Roller Derby and the Geek Connection

A small skater in red hits a larger skater in green with her hip while two other skaters in red prepare themselves to block. In the background are more skaters in green and a referee.

Abbie Mischief, No. 318, delivers a hit during “Pack Mentality,” the 2014–2015 Minnesota RollerGirls’ home-team semifinals. © 2015 From the Ashes Photography, courtesy Minnesota RollerGirls

If you’ve listened to me talk, at all, over the last year and a half or so, I’ve probably mentioned the phrase “roller derby.” My MFA thesis is about roller-derby vampires. I go to practice every week, even when I’m feeling shaky and I’d rather stay home. This weird sport has gotten into my blood. And there’s this connection between the world represented by the geeky community and a sport played on roller skates, expressed in names like Slambda Phage, Riotchu, Lola Frequency, Paige Notfound, Soylent Mean, and, of course, Hannah Shot First. Welcome to the world of the geekiest sport on Earth. Yes, I know that’s a very tall order to fill considering we live in a world where Quidditch, a sport that in its original conception was played on flying broomsticks with semisentient balls by adolescent witches and wizards in a young adult fantasy novel, is played by real people.

Roller derby is played by two teams on a short roller-skating track. A game (which is often called a bout) is split into two periods, each of which is split into two-minute plays called jams. Each team has, barring penalties, five players on the track at a time: four blockers and one jammer. The blockers simultaneously play offense and defense by helping their jammer score and impeding the other jammer, while the jammers themselves are the players who can score points. One blocker, who wears a helmet cover with a stripe, is called the pivot, and she can accept the star from the jammer and become a jammer herself. The jammers start off by pushing and dodging their way through the pack, hopefully without committing a foul, competing to attain the position of lead jammer, at which point they can end, or “call off,” the jam at any time prior to its natural conclusion. After the first pass is complete, the second and subsequent passes are for points.

Roller derby envisions itself as an inclusive sport, and this is one of the ways it can work as a bridge among multiple aspects of feminism and geekdom. It also has many of the same struggles that show up in other areas of feminist interest, particularly in attracting communities of women who might have a harder time embracing a sport with quite such a high startup cost (it’s not uncommon for “fresh meat” to spend upwards of $300 on skates and pads). Another concern for inclusion in roller derby is the idea of it being a visibly white sport, even in areas that don’t have a majority white population. However, one of roller derby’s recent victories also comes in the area of inclusion, with the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) embracing the transgender community by taking the position that anyone who identifies as a woman player is welcome to skate with any league in the WFTDA. The times, my friends, they are a-changin’.

In preparation for this article, I talked to three roller-derby skaters: Amanda Nelsen, Amy Stomberg, and JayCee Cooper, who skate as, Barbell Fett, Hannah Shot First, and Coopa Troopa. Amanda and JayCee are part of the recreation and training leagues for the Minnesota RollerGirls and North Star Roller Girls, respectively, and Amy is a skater for the Minnesota RollerGirls’ Dagger Dolls home team. I also interviewed Wayne Bruns, a longtime fan of roller derby who regularly organizes trips to Minnesota RollerGirls home bouts for members of the Royal Manticoran Navy. The skaters’ different stories of how they came to play roller derby had some common themes. All of them mentioned falling in love with roller derby the first time they went to a bout. Amanda was introduced to it by a friend who thought she might be good at playing because she’s athletic; Amy started going to roller derby bouts in 2004 before she put her own skates on in 2009 and started trying out in 2010 and ’11, making it into the officiating crew before making her debut as a member of the Dagger Dolls in 2012. For the Stombergs, roller derby is part of the family: Amy’s husband, Jeremy, a member of the founding convention committee (ConCom) of CONvergence, is the Minnesota RollerGirls’ primary arena announcer, John Maddening. I myself came to love the sport through the film Whip It and only later came to the understanding that roller derby was a thing that I could actually do, myself, and took on the name “Kate or Die.”

Derby names are a super-popular part of the sport. Despite some hesitant movement away from them for ranked and interleague bouting, these names—which started as a legacy of the modern roller-derby movement’s rockabilly- and burlesque-infused origins—still are a defining characteristic of the modern form of the sport for many, many fans and skaters. A derby name can be sexual, aggressive, and defiant . . . and it is very often very, very geeky. Names like Eva Gadro and Jabba the Butt are an important way for derby girls to let their geek flags fly. Derby equipment is an outlet for skaters to let their creativity flow as well: competitors often have elaborately decorated pads, skates, and helmets (the only two restrictions being that stars and stripes are not permitted because they might confuse the referees as to who holds what position on the track), and the inventiveness shown by skaters in names, gear, and team themes can inspire fans to their own forms of creativity. Hotpants are still a part of roller derby, though these days they’re more often worn over tights than by themselves, in hugely creative patterns. One of the roller-derby world’s own, Minnesota’s Lindsay “Scootaloo” Lyford, produces many of the creative hotpants seen on the roller derby track.

Derby names themselves are often an inspiration to start playing. In Whip It, coach Razor admonishes that roller derby is “more than just . . . picking out a tough name,” but many skaters are attracted to the sport by the idea of being able to reinvent oneself through a differently named persona—or to use a chosen name to express more of your personality than you might feel free to otherwise. Amanda identified Hannah Shot First as the derby name that inspired her to try out, and the one that inspired her own derby name of Barbell Fett. She remembers it as a time when she realized that her geekiness and her athleticism could come together, instead of occupying separate spaces in her life. For his part, Wayne cited the Minnesota RollerGirls’ Salvador Brawlie as one of his favorite geeky derby names. As for me, derby names are one of my favorite parts of the creativity of the sport to the point that my favorite derby name has become, “Which derby name am I looking at right this second?” Though the Minnesota RollerGirls’ Abbie Mischief, Tara Skatesov, and Jacked Pipes; North Star Roller Girls’ shE. Coli and Kill Valentine; Victoria’s Mary Fagdalene; and Rose City’s Scald Eagle come immediately to mind as lasting favorites.

Apart from names, every roller girl who is skating now has noticed that while the entertainment factor of the game is still present, much of it has moved outside of the confines of the track itself. One of the first things to be removed when the Donnelly Sisters founded the Minnesota RollerGirls in 2004 was the “Penalty Wheel,” a spinner that was used to determine what penalty would be issued for a foul. Skaters who were present at the time noted the awkwardness of the wheel, which could include such undesirable penalties as a “spank alley” or the skater who fouled being required to give the skater who was fouled a hug. This was replaced in 2005 with a penalty box, which was codified in the first version of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association rules and has been with us ever since. As John Maddening will remind skaters who frequent the box, there is no Surly in the Surly Sin Bin.

Gravity is one of the foremost subjects on every roller girl’s mind, because if there’s one thing that is certain about the sport, it’s that when you’re throwing and taking hits while balancing on roller skates, you are going to eat some track. My rollergirl interviewees had some interesting opinions when I asked them how the sport would change if antigravity skates were a part of things! This was a fun question to ask and an even more fun one to have answered: Amanda thought that derby would become more strategically interesting with boundaries expressed in three dimensions, while Amy wondered whether antigravity would make things more or less difficult. JayCee’s opinion was that derby might look “a bit more like Quidditch.” Considering the amount that falling off of an antigravity device is part of fiction involving antigravity, I tend to believe that it would become more difficult in three dimensions—after all, there are reasons we don’t have flying cars yet.

The Minnesota RollerGirls’ fans are recognized widely as some of the most devoted in the entire WFTDA. The Aquaman Army? (yes, the question mark is part of the name) is known throughout WFTDA for being friendly, helpful, and one of the loudest cheering sections in all of roller derby. Led by Chad Eng, husband of the Atomic Bombshells’ Lisa “Diamond Rough” Eng-Sarne, the Aquaman Army? is a vocal, powerful “sixth skater” for the Minnesota All-Stars. The group has a hymnal of popular songs adapted to praise the Minnesota skaters and a sense of humor that is not beneath ribbing both the other team’s fans (at the championships, they skewered one of first-round opponent Texas’ popular cheers as “Tofu! Tofu! Kale Kale Kale!”) and themselves (“Minn-e-so-ta! Clap! Clap clap clap clap!”).

Over the last several years, roller derby has become a steadily more competitive sport on the track. A number of the skaters who began skating in the early days of the revival have said that if their early skating selves had to try out again, they probably wouldn’t have made it. But this hasn’t changed the carnival atmosphere that surrounds the bouts, and the show outside the game shows a lot of the geekiness and creativity that draws so many women to roller derby, making geeks over as athletes. Perhaps too many articles like this one start with phrases like, “By day she’s an ordinary teacher; by night she’s a roller girl!” but the real superhero transformation takes place over months and years.

Upcoming Roller Derby Events in the Twin Cities

The month of March features the championship bouts of three derby leagues: The Minnesota RollerGirls, North Star Roller Girls, and Minnesota Men’s Roller Derby.

Raining Destruction

Who: Minnesota RollerGirls
When: Saturday, March 5, 2016 (doors at 6:30 p.m., bout at 7:30 p.m.)
Where: Roy Wilkins Auditorium, St. Paul

After an exciting semifinal matchup, the Minnesota RollerGirls have made it to the big finale! The first bout of the evening will feature the Dagger Dolls and Garda Belts fighting it out for third place; then, the Atomic Bombshells and Rockits will battle it out for the prestigious Golden Skate! The preshow will feature the North East Roller Derby Youth (NERDY)—these young phenoms may be small, but they’re no less fierce! The halftime will have you dancing to the soulful sounds of Danami and the Blue, whose sounds read like an updated throwback to soul with a hip-hop vibe and are sure to get you off your feet. This bout will be the game of the season!

All Star Opener

Who: Minnesota RollerGirls
When: Saturday, April 9, 2016 (doors at 6:30 p.m., bout at 7:30p p.m.)
Where: Roy Wilkins Auditorium, St. Paul

In April, the 11th-ranked Minnesota RollerGirls All-Stars skate their travel team opener against the 16th-ranked Rocky Mountain 5280 Fight Club.

Thank You for Jamming Again

Who: North Star Roller Girls
When: Saturday, March 12, 2016 (doors at 6:00 p.m., bout at 7:00 p.m.)
Where: Lee and Rose Warner Coliseum, Minnesota State Fairgrounds

The championship bout of the North Star Roller Girls’ Season X represents is the culmination of NSRG’s historic 10th season. The night promises two exciting bouts between the four NSRG home teams: first, the Violent Femmes will go up against Delta Delta Di for the third place win. These two teams always provide some fierce competition and neither wants to go home in last place, so expect big hits and fast, jukey jammers. In the battle for the coveted championship trophy, the Kilmore Girls have fought their way up after several seasons of losses to take on the two-year reigning champions, the Banger Sisters. Their first matchup at the beginning of the season ended with the Bangers taking a slim 25-point win after a close back-and-forth game. But both of these teams have their eyes on the prize, and the trophy’s fate is far from sealed. You won’t want to miss this evening of entertainment, food, drinks, and of course intense derby action! Tickets are available now at www.northstarrollergirls.com.

The Big Jambowski

Who: Minnesota Men’s Roller Derby
When: March 19, 2016 (doors at 6:30 p.m., bout at 7:00 p.m.)
Where: Champion’s Hall, Eden Prairie

Mix up those white Russians and get ready to watch some dudes abide, derby style, as Minnesota Men’s Roller Derby presents the championship bout of the season. The Destruction Workers take on the Thunderjacks to battle it out for the Crystal Skate. Tickets are $10 for adults; children 10 and under get in free with an adult. Schedule and tickets at www.tcterrors.com.

And kids have plenty of opportunity to get involved with roller derby. Twin Cities Junior Roller Derby and North East Roller Derby Youth (NERDY) both skate at the Armory in Northeast Minneapolis, at 1025 Broadway St. NE.

Leave a Comment

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!