Fargo-Moorhead isn’t known for much, which is why creative writing graduate student Sammi Jones was shocked to find that the region had a roller derby team. Though she was what seasoned players call “fresh meat,” she tried out, and miraculously made the cut in 2010.
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Derby Girl, her new memoir, recounts the ups, the downs, and the brutal bruises of her newfound passion. Jones also shares the painful realities of alcoholism, coming out, and deciding to leave her beloved team and her (not-so-beloved) home of “Far-ghetto.”
Jones now lives in the Twin Cities, works as an assistant editor for a trade magazine, and skates for the North Star Roller Girls.
City Pages: How would you describe Derby Girl as compared to the popular roller derby movie Whip It?
Sammi Jones: Whip It doesn’t fully portray roller derby. Back then, when derby came around again, we were trying to get away from derby being a theatrical show. Now, it’s hard-hitting. It’s real. Nothing is staged. The book is different from the movie in that it’s a lot more raw. It’s an inside scoop of what goes on in the roller derby league behind the scenes. The league itself functions as a business as well. A lot of them are non-profits and they give back to the community. I dive into that more than the movie does and portray derby for what it is, which is an actual sport. Nothing is fake about it.
CP: Would you say that roller derby is a feminist act?
SJ: Roller derby is an outlet for women -- for anyone -- who wants to play a sport. It’s very women-oriented. There’s camaraderie. It’s very empowering.
CP: In the book, you mention that there were a lot of LGBTQ members on your team, yet you seemed to be ambivalent about your own sexual identity. Why was it difficult to come out given that you were surrounded by other women who had already come out?
SJ: It’s putting yourself on the line. I went to Catholic school from preschool to high school, and being gay or coming out wasn’t really a thing that was considered “okay.” You’re not sure what your family or your friends are going to think. Being in derby, I was surrounded by people who are straight, that are gay, that are bi. Being around those people, it all rubs off on you -- in a good way, in a positive way, [encouraging you] to embrace who you are. Derby helped me get out of the closet for sure.
CP: For those who are unfamiliar, explain the term “derby wife” and what purpose that role has.
SJ: A “derby wife” is kind of like a really good friend that you have out on the track. A derby wife could be someone you’ve known for a while and you both joined derby, or somebody that you meet at derby. It’s a friend that’s always there for you -- or it could be more than a friend. It can be any kind of relationship you want it to be. I’ve seen them all across the board. I know people who have been derby wives for longer than I’ve been skating. It was kind of a big thing in Fargo, everybody had a derby wife, whereas down here in the Cities, the league is a lot bigger. Maybe there are still derby wives, but it’s not as much of a thing down here.
CP: Do you see a relationship between roller derby and drinking? Is drinking part of the culture?
SJ: Derby people like to go out and party, but there’s a lot of them that don’t do that, too. Being in the Fargo-Moorhead area, a region that’s known to have a lot of bars -- I think they have more bars than churches in town -- drinking kind of seemed to go with it. I play down here with the North Star Roller Girls and, yeah, we have parties after bouts, but not everybody goes to the afterparties, not everybody drinks and gets drunk. For me, that was kind of the scene I was in up there. I was struggling with drinking and my writing program, and that kind of morphed over to derby. You find people who like to party in any atmosphere you’re in. Derby girls like to go out and have fun, but they’re not all crazy party girls.
CP: At the end of the book, you were just beginning your recovery from alcoholism. How are you doing in your recovery now?
SJ: I’ve gotten to the point where I really try to not go out and get drunk. My body can’t handle it much. I’ll occasionally have a drink here and there, but I don’t go out and get hammered. I’ve been able to get it more under control. I believe in finding the balance between everything. Moderation is the thing I have been working on. It’s been a while since I’ve been drunk; I think just getting out of Fargo helped that, too. I went to AA, and got lots of help from family and friends, and found out that there’s a whole new world out there. You don’t have to spend your whole life in a bar. There’s a lot of stuff to go out and do. And if I want to have a beer once in a while, great, I have a beer, but I don’t see alcohol as having the power that it used to have over me.
CP: The glossary of derby terms at the end of your book is really fun. What are a couple of your favorites?
SJ: I always like hungry butt. That’s a good one. It's the vacuum butt; tight derby skins that get sucked up into a skater’s butt. Or the act of a skater’s butt devouring or nomming on tightly fitting booty skins.
Flo-Ho is a pretty fun one. I remember we were at a practice up in Fargo, and one of the girls kept falling and somebody else yelled out, “You’re such a Flo-Ho!” A Flo-Ho is a derby skater who spends a longer than average amount time on the floor.
’Gina shiner is a good one, too. That’s not in the book. That’s a bad hit, when you fall on the wrong place. That’s one of those things where you get one and you don’t get up very fast. You fall on the wheel round and ay, ay, ay.
CP: How long can skaters do derby for? How old is the oldest member on your team?
SJ: I don’t know who the oldest one would be in the league I’m in now. If I remember right, in Fargo we had somebody that was in their 50s. That’s the great thing about derby: There’s a position for everyone. It doesn’t matter what your body type is, what your size is, what your age is, you can find your strength and you can use it to your benefit and to your team’s benefit. It’s amazing.
IF YOU GO:
Sammi Jones, Derby Girl
Magers & Quinn
7 p.m., Wednesday, June 21.
Magers & Quinn Booksellers