By Mike Dunphy
Sunday mornings at the Montpelier Rec Center, feet delicately tap, slide, and pirouette in an allegro dance of aggression as devotees of roller derby nudge, slip, and shove their way through teammates in a series of exercises at the weekly practice session.
It’s not quite the glam-and-slam performance of 1970s roller derby, encapsulated by films such as Kansas City Bomber (1972), which depict the sport as little different than World Wrestling Entertainment, complete with clotheslines, fist fights, scripted winners, and lines like, “I ain’t no skater, I am a goddamn star!”
The current revival of roller derby, which started in the early 2000s and now counts nearly 500 “leagues” (clubs in Roller speak) globally, adopts a much different tone, one based on genuine athletic competition, inclusivity, and female empowerment.
“We don’t necessarily try to distance ourselves from roller derby’s earlier image too much,” explains Julia Wilk, coach of the Montpelier chapter of Green Mountain Roller Derby, “but we usually say, ‘The modern roller derby revival has a different spin to it.’”
In terms of the game play that means the rules have evolved over the years to make it more of an authentic sport, with the most violent elements removed, strictly enforced rules, and genuine athletic competition. For example, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association—the international governing body of women’s flat track roller derby and governing body of Green Mountain Roller Derby—states, “Skaters cannot use their heads, elbows, forearms, hands, knees, lower legs, or feet to make contact to opponents. Skaters cannot make contact to opponents’ heads, backs, knees, lower legs, or feet.”
That’s not to say the aggressive edge has been dulled entirely, and roller derby remains a full contact sport—a rarity among women’s athletics, even women’s hockey, which does not allow checking. Indeed, that’s part of what attracts many women to roller derby, including local mother and daughter Sally and Katlyn Hall. “For a lot of women,” Katlyn points out, “this is a way to express a more aggressive side that says, ‘I don’t have to be a delicate flower; I can push and shove; I can be hit and rise above it.’ That’s really appealing.”
The same spirit also figures in—albeit tongue in cheek—the alter ego names many skaters take on, with the Green Mountain Roller Derby fielding players such as Executie, Cyanide, Kurt CoPain, Kirb Stomp, Savage Patch Kid, and on the men’s side, Pope John Maul. “Isn’t there a small part of you that wants to be a badass?” asks Sally. “If you have one, this is a good sport for you.”
The good news for newbies is that roller derby remains an amateur sport, with most players arriving with little to no experience. That means nearly everyone starts on an equal level. “There aren’t really professional teams,” Wilk reminds, “so the amateur level is the highest level of competition there is.” For players like Sally, that makes success all the more attainable. “This is a sport you can play with a beginning skill, and if you have the determination, after time, you will be playing.”
While anyone can practice, all players must pass two minimal skills assessments, which require, among other things, skating 27 laps around the track in five minutes and one lap in 13 seconds, and log three hours of scrimmage time before they can take part in an official match. For some it may take months to achieve that level, in part, because of the physical conditioning required, but success is inevitable with practice. Wilk emphasizes, “We don’t eliminate anybody, but they might need to get a bit into shape. You definitely get into shape when you do roller derby practice, so they’ll get into shape whether they want to or not.”
Furthermore, roller derby makes a point to embrace all body shapes and types, rather than just lean, athletic mesomorphs. “Because a lot of it is based on hip width, having a larger mass can really help,” Wilk explains. “It makes it difficult for others to push you around. Obviously when you hit somebody, the weight and mass are going to make it more powerful.” But petite figures come with advantages, too. “They might be really excellent at wiggling in between and slipping through small cracks between bodies.”
Probably no better example of this can be found than Katlyn, who clocks in at 5 feet 1 inch and about 100 pounds. That may seem dangerously small in a full-contact sport, but it gives her a distinct advantage of getting down very low, so that hitting her with a legal block becomes exceptionally difficult, especially for larger players.
“This is a sport where your body size does not matter,” Sally emphasizes. “You can be the smallest player, the mediumest or largest, and it doesn’t matter.”
Inclusivity extends to gender identity, too. “Gender in roller derby tends to be different than in other sports.” Wilk points out. “The men’s team accepts skaters of all genders, and on the women’s team, skaters must identify as women or gender expansive.” This also includes people in transition between genders. “Who doesn’t like to be promoting diversity within an organization, and acceptance, inclusion, and support?” Sally muses. “It’s a good team to be a part of.”
Of course, the double-wide welcome mat is also influenced by the need to bring in new players, as numbers remain relatively low. That’s part of why Central Vermont Roller Derby merged with Green Mountain Roller Derby in February 2019, to provide a larger pool of players and therefore a more competitive team. It also streamlined the operation overall, saving money. “We felt we could pool our resources and be able to accomplish much more,” Wilk explains. “For example, rather than having to file two sets of taxes and paying insurance twice, when we merged, we were able to combine those and save money and work.”
Wilk often aims for people new to the area and seeking a community to bond with. Plus, they tend to have the available time. She also sees a steady stream of ex-military and hockey players, too, and mostly between 25 and 45 years of age. People hoping to turn a new leaf or work out personal issues also find an outlet in roller derby. “Sometimes we joke around with Kirb Stomp, an excellent body hitter,” notes Sally, “and ask ‘Are you trying to work something out?’ and she smiles.”
But for players like Katlyn, the true empowerment of roller derby is about getting knocked down again and again and still getting up. “For me, the hardest thing is overcoming myself, because there is that potential to fall and get a bruise,” Katlyn considers. “Sometimes if you take a hard fall it suddenly becomes scary. And you think, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ and start to doubt yourself. You need to change your attitude to ‘I can do this,’ and not let the fear hold you back.”
Wilk agrees. “I think it’s always going to be empowering because it’s hard to learn how to roller skate well; you are constantly falling down and getting back up over and over again. Anything that presents a really intense challenge that you can overcome is really empowering.”
Luckily, roller derby provides the support to get through it. “It’s the most open, caring sports community I’ve ever been a part of,” Katlyn emphasizes—a point with which her mother agrees. “When people think of roller derby, they don’t think of a sport where you are going to walk in and people will support you from the beginning,” Sally explains. “At the end of the day, we’re supporting the sport and each other. It’s all about the women’s flat track roller derby association; it’s all of us.”
For tickets and information about Vermont Roller Derby, visit centralvtrollerderby.com and gmrollerderby.com.