Sports programs throughout the U.S. tend to focus on building products out of people. We’ve got expensive competitive travel leagues and exclusive try-outs at middle and high school levels. Kids who can either afford the travel teams or make the school teams are usually the ones who keep playing. We’ve got this competitive spirit, a need to be the best that often favors the privileged — but our current system can leave out players who just want to, well, play.
D.C. groups within the skating community — roller skating, roller derby and skateboarding — are one exception, prioritizing coopetition over competition. They offer the same camaraderie as recreational social leagues found within DC Fray, Stonewall Sports or other leagues in the area.
We caught up with a few skating communities in the District to talk purpose, debunk misconceptions and discuss the need for pure fun.
Flo DMV Skate Collective
Hannah Bauer, founder of local skating collective Flo DMV, knows the tension of competition firsthand.
“I was a college athlete. I played volleyball for four years. I loved that sport, but you get to a certain point [where] that goes away. Ten years later, I’m still dealing with chronic pain.”
Bauer was motivated to start Flo by reclaiming their love of sport.
After college, Bauer moved to D.C. to work in public health, and they came across a few skateboarding accounts as they looked through Instagram one day. They’d always wanted to try a board sport — despite their parents’ warnings it would be too dangerous. Bauer was done with volleyball, and also done protecting themself for the sake of a sports career. They bought a cheap board and began skateboarding.
After connecting with other skaters in D.C. and Baltimore, Bauer created Flo DMV in November 2019.
“We wanted there [to be] different opportunities to create space for people to come out and skate with us,” Bauer says.
Flo DMV focuses on giving the LBGTQ+ and BIPOC communities a place to be themselves. Recently, anti-trans legislation has limited trans skateboarders from skating in larger competitions, which Bauer says is ridiculous.
“If there’s any physical activity that’s purely about skill and expression, it’s skateboarding.”
They cite Sky Brown, the 14-year-old (then 13) who won the bronze in the 2020 Olympic games — proof “you can’t equate talent with the physical size of your body.”
Skating is creative and self-expressive, Bauer says.
“Skaters have always been the outcast — the rebels of society. I wouldn’t even call skateboarding a sport, I guess; you can’t really put a lot of rules to it.”
A typical Flo DMV skate session might take place at Malcolm X Park in the empty fountains. Skateboarders gather and experiment, and Bauer teaches beginners basic tricks and drop-ins, all with music playing in the background. They’ve put on events where participants make their own skateboards, and Bauer says that inspires a lot of entrepreneurship and art in the skating community.
“I love running Flo DMV,” Bauer says. “It gives my life have a purpose. Having an avenue to support queer, trans, nonbinary skaters, no matter the level, is why I started it. The point is not being amazing. The point is to enjoy it.”
Flo DMV: @flo.dmv
sPACYcLOUd Skate Girls Tribe
sPACYcLOUd Lounge in Adams Morgan is a vegan restaurant, skate shop, art gallery, coffee shop and community hub owned by Tatiana Kolina. sPACYcLOUd also offers a gathering place for the Skate Girls Tribe — the nonprofit arm of sPACYcLOUd which empowers girls with a community-based skating group.
“I wanted to have a place for community of different backgrounds. Different cultures, interests, education levels, sexual preferences. That was my vision.”
Kolina was first inspired to found Skate Girls Tribe from the 2011 documentary “Skateistan: Four Wheels and a Board in Kabul,” a film about skate communities in Kabul, Afghanistan.
“There are a lot of local street kids within different ethnicities in Afghanistan, and none of them are talking to each other,” Kolina says. “There are all kinds of divisions — religious, economical, gender — but then these kids see the skateboards left in the empty fountain and they grab them and start to board. Next moment, they were all smiling, connecting and opening up.”
A self-proclaimed street kid growing up in the Soviet Union, Kolina wishes she’d had access to a similar community in Russia. She started bringing her daughter to skateparks to pay it forward and after seeing how most girls were intimidated, she finally decided to start the tribe.
“I think people who are part of this culture have similar life experiences,” Kolina says. “It’s a certain character set. When you’re on the street, you have to find your community to stay alive. You have to be innovative, a risk taker. That unites people.”
The “street kid” aspect of skateboarding can have negative connotations in mainstream culture — skaters are often portrayed as destructive rebels, doing drugs and skipping school—but this stigma doesn’t offer an accurate picture of the culture.
At sPACYcLOUd, the skateboarding community is subverting this negative reputation by generating economic growth and a healthier society.
“I don’t feel I should be picked on compared to other businesses around here,” Kolina says. “I’m trying to do something good for the community. Kids in skateboarding get new opportunities in entrepreneurship. They realize it’s not only about doing tricks — you can write a magazine, become a filmmaker, or start your own clothing brand.”
Rounding out her vision, Kolina is currently finishing a film called “The Skater-Prenuers of the DMV: Women Pioneering the Way” that will be presented at The Kennedy Center in September.
“This community brings so many opportunities to people,” Kolina says. “It empowers and encourages women to try their own things.”
Free State Roller Derby
In the cult classic roller derby movie “Whip It,” the main character’s best friend asks, “Where is this even going?”
She responds, “That’s not the point.”
Laura Silverman, AKA “Skaraoke Queen,” started skating with Free State Roller Derby, a nonprofit which seeks to empower women of all levels to learn and play flat track roller derby, with a similar attitude. She went to one roller derby event and decided right then to give it a go.
But first, she had to get reacclimated to skating, learning from veteran skaters who teach newbie “fresh meat.” Working with a similar system as sororities, Silverman was assigned a “big sibling,” who showed her the ropes.
“I was terrible at it,” Silverman says. “But it was fun. There is something badass about being a roller derby player. Helmet, mouth guard, wrist pads, elbow pads — it just feels empowering to get geared up and ready to go on the track.”
Unlike skateboarding, derby does have set rules. The basic game play is two players called jammers work to loop opponent skaters to earn points. Players who aren’t jammers are blockers, trying to stop the opposing jammer from getting through.
Free State plays against different leagues in the area, but also spends a lot of time scrimmaging, practicing together and simply enjoying the game.
“There’s no sense of toxic competition,” Silverman says. “There’s healthy competition where we’re pushing each other in a good way. It’s an empowering community and sport.”
Free State co-chair Sandi Burtseva AKA “Slaughter Lily” says, “One of our founding principles is to be able to provide a place where people can learn from whatever level they’re at.”
Burtseva says the dichotomy between fun and competitive is a false one; in the right circumstances, a derby team can have both.
“I would like to believe you can build a league through a shared vision — that you can rise in your ranking by working together, training hard, emphasizing athleticism, rolling those things into one project.”
As a coach, Burtseva sees derby from multiple viewpoints.
“There’s a physical component to derby,” she says, “but there’s also a mental component, a problem-solving component. While coaching, I’m thinking what we can do about situations in the game. And then the socio-emotional component, figuring out how we’ll tackle a problem together.”
Free State has taken a pandemic-induced hiatus. The organization is still figuring out how it will change and grow as players become more comfortable in the rink. Until then, practices occur whenever possible, with players getting involved at their own comfort levels.
“The goal is to have a good time,” Burtseva says. “We’re all doing this as an amateur side gig. It’s important to improve and challenge ourselves, but if you’re not out there having a great time with your teammates and boosting each other up, why do it?”
“Whip It” portrayed this carefree, fun-loving, cooperative game as intense and often violent. Silverman and Burtseva debunked this common misconception.
“There’s a perception of disorganized, chaotic gameplay,” Burtseva says. “It’s actually highly rule-based. It’s very specific what you can and can’t do.”
“There’s a misconception that people who play in roller derby are violent and mean,” Silverman says. “If anything, I’ve learned from being in a community-oriented league that we take things seriously, but that doesn’t mean we have to be super serious in the process.”
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