June 12 was my first "weekend" in Kansas City. The family I'm living with went out of town. Ellen - the only person I already knew with a residence in the area - was still in Nebraska. I had only been in town for three days and wasn't quite sure if I was up to "going out" by myself (with my luck and sense of direction I probably wouldn't have made it back).
Lucky for me, my youth director, Bill, asked if I wanted to go into the city with he and his wife for the night. Being that I was home alone I was even invited for dinner. Excellent. It's not so bad to be new, and ignorant, and completely down for whatever anyone else suggests just because it means you won't be by yourself. It led me to one cross-cultural contest I won't soon forget.
Prior to our evening outing, Bill suggested checking out the Thai noodle shop and satay bar called Lulu's - a delicious choice of which I quickly approved. There was curry and coconut milk, sticky rice, bamboo and tofu. How could I go wrong? In the time that it took to fully savour the sweet spiciness of my dinner, I was able to share the short story of what brought me to Kansas City. I realized, once again, that I don't really know what I'm doing here or what I hope to be doing once my summer gig is up, but that's starting to be a pretty standard and completely honest answer - I just don't know.
The three of us swapped stories about traveling adventures and family quirks and discovered a shared delight in good wine and exotic foods. I was informed of local vineyards and promised to guide them through an Indian meal at some point. I began to dream of other dining delights in Kansas City. But just as my cultural snobbery was about to get the better of me I remembered the main event of the evening - the roller derby.
Roller derby (for those of you who know better than to educate yourselves on such things) is "an American-invented contact sport —and historically, a form of sports entertainment— based on formation roller skating around an oval track, with points scored as two individual players (designated as "jammers") lap members of their opposing teams whilst both teams play offense and defense simultaneously." At least that's what wikipedia says. What it doesn't tell you is that going to a roller derby is akin to going to a rodeo. You walk in the arena and realize that you "aren't in Kansas anymore," or maybe you realize that you are and that Kansas is just a little strange. This picture gives you a pretty good idea of what the it looks like. Add to it long-haired rednecks, a truly dreadful "rock" band, several stands of ice cold beer, derby groupies, a number of bemused fans and a handful of tools (the human kind), and you get a better idea of the atmosphere.
Each skater goes by a sort of alias. KC examples include Tuff Noogies, Extremely Frank, Annie Maul, and Bruz-her. The Kansas City Roller Warriors, the self proclaimed "angry, mutant love child" of skaters Dirty Britches and Princess Anna Conda, have been around for six years now and are broken up into four teams - The Black-Eyed Susans, The Dreadnought Dorothys, The Knockouts and the Victory Vixen. (Click here for photos) Typically the teams skate with (or rather against) each other at home, and travel to compete against other teams. The night that I went to the derby, however, I lucked out. It was All Star Night and the KC girls were hosting Northwestern Arkansas (yep, Arkansas).
The night started with a brief introduction to derby conduct and scoring, aided by a nifty little comic in my program. It didn't take long to get the gist of what has going on, and relatively soon into the match I was able to pick out the jammers and the pivots and figure out who was scoring.
If I hadn't picked up on it right away, I certainly hope I would have by the time that the first half was over and the KC girls were leading by 100 points. (For those of you unfamiliar with roller derby this is an insane number of points, think volley ball scores perhaps). And that was the B team.
When the all stars themselves were up (following a half time in which Boulevard Pale Ale totally schooled Boulevard Wheat in a skate off and a number of uninhabited onlookers decided to race each other around the roller rink) I thought we might see a little more excitement.
Though the best of Arkansas gave a little more fight in the first few rounds, they were no match for Track Rat (formerly known as Rat Bastard) and Snot Rocket, recently returned after giving birth to her first child. These jammer favorites scored big, and the KC team as a whole out-skated Arkansas to the point that we left early.
I was a little disappointed at the lack of competition, but completely satisfied with my derby experience. Strangest sight of the night was probably the cohort of derby husbands who walked around in hot pink hot pants, tiny tight white t-shirts and flashing bunny ears. Bill thinks they must be compensating for something.
As we were walking out of the arena a dance recital was simultaneously being let out of the music hall. I watched as well-dressed attendees paraded down the stairs and click-clacked into the warm evening. I thought about the juxtaposition of cultures and wondered which was more "authentic" - the girls in baby pink tights, crisp white tutus and satin laced toe shoes or the girls in fishnet hose, hot pants and roller skates? To some extent I suppose they're not that different in their desire to entertain, to engage their bodies, to train, to develop another "self" either on stage or in the arena. Gracefully executing an arabesque through a corp of prima ballerinas may seem the antithesis of ploughing through a pack of hefty chicks in knee pads and helmets, but I'd like to think there's some similarity.