A Bout of Badassery: The Roller Derby Experience

 

How much do you really know about roller derby? Unless you lace up your skates regularly and hit the flat track, you’re like me — a total newbie when it comes to this nearly all-female sport. Before consulting a team member, I fostered a few vintage misconceptions concerning these unsung athletes. Being a child of the ’70s, I remember being awestruck by a gang of Amazonian women on skates. Clad, sans bras, in both tank tops and Larry Bird-style short-shorts and tube socks, they whipped around a banked arena, tearing at each other’s hair and clothing, while chucking one another over high railings. While those days are over, the modern-day roller derby is a much more civilized, but no less badass experience.

I had the pleasure of ramping up my derby knowledge when I spoke with the captain of the Killah Bees, Rikki Davis, better known as Retro Rocket. Sidebar: Another fun tidbit about roller derby? You get to pick a badass nickname, but more on that later. The first myth she dispelled pertained to ageism and gender. Rocket, a 2018 member of the Providence Roller Derby All-Star Team called the Riveters, gave me the following insight, “First off, we’re all over the age of 18, so the term ‘Roller Girl’ isn’t quite right. At the very least, most of us are ‘Roller Women.’ Plus, roller derby is a trans and non-binary inclusive sport. We have a number of non-binary skaters in the league — I personally prefer ‘Roller Babes’ or ‘Roller Folks’ — but to each their own.”

The high-banked track is another relic of the past. According to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), roller derby declined in popularity after the ’70s, and saw a resurgence in the early 2000s, but the playing field had literally changed. Someone in Austin, Texas, had the idea of discarding the cumbersome, hard-to-store, banked tracks in favor of an easily marked flat track. All anyone needed for a bout was a large open space with a decent floor, and it was game on. Our own Rhode Island Roller Folks map out their track in both the Thayer Arena in Warwick and the West Warwick Civic Center. However, they’re looking for a permanent home for both practices and bouts. Their requirements: 6,500 square feet of smooth flooring with minimal pillars, and if you happen to know of such a place, they’re offering a reward for a lead.

So what does one actually do in roller derby? How are points scored? Think of it like football on skates, except one member of your team is the ball. Your team needs to get that person past the other team’s defensive line. Simultaneously, the other team is doing the same thing. In this scenario, the ball is called the Jammer and is identified by a star on their helmet. The defensive linebackers are called Blockers. Points are scored when the Jammer skates by the other team’s Blockers during the second pass. This, by the way, is an over-simplification for a derby rookie like myself. If you want to learn more about the nuances, go to wftda.com/new-fans/ or, better yet, go see a bout.

While you’re there, take a moment to acknowledge these fierce athletes. Individuals on roller skates who push their way to victory, zipping in a circle at high speeds. You’ll notice a certain look to roller folks, too. According to Rocket, “We all have tattoos and piercings and wear punk band t-shirts, but first and foremost, it’s a sport and we’re athletes.” Another team member, Betsey Swardlick, aka, Nutritional Beast, had this to say, “Derby is a cure for body issues. I mean, it will give you body issues like sprained knees and bunions, but a lot of my insecurities about my shape completely evaporated when I started skating. Skaters are every shape and size, and you see people doing unbelievable things on the track and it’s like, ‘Oh, can I do that?’”

A typical practice consists of the initial off-skates warm-up, which is followed by gearing up in skates, helmets and a whole variety of pads.  Rocket stated, “When we’re called onto the track, things get very focused, but we’re usually still laughing. We start with on-skate warm-ups, the same ones every week to get our feet under us, and then we do more intense drills for the remainder of practice — blocking formations, strategy, endurance training, you name it.”

When asked to describe the team relationship, Rocket had this to say, “I would describe our team less like a family, and more like a pride of lions or a pack of wolves. We rely on each other and depend on each other for our communal success, and we all have a common goal that binds us together. We’re also very protective of our fellow skaters. You don’t want to mess with one of our skaters unless you’re ready to mess with the whole pack.”

I can’t think of a more badass group of individuals, and in my mind, these fine folks are just as amazing as their Amazonian ancestors. The best part, however, is their names. Take it from Retro Rocket who said, “Picking your own name is the most empowering thing in the world. I love being called Rocket!” I Googled a roller derby name generator and was quite pleased with the outcome. Star Machete aka The Blood Destroyer has a nice to ring to it. For more information about the Providence Roller Derby, be sure to visit their website at providencerollerderby.com.

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