RI Roller Derby: Let Your Feminist Flag Fly

rollerSLIDEAre you one of those women who struggle with society’s media perpetuated expectations of the female body? I have the cure. Spend one hour watching women’s flat track derby, and those struggles will disappear. You’ll see all shapes and sizes of women skating fast and knocking each other down and appreciate whatever layer of fat you have protecting you in a fall. You’ll kiss those thighs that propel you forward and keep you on your feet. You’ll look at these skaters and wonder, “Could I do that, too?”  And you could. Roller derby, a primarily women’s sport, is taking the world by storm.  

I attended my first derby game in Providence, introduced to the sport by my former burlesque teacher, neo-burlesque artist Miss Lady Iris, who served for many years as the team’s co-announcer. A few years later I saw a Facebook posting for “fresh meat,” as new trainees are lovingly called, from Mass Attacks, a neighbor league from Taunton, Massachusetts, and forwarded it to my best friend, who I thought would be perfect for it. My friend was a gymnast in high school and a strong swimmer, but she only skated on inline skates when they were popular in the ‘90s. While she loved derby, it ended quickly after a bad ankle injury, giving me a new appreciation for this empowering and (dare I say?) feminist sport.  

For those of you new to derby, here’s an abridged history. Started in the ‘30s by Leo Seltzer, it faded away, due in many respects to its “staged” appearance. Roller derby resurfaced in the ‘90s in Austin, Texas, by the Texas Roller Girls. Now with a global organization of its own, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), which represents 234 full member teams, including 40 international teams and 101 apprentice leagues, roller derby is becoming the hottest sport for women between the ages of 18 and 50.  

Providence Roller Derby, the first roller derby league in New England, was founded in 2004. It was one of the first 12 leagues of the original WFTDA, and was started by Sarah Doom, a Brown alumnus, who thereafter founded Boston Roller Derby with Ivanna Clobber. Providence Roller Derby is made up of three home teams, The Mob Squad, Old Money Honeys, and the Sakonnet River Roller Rats. The travel teams, Rhode Island Riveters, Killah Bees, and The Rocky Point Rollers, travel the east coast to compete for national standings. But they’ve competed as far as Canada in international bilingual bouts. New England is now home to nine WFTDA leagues and five apprentice leagues.

I was fortunate to talk with six women from Providence Roller Derby: Citizen Toxie, Sass “E” McNasty, Sis Boom Bonnie, Shelby Bruisin’, Sinnamon Splice and Luce Cannon.  These women ranged in age from 25 to 47. Of the five of them, only one played competitive sports in college. Most had never been on quad skates, which are traditional four wheel roller skates. And since most women who play college sports end their athletic careers when they don their cap and gown, roller derby is the new option for former athletes as well as those who have never participated in competitive sports. These women held professional jobs in higher education, nonprofit and corporate America, and they all volunteered between four and 40 hours to their league outside of practices and bouting.

Derby is a volunteer sport. Every member of the team serves on a committee and volunteers their time. They fundraise for themselves while adopting different charities for every bout. The league is completely grassroots — everyone buys their own equipment and uniforms. Attendance at a specified number of practices and volunteer work is required to compete. What other national sports league operates so completely on volunteers?

I needed a national picture of derby girls. Six degrees of separation led me to interview Jabs Bunny of the Richland County Regulators from South Carolina, Charest in Peace and Gwen Animal’s Attack of WFTDA Apprentice League Mass Attacks in Taunton, and Liability of the High Country Mountain Derby Girls from California. These women include a mechanical engineer, a health educator, a costume shop manager and a lawyer, and they were all recruited with no experience.  

Most derby teams recruit women on a regular basis. Providence Roller Derby’s next recruitment is May 8 at Ocean Club Skate in Narragansett. The “fresh meat,” are trained to skate, fall, turn, skate backwards and skate fast. They must pass a series of assessments, which include skills building, knowledge of the 64 pages of rules, and speed. Once they pass, they can begin to bout, or compete. Some women take six months to begin and others take longer. This can be due to passing skills assessments, like learning how to fall on knee pads, memorizing the rulebook or perhaps because of an injury.  

And what about those injuries?  Many derby girls spoke of fingers being run over by skates, concussions, broken ankles, pulled shoulders and hyperextending an elbow. “I’ve seen several broken legs, a broken collarbone, a dislocated shoulder and separated ribs. It’s pretty intimidating when it happens right in front of you,” said Liability. But most women come back and skate. 

I asked all the women about the rules, and all of them felt they were comprehensive, easy to understand (once you begin playing) and happily in flux. Every new change was for their safety and to eliminate loopholes.  

With so many teams competing and an active association constantly tweaking the rules, I asked why roller derby had not been considered an Olympic sport. Some felt it was too new, others felt the rules were still in flux, while Sass “E” McNasty felt the X games were a better place to start. Liability said, “It could be an Olympic sport eventually, but it still has some growing to do before it gets there. Some people want derby to be taken more seriously, as a professional game, but I think derby would need to lose a lot of its showmanship, like the silly names and face paint. It does seem to be moving in that direction, though. I hardly ever see women skating in tutus anymore. But there are others who like the individual aspects of derby, that’s what makes it so inclusive. You can have tattoos and pink hair and still be legitimate. I see both sides of the argument. I enjoy watching derby as much as playing derby, so I would love it if it was in the Olympics or even just on ESPN. I would love more people to take it as a serious sport and the women who play as serious athletes. There’s a lot of talent out there.”

Mass Attacks’ Charest in Peace feels derby has Olympic potential. “I don’t see why not.  We like to see ourselves as athletes. I’ve played many sports through school and I’ve never found one that makes me work as hard as derby does.” 

Body-positive, athletic and grassroots. How could women’s flat track derby, “invented by women” according to Sass “E” McNasty, not be the feminist sport of the millennium?  The average age of players, in their 30s, means that many of them are also moms. Everyone said that their teammates were the friendliest and most supportive people they have ever met. They used words like “empowering” and “accepting.” And Shelby Bruisin’ called her teammates “independent, smart professional women who run all aspects of our league from practices to budgets.” 

“Women of all shapes and sizes can excel. I never played any sports when I was younger, and I never thought of myself as an athlete, so playing derby has shown me that I am capable of much more than I realized. It is incredibly empowering and nurturing to find another identity and create bonds with teammates,” said Liability. Many leagues have transgender women, as well.    

This feminist, family-friendly, grassroots, entertaining, athletic sport, the derby girls all feel, is misunderstood. “Roller derby is one of the few sports where players are simultaneously playing offense and defense,” according to Liability. These leagues are always looking for support from fans, sponsors and audiences to come cheer them on.  

Tickets cost only $10 and kids under five are free at Providence Roller Derby games and most bouts, played at the Ocean Club Skate in Narragansett, Thayer Arena in Warwick, the Rhode Island Convention Center, and the Bank of America City Center. Roller derby’s territory, within this tiny state, is big enough that no Rhode Islander dare say it was too far to travel to see them.