The cheering crowd almost drowns out the grinding thrum of the roller skates as the players fly around the track. A girl in the stands waves a homemade sign for her favorite team, a blue-clad group of women known as the Night Terrors. The arena is packed and the action on the track is approaching full throttle: The roller derby girls of Charm City are out in full force tonight for this spring’s semifinal bouts.
An American-invented contact sport, roller derby is based on formation skating around an oval track. Recently catapulted to the mainstream spotlight by Drew Barrymore’s movie “Whip It,” roller derby has been a growing national phenomenon. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association encompasses hundreds of leagues across the nation from Maine to California.
For all that it lacks in the notoriety and conventional following of sports such as football and baseball, roller derby certainly draws a crowd. The stadium is so full that my friends and I have to stand in the back, jostled by vendors winding their way up and down the bleachers. A well-known player from a previous bout climbs down the bleachers past us, heralded by more cheers and screams. Her derby name, Rosie the Rioter, is scrawled on the back of her uniform.
“Yeah, Rosie!” one girl yells.
“Can I get your autograph?” asks a man standing near me.
Roller derby — traditionally a form of sports entertainment as well as athleticism — is governed by a detailed set of rules. Points are scored when players known as jammers lap members of an opposing team. With defensive and offensive players crowding the track, jammers need to make it past their teammates and their rivals while skating at top speed. The opposing players are there to stop and block them from that goal — by whatever legal means they can. Exciting, fast-paced and full-contact, this is a game where the players need every knee and arm pad they’ve got on.
The majority of contemporary roller derby leagues are all-women, amateur and self-organized. Many are incorporated, limited liability companies; a few are nonprofit organizations. With aliases such as Goldie Blocks, Judy Boom, Flux Incapacitator and Pina Collida, the women of Roller Derby are an in-your-face crowd. Every player sports an alter ego, and the matches, or bouts, feature costumes, camp, and attitude. But beyond the showmanship is a serious sport — something no roller derby girl or fan will let you forget.
Take the Maine Roller Derby League, for example. Formed in 2006, the Maine Roller Derby League is Maine’s first and only women’s flat-track roller derby league.Like a lot of leagues, it’s skater-owned and -operated, with a roster of more than 30 hard-hitting, fast-skating athletes. One major myth they are quick to dispel is the idea that derby is fake, staged or otherwise less than athletic.
“We are athletes who train rigorously to excel in our full-contact sport,” the Portland-based league says on its website, www.mainerollerderby.com. “Come watch a bout and you’ll never doubt it again.”
Another common myth about roller derby is that it’s violent. While injuries from bruises, sprains and broken bones abound, just as they do in hockey, football or other contact sports, the Maine League is quick to dispel the old image of derby as a lawless brawl. “Roller derby is an organized, aggressive, full-contact sport with legal checks and blocks and ways to contact opposing players. Illegal moves result in penalties,” the website states.
Like roller derby leagues everywhere in the U.S., the Maine league boasts a diverse group of athletes, from the young and single to married mothers, straight-laced professionals to the tattooed and punk. Their varsity team, the Port Authorities, plays against other leagues across the Northeast.
The term “roller derby” dates back to 1922, when the Chicago Tribune used it to describe multiday, flat-track roller skating races. By the 1930s, physical contact and teamwork were emphasized, turning it into the sport we know today. Roller derby took root as a pop culture icon when matches began to be broadcast first on radio and, eventually, television.
The contemporary revival focuses on athleticism, with modern-day campy style. The balance of athleticism and showmanship — not, it should be pointed out, mutually exclusive — varies from league to league. Today roller derby has spread from the U.S. to leagues in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and much of Europe.
One thing is for sure, the fans are as diverse as the players. In the stands I see whole families, mothers with children, tattooed teenagers, hipsters and young professionals. A group of biker men stand elbow to elbow with dads in button-down shirts. This seems to be a reflection of the underlying spirit of roller derby: Be yourself, and be bold. For players and spectators alike, young and old, lawyer and artist, mother and unmarried, the message is clear — all are welcome here.
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN website: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.