Roll Players

by Jonathan McNicol

In the blur before you, you catch glimpses of hot pink fishnets. You catch glimpses of skulls and crossbones and mustachioed helmets. Glimpses of fluorescent shoe laces and tall socks and tattoos. In the blur before you, are ten girls. Ten girls wearing ten mouth guards. Ten girls wearing twenty wrist guards and twenty knee pads and twenty elbow pads. In the blur before you, are ten girls skating 130 feet of track on eighty 2½" polyurethane wheels.

You probably have a picture of roller derby in your head that feels very 1970s. A bunch of tough girls with campy, sexually-suggestive pseudonyms skating in a sloped circle on tiny tires, slamming each other into walls. A sort of scripted sport, in the vein of professional wrestling, more entertainment than competition.

And parts of that hold true, even into this decade. The campy, questionable names are still there—names like Puke Skywalker and Banana SlamHer and VelociSlaptHer and, well, and Your Mom. And the skaters of CT RollerGirls, who play their home bouts at the CT Sports Center in Woodbridge, definitely are a bunch of tough girls. (I feel strange calling them ‘girls.’ These girls are clearly women. But they call themselves girls, and they could, each and every one of them, beat the crap out of me at will. So ‘girls’ it is.) They skate hard, they skate fast, they knock each other down, they get back up, and they keep skating. And they skate to win.

Because that’s the biggest difference about today’s roller derby. The track is flat now, not banked. The girls skate on an open floor now, not into and up against walls. But more than that, the sport is a sport now. There’s no script here, and the competition is full contact and fierce. And roller derby isn’t just a semi-violent race on skates around an oblong track. There’s a lot more going on here.

Each game consists of two thirty-minute halves made up of an unlimited number of jams (think innings in a baseball game) of up to two minutes each. Each team has five players playing three positions: a jammer (who does the scoring), three blockers (who do the blocking), and a pivot (who acts as a sort of field general, setting the pace, giving direction to blockers, and providing the last line of defense when the opposition has a chance to score). Jammers score points by lapping members of the other team, and the blockers run elaborate formations and coordinated plays designed to thwart the opposition’s jammer while opening a lane for their own jammer to skate through. And there’s more than that too: There are legal blocks and illegal blocks, packs and no-pack calls, penalties, the lead jammer can call off a jam at will, the jammer and the pivot can trade positions…

Confused yet? I was too at the beginning of the doubleheader I attended on October 20th, but a night of CT RollerGirls roller derby is set up to make the sport accessible to newcomers and veteran fans alike. An introductory video explains the basics before the first game starts. The program includes a rundown of the rules. But the game, while it’s being played, needs more than that. “It needs description,” Sean the Shark said to me (his real name is Sean Fowler). Sean is one of the league’s announcers, and it’s the announcers that really open the sport up to all 300-odd people in the audience at each game. The announcers are there to entertain the crowd, to involve the crowd, to fill the breaks in the action (Sean even has an “Awkward Pause Theme Song” that he sings). But they’re there mostly to provide a running play-by-play of the competition, a slightly goofy, slightly over-the-top real-time description of the action as you’re seeing it. By the start of the night’s second game, I wouldn’t quite say I felt like a roller derby expert, but I was schooled enough to really enjoy the high level of play and the down-to-the-final-seconds competitiveness of the teams.

And I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one. The all-ages crowd at a roller derby bout is made up of equal parts serious fans—painted in team colors, cheering their favorite teams and players on with practiced chants—and families just out looking for a fun time on a Saturday night. And roller derby really is a family-friendly sport. Some of the player names are slightly blue, sure. And the announcers don’t shy away from the slightly off-color campiness either. But the night is geared toward everyone. There’s music, there’s candy. There are raffles and half-time contests for kids. There’s a wheel toss game. And the sport is so fast-paced and the competition so closely matched—the last game I saw hinged on opposing penalties in the final seconds and was decided by just four points—that it’d be hard for anyone not to have a good time. (And kids even get in free!)

And the league itself is just as inclusive. CT RollerGirls is skater owned and operated, not-for-profit, and a full-on democracy. The players are a diverse group of girls in their twenties, thirties, and even forties—life-long athletes and sports rookies alike. Try outs are open to everyone 21 and over, and new players (and even referees) are voted in by the league’s membership. And most tryouts—even brand new skaters—make it onto a team because there’s a twelve-practice training program that everyone must complete. “We’ll teach you to skate. We teach endurance, we teach competitiveness, we teach team cohesion,” according to Parker Poison (Cassandra McNeil, the league’s chairwoman). “We even teach you to fall.” (Because everyone falls—skaters and refs alike—and the falling and the blocking and the shoving are an exciting part of the sport. But it’s the muscle memory of forward falls on knees and elbows and hands that’s the difference between a safe fall and an injury.)

But the real focus is on community, on health and exercise, on teamwork. On a positive, aspirational sort of competitiveness. Talking to Folsom Bruise (her real name is Laurie Lawless—which sounds just as much like a derby name as her actual derby name, but never mind), one of the younger, newer players, after the bout, I somewhat indelicately mentioned the obvious talent of one of the opposing skaters Folsom had just played against. And her league training, and probably a certain amount of inborn sportswomanship, showed right through: “I can never be that skater,” she said. “But I can certainly try.”

Originally published, in different form, at The Daily Nutmeg, October 26, 2012.