The Incredible Hulk. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Batman. Superman. Iron Man. Spider Man. The duality of man is such a common literary device that metaphors for it have become cliché. Every coin has two sides, they say, and the American mythos is so heavily based on the idea that it has become nearly impossible to grow up here without a sense that we all have a secret identity and a hero lurking within. Or maybe a villain.
And while the bulk of American literature on the subject has been male-centric, there’s no shortage of women with two sides either; ever since 1941, when William Marston put pen to paper to create a whole new concept of female empowerment, breaking Wonder Woman free from the staid shackles of congenial society, the world was changed. Here was a woman as sexually-charged as any, wielding amazing power and on a steady course true north on the moral compass; her red and gold bodice, blue shorts and white stars highlighting the path. It’s fitting, then, that a jammer in Roller Derby wears a star.
…The bout action is fast and furious. Skaters fly past jockeying for position, the jammer for the Honkytonk Hangovers struggling to break through the Mile High Club’s line of blockers. She dips to her right, grabs the hand of a pivot and shoots past a bigger Mile High blocker, careening precariously on one skate. The crowd roars as she breaks through, allowing herself a momentary grin as she accelerates to grab some more points before calling off the jam.
Moon Yang is a Roller Doll, playing blocker for the Green Barrettes, one of the three teams in the Denver Roller Dolls league. She speaks robotically, still a little nervous at the prospect of being interviewed. Her sweetness and demeanor are a little disarming, something unexpected from a woman who spends half of her time slamming her body into other women while skating as fast as she can on a hard, unforgiving, flat track.
And she’s a far cry in person from the woman she portrays online. Her MySpace page is an extension of the persona she’s created (or maybe the persona she’s created is sitting here in the bar now, it’s still too early to tell). Her roller derby name is Geisha X—all the women adopt pseudonyms on the track. On Myspace, the sweet, smiling picture of her is a contrast to the rest of her page. There’s stark white lettering on a black background, with a quote at the top that reads, “…Speed, Sarcasm and Patriotism Punctuated with Massive Firepower and Hardcore Music.” Further on down the page, she paints the picture of an angry woman, sick of ethnic-fueled bigotry:
“Geisha X grew up in a time where it was either Chinese or Japanese. …She was bombarded by ignorance both malicious and benign. ‘Is that origami in your hair?’ ‘Asian is like being white.’ ‘Was your father a serviceman?’ ‘Are you from North or South Korea?’ ‘My grandson’s girlfriend is Vietnamese, she is really sweet, such a hard-worker!’ ‘You’d make a good geisha.’ ‘Wow, you speak English so good, I couldn’t even hear your accent!’ …Her anger built, seething boiling rage beneath the sweet obedient smile and thick glasses. What she could not express in words she vented in raw speed. First behind the wheel and then on all eight wheels of her quads. Me hurt you long time. No, I won’t walk on your back, but I will skate on your face—FOR FREE! No, I do not know a secret password for a ‘happy ending.’ The only ending you’re getting is a painful one.”
She seems almost a little sheepish when the question about her online diatribe comes up. “I’m first generation, but I was born here,” she says. “I’m as American as you are, I speak English. I grew up in Maryland. I’m just tired of people’s ignorance.”
She delves into a recent pick-up attempt she deflected as an example. “The guy said, ‘hey Yoko Ono.’ Like, that’s supposed to be some sort of come on?” Indeed, not only did the chump choose a woman often designated as the reason for the breakup of the greatest band in history, but a physically unattractive one at that.
The truth is, Moon does have plenty to be angry about based on racism alone, but that stuff is just method. It’s something to be tapped into for playing a role, perhaps, but basic ignorance isn’t enough to go ballistic and to don the tights and the armor and step into real battle. Especially the way Moon does it.
…The Mile High Jammer bounces right back on the next jam, nimbly shooting through the Heartbreaker’s blocker line like a hummingbird, hesitating slightly, darting to one side and then the other, hesitating again and then shooting through a tiny hole that opens only for a moment. The crowd roars as she bolts into the open, racking up a few of points…
Roller Derby isn’t a new sport. But it is a New Sport. Roller Derby was a term trademarked back in 1935 by a Montana-bred man named Leo Seltzer who is widely credited as the father of the sport. For much of the 70-some-odd years since, it has existed as little more than a sideshow—dismissed by the mainstream press as an offshoot of professional wrestling for women on wheels (although, both male and mixed-leagues have existed over the years). But it is now seeing its strongest revival yet as thousands of women across the country have organized their own leagues, building a new, wholly inclusive subculture from the ground up—inspired, no doubt, by the popularity of the A&E reality TV show Rollergirls, which cartwheeled through the lives of the women of the Texas Roller Girls league, on and off the track .
These women run the gamut, from punk rock mom to soccer mom, professional to paraprofessional, single, married, lesbian, straight, younger, older, bigger, smaller—anyone who can handle the grueling physical demands.
By day they are teachers or mild-mannered reporters for a daily metropolitan newspaper. Come derby nights, knee and elbow pads and helmets replace business suits or surgical scrubs or aprons.
Although rules vary from league to league, the basic approach is the same: Each team sends five women onto an oval track. One woman from each team is designated as the jammer, and she’s the only one who can score points. Each jammer scores points by lapping the other team’s players (called blockers and pivots), and it’s their job to get in her way. Each “play” is called a “jam.” Play is broken up over two 30-minute periods.
Roller Derby is fast and physical, injuries are common and the women are tough. Really tough. Mickey Rourke in Sin City tough.
…The women come around the far corner fast. One a little too fast, and she loses her balance, careening into the flimsy cushioned barrier. She takes down a six-and-a-half-foot-tall man like a bowling pin and as he goes down onto his back, he’s cheering, left hand held high with his oversized can of PBR to avoid spilling a drop. Before he’s even landed, she’s back on her skates and pounding hard to catch
Moon knows how rough it can get. She’s sidelined with a torn PCL and badly strained ACL in her knee.
It’s a Friday night and the line outside the Denver Coliseum is long. The bout tonight features the Mile High Club against the Honkytonk Heartbreakers, who made a trip up from Austin, Texas. Moon’s manning a booth on one side of the track, selling Denver Roller Dolls swag—T-shirts and stickers and buttons. That’s one interesting part of this league: The women don’t just skate, they do everything else, too.
“There are several different committees,” Moon says a couple weeks later. The diminutive Asian-American—a first generation U.S. citizen whose parents immigrated from Korea—is beautiful. And reserved. She speaks in a remarkably soft tone, and to hear her over the din of a bustling happy hour requires effort. “Each roller doll has to pick a committee. I chose the PMS committee.”
The eyebrow cocks automatically at the acronym; Moon smiles. “Everyone reacts like that. No, it stands for Promotions Marketing and Sponsorship.” Other committees handle things like bout production and partnerships with charities—something the Denver Roller Dolls is big on. “We partner up with a different charity or nonprofit at every bout. Or we organize events where we’ll appear and work with the group to help raise awareness. It helps us get the word out about roller derby and helps them with their cause.”
…Two blockers, one from each team, are throwing shoulders as they come around the near end of the track, both baring teeth and grunting. Their struggle gets heated and the shoulders give way to elbows, but the refs don’t see it. Finally the Mile High blocker takes advantage of the leverage she has being on the inside of the track and sends the Heartbreaker spinning out of control, all elbow pads and kneepads, into her own back line on the bench. The Heartbreaker shoots an angry look at the referee as she rises to her knees, hands out as if to deliver a not-so-subtle message, “Where’s the foul?!”
Moon’s fearless, says teammate Kelly Yaker (known on the track as Dulce de Mentia), who is amazed by her “willingness to charge into any pack and take out whoever is in the way.”
Of course, that no-holds barred play is a double-edged sword. “(It) sometimes ends up turning into a weakness as she has injured herself pretty badly a few times,” Yaker says. It’s easy to assume her ferocity simply comes from a place borne of dealing with knuckleheaded white frat boys looking for a thrill with an Asian goddess. It doesn’t.
Moon moved to Colorado just a couple years ago, following her mother and stepfather who moved out here almost a decade ago. (Her biological father has been out of the picture since she was 3.) The end of a relationship gone horribly wrong—a two-year engagement to an abuser—precipitated her move west.
Moon finally scratches the surface of what really drives her, the schism in her soul that comes after breaking free from the bondage of such a horrific situation. She won’t delve too far into the details; the pain is still too fresh, the nightmares still too frequent. Suffice to say, she did have to fly back east several months ago to testify at his trial on felony kidnapping charges. Bottom line, she spent a long time shackled in a situation many other women might never break free from, and Roller Derby has provided a perfect, empowering outlet for her to reclaim her strength and confidence.
She is woman, and she’s roaring.
“I wish I had known,” she says. “When it’s happening to you, you don’t even see it happening. It starts off slowly, little things that he uses to gain control over you. I was a bartender and he wanted me to stop working nights. He was jealous all the time. Suddenly you don’t have a way to make your own living any more. And then there was the curfew. And all these other things start happening, this control taking over your life.”
Then, the little things grew into bigger things until it became physical, and by then, she was literally trapped with no way out. Thankfully, Moon was strong enough to wrest control back and escape from her nightmare, leaving the East Coast for the beauty of Boulder and soon, the calling of Roller Derby.
“I really needed this outlet,” she says. “It’s a great way to vent my frustrations, and I get to be far more aggressive than I am in my everyday life.”
Her everyday life certainly doesn’t leave much room for high-speed collisions, something she actually relishes: “I love speed,” she confesses. “I drive fast, and I skate fast. Can’t get enough of it.”
…The next group takes their places, the pack of blockers and pivots all on one line, the two jammers several feet behind them on another. The whistle blows and they’re off, at first it’s just a mess of bodies and the sounds of skates clacking against each other and the track, but it thins out as they come around the second turn, teeth are gnashing and faces are red as the jammers both try to struggle past. Around the third turn, four blockers end up in a heap against the cushions, and the crowd’s on their feet as it looks like the Mile High jammer’s got an edge…
By day, Moon works customer service for the Westminster-based Dalbey Education Institute, teaching adults “How to Win in the Cash Flow Business.”
Not exactly the kind of career you’d expect a roller riot-girl to pursue.
But, there’s that pesky other side to Moon, the smiling, shy, demure woman with her stylish glasses and quiet demeanor. The one who wants to be a writer, who was almost an IT geek until she realized she hated it. The one who likes working with people.
“She can come off as a shy person, but once someone gets to know her they realize her reality is different than her first impression,” confides Donnie Chapman, Moon’s team leader in the customer service department at Dalbey. “Because of (our) friendship I went to my first Roller Derby bout to watch her skate. …She has a burning desire for destruction when she’s on wheels but looks sweet and innocent at the same time. It reminds me of the first impressions she made with me, sweet and a little sour. A good blend of both worlds.”
While friendship comes easily off the track, it’s on the track where the warrior code breeds the deep loyalties that come only from the battlefields.
“It gets rough out there,” Moon says, “but we always leave it on the track. There’s never any problems at after parties or anything like that. We’re all out there together, so even though a girl may be on another team, we can be friends.”
…Girls from the Bad Apples and the Green Barrettes manning the swag booth both cheer on their interleague rivals, who are showing signs of vulnerability to the more experienced Austin-based team. The Mile High girls are tough and have plenty of grit, but the Austin team has experience on their side, and it’s showing. It’s beginning to look like only a matter of time before the scrappy homers from Denver get handed a Texas-sized loss. It won’t be the end of the world…
In fact, one of her closest friends is just that: a rival member on another team.
Sara Downey, a.k.a. Sports Racer (currently on leave from the Bad Apples team), met Moon when they were both rookies.
“I know that Moon tried out the same night I did, but I was just trying to stay vertical on my skates—I couldn’t skate at all—so I didn’t notice her, or anyone else for that matter, until the second month or so of being a Doll,” Downey says. “I just remember all of a sudden we were…good friends and I was thrilled. I remember thinking, ‘I have no idea how I made these friends, but hot damn, I’m glad I did.’ It was like suddenly finding something you’ve been looking for right under your nose. It was so easy, so unexpected, so natural and so great that I have been writing a children’s book about it. It’s mostly inspired by how amazing the other girls are!”
It seems the book’s writing itself; Downey’s story being such a parallel for Moon’s: “DRD holds a special place in my heart for many reasons,” she says. “The main reason being the friends I’ve made playing derby. I was in a really bad relationship with a rather bad man and when it finally ended, my Dolls picked me up and helped me get on my feet. I would have never had the strength as a person to get out of the relationship had it not been for derby and my beloved Dolls.”
It’s almost ironic, then, that the best way to help Downey get back on her feet was to start by getting knocked off of them.
“I’ll never forget the first time (Moon) hit me as an opposing team player,” she recounts. “I hadn’t mentally wrapped my head around the fact that my dear friend was gonna start kicking my ass.”
…The final score: Honkeytonk Heartbreakers 135, Mile High Club: 116. It’s a tough loss, but also a win, as a strong crowd has turned out for the bout—and there don’t appear to be any significant injuries. The entertainment experience for spectators is pure—speed, adrenalin and just enough titillation to keep the grownups interested without being inappropriate for the youngsters. Worth every penny of the $15 price of admission…
Ultimately, that’s why these women do what they do. They’re fighters. Dolls like Moon and Downey have faced some of the toughest challenges a woman could ever face—situations that literally destroy people. Instead of folding, they banded together, learning to turn that destruction outward instead of inward, to become something greater together. To bear destruction as a tool of rebirth.
Destruction on wheels.