BRATTLEBORO—As The Ramones “hey-ho”ed over the PA at Brattleboro’s Nelson Withington Skating Facility, a woman named Killabitch Enrage (her nom de Derby) guarded a table at the entrance to the rink.
In exchange for a fistful of dollars into Enrage’s big glass jar, attendees received admission to the evening’s sporting event: a roller derby bout hosted by the Elm City Derby Damez.
Their opponents were the Western Massachusetts Roller Derby Furies. Two members of the Furies had recently “defected” from The Damez, adding extra tension to the rivalry.
The smiling Enrage, wearing protective skating gear, a t-shirt in fire-engine red (The Damez’s color), and a cute ruffled skirt, handed each spectator a program for the evening’s entertainment, complete with detailed, illustrated rules of the game.
And a good thing, that. It turns out roller derby is far more complicated (and much less vicious) than popular culture portrays. But it is just as stylish, campy, and punk rock.
Although not nearly as byzantine as, say, a cricket match, to the casual observer it’s hard to know what’s going on without helpful diagrams and explanations. Otherwise, it looks like a jumble of skaters going in circles, shoving each other.
According to the program, “Roller derby is a fast-paced, full contact sport played in quad [four-wheeled] roller skates on an oval track approximately 88’ by 55’.”
Two teams -- ideally containing 14 members each -- compete in a bout, made up of two 30-minute periods. During the periods, teams earn points during jams, each lasting up to two minutes.
During the jams, each team’s five-member pack skates counter-clockwise around the track. The pack contains four blockers playing defense, one jammer as offense, and one blocker as pivot switching from offense to defense as needed. After the jammer makes an initial circuit around the rink, she earns points for each opponent she passes.
Meanwhile, the blockers attempt to help their jammer earn points while preventing the opposing jammer from doing the same, all by using only their bodies. (The only equipment used in roller derby other than protective gear are roller skates.)
This is where the shoving comes in.
While roller derby is rough-and-tumble, it’s not a bloodied free-for-all. The program lays out the rules: “Skaters may contact using their body from shoulders down to mid-thigh. Hands, forearms and elbows are restricted...Skaters may contact opponents anywhere between the mid-thigh and shoulders except on the back.”
Referees mete out penalties for such things as passing skaters out of the bounds of the oval track, falling down directly in front of an opponent, and illegal use of hands and forearms to block opponents. Penalties are served immediately in the penalty box, but if a player commits a severe penalty, or collects seven penalties in one game, she is expelled for the duration of the bout.
Rolling and tumbling
Falling down occurs frequently, and is part of roller derby’s extensive training. Similar to martial arts training, “We’ll teach you to fall safely,” Enrage explains.
The Damez practice on the concrete floor of the Keene, N.H., police department’s large community room, providing extra incentive to quickly learn proper falling techniques.
New members are encouraged to join The Damez. Enrage says, “We need more members! We’ll teach you, we’ll give you gear.”
One need not possess the stereotypical “athletic body” to participate: derby skaters’ body types range from slim and lanky to curvy and robust. Having heft helps with stability and shoving, while a lithe frame can gain speed quickly.
As Wyatt Andrews, an attendee at this night’s bout, remarked on one of the Furies, “Number 999 [aka Rammy Lammy] is like an eel!” as she slithered unfettered around her opponents.
Some skating experience is helpful but not necessary. Enrage, who has been with The Damez for five years, says, “I skated as a kid. I started [in roller derby] with my mom’s roller skates from 1978.”
Although The Damez are based in Keene, N.H., they call the Withington rink home because it’s the closest one around. Prior to three seasons ago, when they began hosting bouts at Withington, their first two seasons were spent at “away” bouts only.
Their last bout of the season — Boyz of Summer II, an exhibition game against a team of men from around the Northeast — took place at Withington on Sept. 20. The Damez regular season will pick up again next spring.
Roller derby as a culture combines elements of performance art, rough-and-tumble competition, challenges to the gender-binary, and the knowing wink of camp aesthetics.
Players skate under Derby names, and resist providing reporters with their legal names. Derby athletes choose their names using creative word play, double-entendres, mock-violence, alliteration, and references to sometimes obscure pop culture.
Killabitch Enrage adapted her name from the Westfield, Mass.-based metalcore band Killswitch Engage.
Some of Enrage’s team members are Daisy Duke Nukem, Gangreene, and Don’t Care Bear. Among The Furies are Captain Demonic Delight, Slam Dinista, and Artichoke Heartless.
Other than the t-shirts and tank tops of the teams’ uniforms, players dress in a style inspired by punk rock, burlesque, and rockabilly fashions, with an almost consistent “DIY” (do-it-yourself) ethos.
Roller derby athletes’ bodies often display a great deal of color in their prominent tattoos and theatrical — and sometimes mock-menacing, a la Alice Cooper-style makeup. “Boutfits” commonly include such elements as fishnet stockings; Raggedy Ann-inspired socks with thick, alternating bands of two colors (usually red, black, or white); frilly skirts; and exceptionally short shorts.
Andrews appreciates the skill involved in roller derby, explaining: “Even in college, I preferred watching women’s sports. There’s a lot less machismo [than in men’s sports]. People are really playing the game.”
While roller derby pushes boundaries, it still remains family-friendly. It’s not the soft-porn catfight portrayed in popular culture.
This night was Ely Coughlin’s first real-life roller derby experience.
As he watched the game, he said: “I wanted to see what it was about. I’m surprised. Watching it on TV as a kid, [I figured it was] a much more brutal exercise. A lot of shoving, hair-pulling, nasty behavior. This seems more civil, but still pretty rowdy. Like rugby on skates.” Coughlin would not attend had the game been all men, explaining, “I like tough girls.”
Bethany and Allyson De Celle, ages 6 and 10, attended with their “Aunt Cricket,” Diana Van Alstyne of Keene. As members of The Damez’s fan club, the girls received “free high-fives” from each team member at the post-game congratulatory ritual.
Bethany, exhibiting admirable sportsmanship, declared: “I don’t care if [The Damez] win or lose. I just want the free high-fives!”
Both girls look forward to competing in roller derby when they are old enough. Bethany wants roller skates for her upcoming birthday, and plans to skate in her basement.
Allyson’s plans are more focused: “When I’m older, I’m gonna shove all these people.”