby gives women a space to be ferocious. Contact sports are often relegated to the masculine realm because there still exists an idea that women are made of glass — hollow and easily broken. In roller derby, skaters whip, swipe, push, jump, jab, collide. You keep your knees bent for suppleness and your head up for clarity. You see the person in front of you and you hit her for all she’s worth because you believe in her strength. “To hit someone because you respect them and not hold back is an interesting thing to adapt to,” LeeHong says. “I like exploring that part on the track and seeing how strong I can be and how strong other people are.”