North Carolina State University physics education research group
Katie with her North Carolina State University physics education research group. Photo courtesy of NC State University.

“Has anyone been to a roller derby?” Meg asks, jolting me out of my glazed eye efforts to come up with the Green function for a charged toroid. Fulfilling her role as the informal event coordinator for the North Carolina State University physics education research group, she continues, “Why don’t we do that for our gathering?”

Immediately, my lab mates leap into research mode. Bin, a meticulous 3rd year student from China, scrutinizes the fine print of the LivingSocial deal that has inspired Meg’s proposal. Jeff, who never passes up a teaching opportunity, Googles the rules of roller derby and reads from Wikipedia — which he would never allow his students to cite but he utilizes to “optimize his search efficiency”:

“Roller derby is a contact sport played by two teams of five members roller skating in the same direction around a track. Game play consists of a series of short matchups (“jams”) in which both teams designate a scoring player (the “jammer”) who scores points by lapping members of the opposing team. During the “bout”, the teams attempt to assist their own jammer whilst hindering the opposing jammer—in effect, playing both offense and defense simultaneously.”

roller derby
Roller derby. Photo courtesy of Bob Jagendorf.

Trying To Fit In

As he dives into the detailed rules of the local amateur league, I try to imagine our nerdy group at such an event. Typically, we traipse across the street to Mitch’s Tavern, the four of us peering through thick-framed glasses as we pass the animal science majors on smoking breaks outside the physics building, decked out in cowboy boots and camouflage.

I’m knocked out of my reverie by Meg, who jokes, “Bin, you’ll be at the rodeo club meeting tonight, right?”

He politely replies to her jest, chuckling nervously and shaking his head vigorously, when Jeff interjects, “I wonder if you video tape one of those cow-ropers mid-lasso if you could solve for the minimum spin speed to keep the rope taut overhead. It’ll be more complicated if the diameter isn’t constant, but you use frame counting to determine the period of the rotation and use that to solve for the centripetal force…”.

I groan inwardly, listening to Jeff’s animated babbling about tension and rotation rates. At Mitch’s Tavern, we can usually feign normalcy as twenty-something year olds for a few minutes before the conversation inevitably turns to heated arguments about the existence of the bar relative to the time scale of universe, or detailed debates about how to best use iPhones to calculate the spring constant in lab. Even at a tavern frequented by graduate students and faculty, our inability to resist extreme over-analysis and physics jargon to describe everyday situations makes it impossible to blend in. In the kind of crowd that watches rowdy females wrestle as they race around a track in fishnets and tutus, our pale skin and collared shirts will give us away before we get to the ticket booth.

But as curious scientists always ready for a new experiment, we agree to go to the roller derby and mark our calendars.

dorton arena
Dorton Arena. Photo courtesy of Justin Doub.

Event Day

The night of the roller derby, the four of us pack into Bin’s Honda Civic and head to the Dorton Arena. Bin winces as a dust cloud envelopes his once-pristine vehicle, small stones pinging off the bottom of the car as we struggle to find parking.

“Wow. Apparently people go to these things,” Jeff pipes in, providing insights from his preliminary research. “The team has been competing nationally since 2006. It’s apparently a pretty big deal.”

We park the car in the back, huddling together as we pass a parade of pooches in bows heading to the dog competition in the fairground building next door. Meg purposefully marches up to the purple-haired, pierced-eyebrow girl behind the check-in table to trade our LivingSocial deals for tickets. The girl had been handing out “So you want to be a Rollergirl?” brochures to previous customers; however, after a heavy-lidded once-over of our miniature muscles, skepticism of our athleticism flashes across her stony face and she dismissively points us to the entrance. As Meg decides whether to be offended or not, I stare up at the dark clouds gathering over the saddle-shaped building housing the Carolina Rollergirls.

Jeff can’t resist marveling at the architecture, saying, “This unique elliptical design uses parabolic concrete arches in compression to hold up a steel cable which supports the roof under tension. The outer walls bear nearly no weight at all. It’s one of the first buildings of its kind in this style.” I skeptically examine the well-worn linoleum floors inside and the plaque revealing its 1952 opening date before he continues, “Personally, I’m amazed it’s still standing.”

Getting Into The Game

After visiting the snack bar to stock up on Cheerwine soda and kettle corn, we survey the bandstands for a space for our group to settle. Meg cheerfully polls the group of their preferences.

“Next to the mid-life-crisis motorcycle gang in black leather chaps? Or the cowboys in dusty blue jeans with obnoxious belt buckles?”

We find empty seats near a frizzy-haired mother with a baby bag as big as her stroller, and ready ourselves for the first “bout” as the mother pulls out a labeled Ziploc of carefully counted carrots to quiet her fussy toddler. Next to her, two men puff proudly as they exchange pictures of deer shot on their last hunting trip, their broad chests busting through the buttons on their camouflage coats.

roller derby
Roller girl. Photo courtesy of Masonite Burn.

The striped-shirted referees roll in and a bearded, chubby man in a sailor’s hat tries to get the crowd’s attention over the whoops and whistles. Screeching through a megaphone. the announcer introduces the members of the “Debutante Brawlers” and “Trauma Queens.” Shae D. Character and Roxy Rockett wave the team flags, baring their teeth ferociously, while Mischief Managed flexes her bulging bicep, causing her dragon tattoo to dance. I barely notice the increasingly loud rumbles of thunder as I try to pick out the “jammer” with the starred helmet cover from the swirling sea of intimidating females, skating in skull-studded socks and hot pants stretched tight over unapologetic hefty bodies. Floor level, a group of forty-year-olds pour cheap beer into Solo cups, checking football scores on their phones. A scholarly-looking gentleman in a sweater vest leans in from behind me and judgmentally comments, “It’s like they never left the frat house.”

A referee blows the whistle beginning the “jam,” and the girls whiz around, blockers forming intricate human handshakes to impede the other team’s jammer while clearing a path for theirs. The clank of roller skates on concrete serves as a metronome, punctuated by grunts and the clash of bodies as the jam proceeds, a combination of speed skating on steroids, bull fighting and football.

Taking Shelter From The Storm — Literally

I see my lab mates getting into it, with Meg tentatively chiming into the hoots and hollers of the crowd until the whirring of city sirens suddenly interrupts.

The wind shrieks demonically, throwing sticks that claw at the windows like cats trying to come inside. A robotic message projects from outdoors and adds to the chaos: “Danger! Severe weather! Find shelter immediately!”
As Jeff pulls me downstairs, I try not to step on the sari of an elderly Indian woman — who apparently thought a Roller Derby was a good date for her and her husband — and finally isolate the word “tornado!” from the tangle of shrieks and shouts surrounding me.

We pile in the basement, lining dim hallways illuminated by emergency lighting, as roller girls circle on skates, earning immediate compliance as they bellow, “Sit down! Protect your heads!”

coming together
People coming together. Photo courtesy of lusi.

Head between my knees, I glance up to see a neurotic mother’s eyes widen as a roller girl stations herself for surveillance right in front of her squealing toddler. An inked pin-up girl in skates covering a brawny calf muscle instantly mesmerizes the child into silence and the mother tries to figure out how to respond, visibly conflicted between grateful and terrified.

My back presses up against cool concrete as I survey the space, which is strongly reminiscent of a Cold War fallout shelter, a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed by Jeff. He peeks underneath his elbow, whispering excitedly, “It’s probably not a coincidence. It was built during the 50s!”

His comment reminds me just how old this awkward structure we’re in is, and I curl tighter in my crouched position as I remember the unsupported exterior walls. As minutes tick by and the sirens continue, I notice the mother offering organic animal crackers to the derby girl, as well as one of Hell’s Angels bonding over the lack of cell service with a farmer donning a John Deere hat.

Nothing like a potentially near-death experience to forge new friendships.

The Calm Bond After The Storm

When the robotic voice invites us back upstairs, the arena is abuzz with conversation as people chat with new friends, tiptoeing around puddles, kicking aside twigs that gusted in through blown-out doors and picking up soggy snack stand napkins.

Fortunately, the tornado caused no real damage and just enough chaos at Dorton Arena to disrupt some of the social norms that tend to segregate the city’s occupations. It’s increasingly rare to find a real Raleigh local — whose family has been farming the Piedmont soil for generations — working hard to make a living in a primarily agricultural area. With the introduction of a research triangle park centered between three prestigious universities, clever people from all corners of the globe have been flocking to the area to take advantage of educational opportunities and low cost of living in North Carolina‘s capital. Typically, there’s a stark separation between these two groups with the locals sometimes making snide remarks using the post-Civil War term “carpetbaggers” to describe these more recent residents, a suggesting opportunism and exploitation by outsiders; however, listening to the Dorton Arena discussions –- which have deviated from the “emergency” at hand – we have more in common than appearances imply.

“It’ll be hard to return to Mitch’s Tavern after excitement like this!” Meg proclaims as we wipe off our seats and sit back down, watching the roller girls stretch out their legs in warm-up laps, picking up the pace in preparation for another jam.


About The Author

Katie Foote is a doctoral student who loves to travel the world with incessant curiosity and restless spirit every chance she gets. Doing physics in India, Taiwan, Brazil and Singapore funded some of her first international travels, and since then, she’s found ways to travel the world on a graduate student budget. She especially likes off-the-beaten-path destinations and connecting with locals for authentic experiences of new places. When she’s not doing physics or globe-trotting, she likes to swim, do yoga, experiment with new recipes and seek out cultural experiences where she currently resides in Raleigh, North Carolina. Check out Katie’s blog to follow her adventures around the world.

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Katie Foote

Katie Foote may be a physicist by trade but she spent several years travelling the world as much as possible. After four years of semi-nomadic life, she spent a couple years in Auckland, New Zealand and recently moved to Vancouver, Canada. Despite living more traditionally, she has insight on how to travel the world on a graduate student budget (cheap!), explore off-the-beaten-path destinations and authentically experiencing new places by connecting to locals. When she's not doing physics or globe-trotting, she likes kickboxing, yoga and exploring her extraordinary new backyard of British Columbia.

Katie Foote

Katie Foote may be a physicist by trade but she spent several years travelling the world as much as possible. After four years of semi-nomadic life, she spent a couple years in Auckland, New Zealand and recently moved to Vancouver, Canada. Despite living more traditionally, she has insight on how to travel the world on a graduate student budget (cheap!), explore off-the-beaten-path destinations and authentically experiencing new places by connecting to locals. When she's not doing physics or globe-trotting, she likes kickboxing, yoga and exploring her extraordinary new backyard of British Columbia.

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