What ensues is a fast-paced circling of the track, punctuated by whistles, resets—and hard hits. The gist of the sport is four blockers from each team circle in a pack as the jammer tries to catch up from behind and break through to the front, earning points by lapping an opposing player. As a jammer, “basically you’re the quarterback of the team,” explained Lena “Whiskey Ginger” Barouh ’07, who skates with the Seattle Tilted Thunder Rail Birds.
By the end of two 30-minute halves, the Port Authorities have crushed HARD, 263-44, which doesn’t dampen post-derby, inter-team camaraderie over beers.
So what draws these women to a sport that makes bruised bones and dislocated ribs (one of Jade’s recurrent injuries) commonplace? “There’s something primal about it,” said Barouh. “Also, I get to hit people really really hard—as hard as I want.” But, in addition to the adrenaline rush, she’s drawn to the (ahem) gameswomanship, she says: “It’s a game. It’s teamwork. You have to employ strategy. You have to trust the people you’re skating with.”
Like other athletes, derby women attest to the fact that their sport increases their self-assuredness and fosters supportive and lasting friendships. Jade finds it rewarding to work together with other women. Plus, she said, “It’s increased my confidence.”
Added Amanda “Lady GayGay” Vickerson ’07, of Portland’s B team, the Calamity Janes, “I get to hit people. With finesse.” After pausing, she continued, “I would say, really—this is such a typical girl answer—the friendships.”
There are aspects of roller derby beyond female mayhem that set it apart from other team sports.
While some like Vickerson feel that the game itself is, “all about empowerment,” Allison “Dee Stortion” Trela, whose derby shop, Bruised Boutique, in Nashua, N.H., supplies gear to derby women around the world, feels differently. “Empowerment in the kitschy sense is overplayed,” she said.
But Trela does see female empowerment embodied by the leagues’ independence. “Every single league across the country is self-run. That includes doing all of the taxes and legal pieces,” Trela said. Jade echoed this sentiment in describing the derby ethos as “By the skater, for the skater. It’s very much a grassroots organization.” She added that, as skaters, “We do all our own marketing, all our own fundraisers, the whole nine yards.”
But Vickerson, who laughed when acknowledging that she “outs herself” every time she tells someone her derby name (Lady GayGay), feels that derby, begun by men, now is rooted in feminism. Vickerson, a women’s, gender, and sexuality studies major at Colby and an ice hockey player, feels derby should remain a predominantly female sport because it gives women the opportunity to gain recognition as skilled athletes in a domain free from male comparison.
These and similar insights led Vickerson, Jade, and their teammate Becky “Gunner Hands-Off” King to run a workshop for the Maine Civil Rights Team program that explained “the history of this sport and how today’s roller derby athletes are redefining its image and shattering stereotypes on and off the track.”
Whether individual derby athletes conceive of the sport as a feminist statement is somewhat irrelevant, participants say . Derby, they say, nonetheless brings women together, makes them stronger, and engenders confidence. As Barouh put it: “It’s a sisterhood, but it’s a really black-and-blue sisterhood. Sisterhood of the traveling whup-ass.”