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Roller Derby Brings Diverse Brooklynites Together for Competitive Community-Building

“Queens of Pain,” a new documentary widely based in Brooklyn, explores the power of roller derby athletes as they compete across the five boroughs.
All Stars action 2019 – credit David Dyte
Members of the Gotham Roller Derby League in action. Photo: David Dyte.

Suzy Hotrod has been involved in Brooklyn-based roller derby league Gotham Roller Derby for almost 17 years. Her relationship to the sport, which started in 2004 when the sport was just starting to gain traction, has been a "life-changing marriage."

Hotrod had been playing in a band for a while, and her bandmate invited her to join the league. After just finishing art school and starting her first job, Hotrod said she was athletically dormant and derby became an unexpected but welcome addition to her life.

 "I was just looking for something and [roller derby] came," Hotrod said. "All the stars aligned, I guess."

Since then, Hotrod's life has become saturated with roller derby. Before the league was halted by the pandemic, Hotrod would be at the Bushwick practice space, dubbed the "clubhouse," for practice up to four times a week, and would also join meetings there and do committee work. Her and her team would spend the day after practice in Brooklyn eating or sitting in the park. As a Brooklyn-centered league, many players even moved to the area after joining the team.

The clubhouse was also used for the junior league and a place for less experienced skaters to come for basic training practices. Unfortunately, the league had to give up the space during the pandemic, since they were unable to hold events, games, or any paid programming that would help them pay rent. Still, the community at Gotham Roller Derby has remained strong together. "The thing that you share together is derby," Hotrod said.

Ranked third overall in the world, Gotham is a skater-run not-for-profit organization that welcomes everyone. Livvie Smalls, the captain of the Queens of Pain team, notes that Gotham is welcoming of cisgender, transgender, intersex women and gender non-conforming athletes.

The welcoming nature of the community is one of Smalls' favorite things about playing roller derby in Brooklyn.

"I didn't know many people when I moved to New York," Smalls said. "Being a part of the Gotham Derby community has meant that I got to meet and become friends with people I might never have crossed paths with otherwise."

The league and three of its players, including Smalls and Hotrod, are now the subjects of a new film documenting the lives of the women as they navigate their power as world-renowned roller derby competitors. The film, titled "Queens of Pain" completed a sold-out screening while opening the Brooklyn Film Festival on June 5.

The Brooklyn-based league has four main teams — the Bronx Gridlock, Manhattan Mayhem, Queens of Pain and the Brooklyn Bombshells. According to Hotrod, the Brooklyn Bombshells have the most fans.

Smalls added that the fan base is dedicated, which makes the energy at games "electric." Some of this stems from the highly competitive community created by Gotham. Although there are separate team practices, all athletes practice together as a league.

For Smalls, that means teammates and opponents are admired and encouraged all the same. They have fun together, mainly because it is a team sport enhanced by being full-contact and being played on roller skates.

"Those things would be appealing anywhere, but in Brooklyn, it means you can do those things within a community of people of diverse interests and backgrounds," Smalls said.

The fanbase enjoys this aspect too, which is evident in their excitement to watch women, non-binary people and gender expansive people in the competition.

To those who are yet to become fans of roller derby, Hotrod hopes Gotham can become their new home. Not only can they watch the teams play, but kids can skate in the junior league, and adults can skate once a week in basic training.

The league also hosts a three-week summer camp for children that requires no experience at all and that will take place in the Prospect Park roller rink.

Although the film is not yet available for viewing, a trailer and more information on the "Queens of Pain" film is available here.