Bike Polo, Performance Art, Feminist action

A Conversation between Danielle Khleang and Bernadette Watts.

Danielle Khleang, Elodie Martini, and Johanna "Jo" Lemm played their first tournament together as Ruckus at the 2015 Ladies Army Tournament in San Francisco California taking fourth place. Screenshot from @Ruckus_BikePolo. © Gitti La Mar.

Hardcourt Bike Polo is an international sport that only a handful of people in the world play. It has its roots in late 1990s Seattle bike messenger culture. I like to describe it as hockey meeting BMX on a tennis court with three aside. This bewildering game was my call to action as a 21-year-old woman beginning her first year of undergraduate studies in art history in 2013. The worlds we traverse today were so different then. We hadn’t witnessed the Trump presidency, social media-fueled #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, or a global pandemic. The first president I ever voted for, Barack Obama, was beginning his second term. Not knowing anything of what was going to come, I stepped into the full presence of my body active in space as a semiotic agent. From 2013 to 2018, I kept putting one pedal in-front of the other communicating that the chains we live by are socially produced and internalized. My goal was reifying a post-gender utopia in which the female body wasn’t the weaker sex, wasn’t a victim of sexual violence, psychological abuse, or entertainment. Basically, seeking acceptance as a full human entitled to respect and high expectations. To me, this informalized sport with a weak ruleset that hadn’t divided competitive play by gender was the opportunity to influence the world by influencing a small community. This approach to bike polo was informed by my art history education and is specifically indebted to artists working with identity, notably feminism and Black liberation. Because of their art engagements with public space, whenever I was playing bike polo, I understood it as performing in the public sphere. Thus, for me bike polo is performance art and activism. I’ve tried for years to put in written words this vast experience, but it took until shortly after my 30th birthday to make it happen. If bike polo will have any legacy at all, one of the names that will be remembered is Bernadette “Bird” Watts. A first-generation woman bike polo player, Bird is among the most influential players in the game and still on the court intimidating whoever comes up against her. I asked her to help me get this story out but what really unfolded is a conversation between me and Bird getting into, not just bike polo as performance art and feminist action, but our experiences as women playing a male-dominated mixed gender contact sport. 

Bird during the final of the 2016 Ladies Army coed tournament. She would later score the game winning goal in overtime. © Gitti La Mar.

Bird: I think about polo all the time and I like the way you framed it for this interview, “sport as performance art and activism for gender equity”. That’s a great way to frame it and I want to hear more about your thoughts. Specifically sport as performance art. The way you move on the court is almost like a dance with your teammates or with your defense.

Danielle: I would say that the performance art and feminist action are inseparable for me in the way that I play bike polo, but I could come back to what you’re saying if you were to separate it. Anyone who plays a sport might agree that, first and foremost, the enjoyment of sport comes from the creativity that we get to express through our bodies. And I think that’s what makes it addictive. This ability to create action and movement, you know? That has a lot of similarities with performance art, where it’s about that moment in time and what you do in that moment in time. Performance can be a lot of different things like dance, weird durational pieces and so on. I definitely think that sport is one of those things that can be performance art, for sure. Because when you perform art, it’s not always choreographed or pre-planned. But there is a lot of preparation that goes into it just like when we play bike polo. We prepare a lot to be able to do what we do in those clutch moments. 

Bird: Ahh ahha! And oftentimes there is an objective that was created. Or rulesets that are followed by the artist or the person performing.

Danielle: Totally. Humans love to create rules for themselves in every setting. Like if you think about it, the spaces that we occupy, whether work, hanging out with friends, playing a game, whatever! They create a parameter for ourselves to understand how to behave in that circumstance, boundaries. Or how to bend the boundaries. I feel like sometimes we make the rules just to break and bend the rules. 

Bird: Yeah, for sure. We tend to play with them. See how they can shift. Can you tell me a little bit about your backstory?

Danielle: I started playing bike polo when I started going to the University of Washington as an undergraduate student majoring in art history. And my very first class there, day one at 9am, there was this exhibition happening at the Seattle Art Museum, traveling from the Centre Pompidou in Paris called “Elle”. It was basically a group show of everyone who’s somebody in the Western canon of feminist art. I don’t think all the artists included in that show would agree with that label, nor does it mean that feminism is all that their work does, but this is how my memory categorizes them.

My first class, taught by Kolya Rice, was all about the exhibition. It opened me up to this intersection of art and social action in a really, really big way that I didn’t necessarily get when I was at community college or in high school. From then, two artists who really inspired my thinking and approach to bike polo are Adrian Piper and Suzanne Lacy.

Adrian Piper speaking about performance and space.

In addition to being an artist, Piper is also a philosopher so, you know her work is so layered and expansive and honestly, I can’t capture the complexity of her work in this conversation but I want to to highlight the artworks ‘My Calling (Cards) #1 and #2’. These were two cards, like business cards, that she made available to the public at exhibitions and I assume she used herself, to handout when confronting racism and sexism. To paraphrase:

‘My Calling (Card) #1’ says: I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark… I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.

And ‘My Calling (Card) #2 says: I am not here to pick anyone up, or to be picked up. I am here alone because I want to be here, ALONE… This card is not intended as part of an extended flirtation.

A blog post in a local Seattle paper succinctly captures the framework for these cards. The author states that, “Piper argues that identity is a performance you take part in regardless of whether you consent to it or not. At dinner parties, cocktail hours, bars, discos, or small gatherings, we are all on a roasting spit of perception and stereotype.”

Suzanne Lacy's 'Three Weeks In May' 1977

By Lacy, there’s one project specifically that’s seared in my mind. It’s called “Three Weeks in May”. For three weeks in May, somewhere down in California, Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz coordinated three weeks of activities about violence against women. They did a lot of things. They had this map of L.A., every time there was a report of violence against women or an attempted rape or rape, they would stamp it on the map. Then they would go to the general area of the city and write on the sidewalk that this happened here in this space. There was another part of it where like, all these women who had experienced sexual assault occupied the space above the audience. The viewer would walk into the room and these women were like up in the rafters naked and covered in red paint. There’s this image in my memory from this performance there. No joke, I remember like a skinned lamb on the wall. That’s what it looks like in my mind. It’s a very intense. There’s more but I think it was about them reclaiming their agency after this traumatic experience. 

So what do Piper and Lacys’ works have in common? It’s this engagement with public space to interrogate the meanings, behaviors, relations and violence our bodies produce and/or endure in those spaces. And so, for me, coming back to bike polo, what is bike polo? It’s something that we do in public space at a tennis court or basketball court that we makeshift into a polo court and these places are in the public sphere. I think of them as being very common, spaces that we all have access to, and though we all have access, they’re not really equitable. Maybe this is changing, but if you went to any public park to play sports in 2013, when I started playing, these public spaces were oftentimes occupied and dominated by men. And in my club, I definitely felt this culture of diminishing women players. Sure, maybe you could boil it down to a few people but at the end of the day it was one thing among many others that reflected the toxicity of our broader society at a community level. 

So, the agency of the female body, playing bike polo in public spaces redefines who has ownership of that space and comfortability within it. For me, it was both interrogation and play. That was the route for me of polo and performance art. What is it that my body did in that space? By tweaking one social norm to something unexpected, how does it change the reading of the entire scene?

It said something different about who could be there and what kind of agency people with bodies like ours, or people who perhaps think of themselves as being from marginalized communities could enact. 

Bird: As you’re redefining who has ownership of this space, I wanna know how it felt for you to play in that space? Did it feel natural? Did you have to change the way you acted to feel comfortable, or carve out a space for yourself within it? Misogyny is in our face everyday, at work, school, in the news. To be up close with it, with your body on the court, for me it felt like my opportunity to blow that up.

Danielle: Bird, it was awful. haha. I was terrified in different ways throughout the six years that I played. And of course I felt like a boss sometimes but other times I crumbled, specifically at pickup in the early days, it was like constant self-surveillance.

Bird: In any sport, when women are the minority, for example, any basketball court in any city around the country, there may be one woman and nine guys playing a game. The woman is always going to be on display. It’s something that a lot of male body players don’t think about. There are all these things that are on our minds at any given moment. I love playing. I like showing off for people. I love when people watch me but then other times it’s distracting and inhibiting. The feeling like you can’t be bad at this thing because so many people are watching you and judging you more closely than they would be some of the male players on the court. Or comparing you to them. Trying to see if you’re good enough to be there. 

Danielle: I really agree with you. Around when I first started playing, I did a little street art project for school on women in sport because like bike polo, street art is a way to communicate in the public sphere. When I presented it in class I remember saying in polo, it doesn’t matter if I’m good or not, because a four-year-old girl who walks by the court isn’t going to be able to tell if I’m good or bad. 

Bird: That’s such a mature way to look at it. I was more pessimistic or let my anxiety control or dominate most of my thoughts. I did think about things like that but more often I thought about the judgment that I was receiving.

Danielle: Fast forward like a year and a half after playing and that four-year-old girl disappeared from my mind. At that point, I stopped playing for her and I started playing for some sense of validation and proving my right to be on the court from my internalized sense of the male gaze. We talk about winning the Bike Polo World Championships. Why do we want to win Worlds? Why do men want to win Worlds? They’ll probably give you some fraction of the truth of why they want to win Worlds if you ask them that question. Why do they want to defend the title? They’d probably tell you a half truth. I also haven’t played polo in three years. I have a lot of space from it now. Sometimes the idea of going back to playing scares me because I don’t want to enter into any of the headspace that I had when I was playing polo. 

2017 Dominion Cup in Turin, Italy. Danielle, Elodie, Paul "Polo" Vergnaud, Josh Meyland, and Luca Semeraro took second place as The Dream. © Piramid-Studio

Bird: What do you think shifted in your mind after that little girl left your mind?

Danielle: I got better at bike polo, and I wanted other people to acknowledge that I got better. Probably in some ways about acceptance. I was also fighting a lot of stuff on the polo court. I don’t see myself playing polo, even while watching a video. I don’t know what other people see but, you know, sometimes you can see a player and you’re like, dang, they got a chip on their shoulder. Do you know what I mean? I think people could have said that about me. I mean, I can say that about myself. In some ways it helped me and, in some ways, it definitely hindered me. A lot of people who are at the top also got a chip on their shoulder. Where do you find that drive to be the best? I genuinely think it comes from a place of insecurity. 

There was a time in my life when winning Worlds was the only thing I could see. I didn’t know my life was going to exist after bike polo until the injury slowly took away those aspirations and then coming back to America after being in Europe for grad school.

Bird: Definitely, I can relate. Like what is it about my ego that craves dominating. I do crave it. I’ve been playing sports for so long. I played basketball growing up and there was this machismo attitude that I enjoyed letting overcome me. I loved to get lost in it. Even still when I watch basketball there’s a rush and it feels good. It feels good to look at a player and be like, ‘Oh yeah, I want to feel like the bike polo version of that guy’. I want to feel like him. I want to look as good as him. I want to look effortless and amazing.

Danielle: You’re saying, ‘I want to look like him’? ‘I want to be as good as him.’ I don’t watch basketball but, do you feel like there’s a deficiency? I hate to use that word, but you didn’t say her. You know what I mean? Could you talk about that a little bit?

Bird: That’s something I personally have to change. I watch a lot of NBA basketball and I don’t watch a lot of WNBA teams. My favorite players are men and that’s something I definitely want to change because I know there’s so many amazing non-male basketball players. 

Danielle: When I was younger, I was hanging out with this guy who’s a skateboarder and he was talking about how women skateboarders just don’t have good style. The way that they push, their body looks bad. Broadly speaking, there’s differences between the male body and the female body and they may sometimes look different performing similar actions. And I’ve even had that criticism of myself. For example, I think that Alex Valcko looks so good on his bike. And whenever I saw a picture of myself on my bike, I would be like, ‘damn, dude, why don’t I just look as good as Alex Valcko?’

Bird: What are you talking about?! You look amazing on your bike! When I first met you, you brought me immense joy, watching you play polo. It must have been around the time when you had that little four-year-old girl in your head. You were all about taking risks. 

I felt so controlled, or I had to be so controlled. I had my fundamentals down. And I couldn’t make a mistake. I focused too much on the people who were criticizing my game. That stifled my game a lot. I didn’t find joy in trying cool things and failing. I saw you try cool stuff constantly, having fun. And no one gets to be like Luca or Alex without failing a lot.

Danielle: Do you think it’s inevitable that as you become better, you change the way that you play a little bit for the likelihood that you’ll get a result that is a goal? Or if you’re thinking conservatively, your goal is not getting scored on. 

Bird: Yes, but I think you can get back to the point where you can be risky. The better you know yourself, the game, and your teammates you can find joy in being risky. That’s the goal. I don’t think you’ve gotten there yet and that’s why I want you to come back. It takes a lot to be able to get to that point. The bigger the risk the bigger the win.

Thinking about you in Berlin, you became more conservative. You were still fast and so fearless but not like in your early days before your injury.

Danielle: I was coming off a shoulder dislocation. But let’s not go down that hole yet. I want to ask more about risk and playing conservatively. It comes back to the rules that we have to follow, right? That we create for ourselves. I want to bring back gender into the conversation because I have a lot of theories about the way women play and why we play the way that we play and this propensity to be conservative players. I legitimately think that women at a certain time in polo, where women were, more than being praised into it, shamed into playing conservatively. Like being socially nudged to take defensive roles like goalie. From the socializing of self-doubt and self-surveillance that says ‘because of my body, I shouldn’t be taking this space up here from my male teammates’. Do you have thoughts on that?

Bird: Hmm yeah I can see that. I remember being so careful. I always wanted the ball but then when I had it, I was always like ‘ok don’t freak out, don’t fuck it up or you’ll never get this pass again.’ Or ‘ok you have it, now get it to someone who can score a goal with it. No dumb shots. But also here’s your opportunity to prove something. Don’t fuck it up.’ I’m sure I was told to sit in net a bunch but I wasn’t very good there. I certainly didn’t feel confident there.

Bird: Do you want to talk about your team Ruckus?

Elodie, Johanna, and Danielle played tournaments as Ruckus across Europe and North America between 2015 and 2018. © Gitti La Mar. Watch a video on the Ladies Army 2016 tournament here featuring Elodie.

Danielle: Jo and I had won Hell’s Belles in Geneva together and that’s where we picked up Elodie. Ladies Army San Francisco was our first tournament. Ruckus was for sure the best thing that ever happened to me in bike polo. When I think about coming back to the game it’s to play with those two. At our best we were a sick-ass clique that went all out. At our worst we were a train wreck that had leadership and trust issues, haha. 

I made some bad decisions with Ruckus, but I can tell that story with Jo if she ever wants to. Fin is also an important person in my polo team experience and has been a regular teammate of Ruckus at different times.

Aside from playing, I started using our Instagram account as a platform to bring more visibility to women-trans-femme (wtf) players. I’m not sure that language is still relevant, but all the player profiles are still there under #WTFBringsTheRuckus. 

At our first Ladies Army in SF, we came fourth. What’s crazy about that was that Seattle Bike Polo, my club,  had made this rule that you had to come in the top three at Ladies Army to play high octane pick-up. Looking back, that was ridiculous and I even advocated it and had a hand in it coming into being.

Bird: That is so crazy but honestly, I would have probably advocated for it too. I was totally backwards. From the beginning, I wanted to be one of the best. I didn’t want to be the best female polo player. I just wanted to dominate, and I specifically loved dominating men. Ha! There’s something wrong with me I think a little bit. But in my quest to do that, I probably did perpetuate that idea that there was only enough room at the top for an elite few non-male people, instead of making more space. And sure, I was there in that space doing it. Perhaps being a model example for young women, but I don’t think I was going out of my way to really help. 

Danielle: Oh my god! I remember when I started playing nobody wanted to be a woman bike polo player. Does that make sense? Even as women, we didn’t want to be women polo players. So, it’s like, you don’t want to make women only spaces when you don’t want to be a woman polo player, let alone making like trans, non-binary space or gender queer space in your community because you don’t even accept yourself.

Bird: Hmm interesting. You’re definitely onto something. I do think Ladies Army, now called Crown Classic, is one of the best things that ever happened to me and to the sport. It definitely helped me shift my mindset, helping me take pride in my game and the game of women in general in the sport. Back when it started, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go to it. You know, I didn’t want to be the best female player. I don’t know if I took any pride in specifically being a female athlete. And I didn’t prioritize lifting up other female athletes. I didn’t see it as a priority. It took time, it took that tournament for me to see what it meant to other women and how big the community actually was.

Danielle: It took me a while to get the place of wanting to uplift other women players. But then when I was doing that work, I didn’t think that I was lifted up to the point where I wanted to be and so I actually felt bogged down by wtf only tournaments. I was also self-conscious in a lot of ways and thought about the other players opinions of me. Like I remember playing Hells Belles in Glasgow and we did well in that tournament, we won. But I remember I scored a goal where you’re going behind the net and you bounce it into someone’s back wheel, and it goes into the net. I scored that goal and the crowd booed me and  said it was a bad goal. From the court I responded to the woman who said it, “That was a great goal.” And what I was really trying to say was like, ‘How many times have you scored that goal in a tournament? Because it was my first time ever.’ 

Bird: If a guy would have done that he never would have been booed. It would be celebrated as a funny goal. I love how you advocate for yourself and said that.

Danielle: I wasn’t as close with a lot of wtf polo players as I was with men bike polo players. If I had scored that goal in the Berlin Mixed or where there were men around, I think it would have been more fun. 

Bird took first place at the 2017 Crown Classic tournament, formerly called Ladies Army with her teammates Erica Compton and Shelley Smith. © Joelle Miller

Bird: Oh, they took it as too cocky of a thing and shamed you for it? 

Danielle: Yeah. It’s always a mixed bag of reception at wtf tournaments. For me, anytime I played a tournament outside of the qualifying circuit it was still about Worlds, which is a male dominated tournament, you know? So, these moments when I was playing tournaments that ended up being easier, they should have been confidence building for me to go into the harder tournaments. But reflecting on the measures of achievement I had set for this bike polo as feminist action project, winning Worlds seems like a problematic marker. Anyways, in wtf tournaments I often felt bad about doing well. What do you think about that? Because you have a big reputation.

Bird: Hmm I’d say I experienced some of that with women players. I had that nickname Dirty Birdie, but I got that from the guys. Pretty sure I got it from some sore losers. But everybody was dirty back then! The sport was dirty. I had to be dirty to survive in it. For a long time, it was hard to get picked up on teams that I thought I was equal to. In the beginning I didn’t really want to play with other women because honestly I didn’t think there were a lot of women that were good enough to play with me. But then I met Oskar and the Toronto club that was about 50/50, men to not men, and things started looking up. Eventually I started getting teammates I felt l deserved. Like people I wanted to play with as much as they wanted to play with me. Which is truly the best feeling.

Danielle: That is a great feeling. And that’s why I loved Ruckus so much. Those two always have my back.

I remember, when I was at a very intense mental space, playing with Ruckus, something that was hard for me was when women would cry on the court. I was just like what are you doing? Don’t get me wrong I cried, when I lost at big moments and when I dislocated my shoulder.

Bird: You know what, Danielle? It’s a different day, now people can cry on the court. I want to see guys crying on the court and I want to be the one to make them cry. haha, just kidding, sort of.

It’s okay for people to cry!

Danielle: That’s true. That was a long time ago, like four years ago. I don’t know who I will be when I start playing polo again. I don’t think I’d be the same person.

Bird: I think you would have a lot of fun. I want to see you have fun again, doing it. The game has changed enough where there’s room for you to be whoever you want to be in it.

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