Does Roller Derby bring to mind images from the 1970s, when spandex-clad women elbowed their way around a skate track in choreographed clashes? Time to update that image!
Flash forward to last fall, when Whip It, directed by Drew Barrymore and starring Juno’s Ellen Page, became an instant hit. A misfit girl from a small Texas town breaks free from beauty pageant conformity to find a place to celebrate her individuality, as her derby alter ego “Babe Ruthless.” Today’s roller derby appeals not only to adults, but to kids like Seattle Derby Brat 14-year-old Grianne Hunter (aka “Hunt Her Down”) and Tootsy Roller Isabella Norveil, 11, (aka “Silly Pepper.”)
There are 200 women’s leagues in the United States and at least 15 junior derby leagues. More are bursting onto skate tracks across the country each season. Twenty-first century roller derby has reinvented itself as a serious sport that combines athleticism, team work, and a bit of creativity.
What’s the draw? Angela Leonard, president of the Seattle Derby Brats, whose daughter is a player, says “A lot of girls don’t fit into traditional sports scenes and might not have otherwise participated in sports, but they excel at roller derby.” Molly Hodges, Isabella’s mom, says, “It’s very empowering, an all female sport. I’m really proud of her.”
The Seattle Derby Brats was one of the first two junior leagues in the nation, and is one of six leagues for girls in the Northwest. It evolved out of an afterschool Pathfinder Alternative School program in West Seattle about three years ago. Krista Williams (“Betty Ford Galaxy” of Seattle’s adult league, The Rat City Rollergirls) stepped in as coach. When the program was discontinued, she changed the name, and got the group a nonprofit status.
Flat Track Basics and Benefits
Flat track derby is played by two teams that skate counter-clock-wise around an oval track. Points are scored when certain players (jammers, who wear stars on their helmets,) lap opposing team members (pivots and blockers). Offense and defense is played simultaneously. To keep the opposing team’s jammer from passing and scoring points, players block using their body above mid-thigh.
Teamwork is a key component to the sport. Grianne comments, “I love working with everyone on my team. We know what we are going to do – because we are a team – without even talking about it.” Hodges says the younger girls, who have just started to block, are excited to plan out strategies for blocking and really cheer one another on.
Isabella beams, “I’ve gotten way better; now I can do cross-overs and go backwards. All I could do at first was fall down and hold onto the wall.”
Girls don’t always get the satisfaction of contact sports, and the feeling can be very powerful. Says Grianne, “I like when I knock people down, because I feel like I’m in power. I think it’s the best part. I get to get everything out. Like something at your house, or school, or maybe you are just mad about something.”
Tootsy Roller Isabella adds, “I love how in roller derby you make new friends, and get really strong, and powerful. My favorite thing is getting to bump people over, and jamming. It’s just fun. It gets out some of your stress and anger. And with jamming – you have all the power to skate really fast instead of having to stay with the whole group.”
Hodges feels the greatest benefit for her daughter has been building a social life outside school. Leonard said she’s had many skaters who wouldn’t even tell her their names at first because they were shy, but derby has helped them to become strong and confident: “My daughter has had a great experience. She’s shy and reserved and had trouble making friends at school. At derby she’s a different kid – laughing, up-beat, and making friends. She has confidence.”
“The girls look at it as a serious sport,” Leonard observes. She says you won’t see much difference between an adult bout and a junior bout. “You must follow rules or get a penalty or get ejected.” Even the younger Tootsy Rollers have become strong enough skaters to graduate from flag derby to full-contact derby.
Contact and Costumes
Adult roller derby had a reputation for sometimes choreographed violence. Is that a feature of the kids’ leagues? Leonard says, “I don’t believe it is a violent sport. It’s a contact sport. I played soccer and there isn’t anymore contact than in soccer.” The girls wear elbow pads, wrist guards, helmets, mouth guard, knee pads, and butt pads, says Isabella, and there are strict rules about where you can block and how to do it. Has she gotten hurt? “Everyone’s gotten hurt once,” she shrugs. Her mom says, “The risk is the same as putting your son into football.”
Roller derby also allows for self expression. Underneath all the safety gear, the girls often wear outlandish clothing. Leonard emphasizes that the girls understand the derby is not about exploiting themselves. (The adult version sometimes has a reputation for the risqué.) Williams is particular about the clothes the girls wear and makes sure skirts aren’t too short. “Clothes help fans remember the players,” Hodges comments. “For example, ‘Tinker Terrible’ wears a tutu. It helps them stand out. It’s a chance for them to not have to be the same…like a costume party every week. They get to be outlandish.”
Grianne “Hunt Her Down” sometimes wears animal tights and shorts: “It’s kind of like I hunt those animals,” she says with a laugh. Isabella says her teammates sometimes like to wear fishnets, or frilly pants over the butt pads (with tights underneath). “We like to wear exotic clothes because it’s fun,” she says.
The players also have fun choosing their derby names. “It’s like your alter ego,” Grianne says, “You don’t want to be announced as Grianne Hunter. You want to be something tougher.”
It is no wonder the sport is catching on. Leonard says she gets two to three contacts a week from girls interested in joining the league. She saw a spike in interest from older girls this past fall after Whip It came out. A new league might soon be branching off and forming in Everett. As Hodges notes, “Roller derby in the ’70s was a flash in the pan. Now it’s here to stay.”