Y ou probably have a picture of roller derby in your head that feels very 1970s: a bunch of tough gals with campy, sexually suggestive pseudonyms skating in a sloped circle on tiny tires, slamming each other into walls; a scripted sport in the vein of professional wrestling, more entertainment than competition.
At CT RollerGirls, parts of that history remain. The campy, questionable names—like Puke Skywalker and Banana SlamHer, VelociSlaptHer and Your Mom—are still there. And the skaters, 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,” because these are women we’re talking about. But they call themselves girls, and they could, each and every one of them, beat the stuffing 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.
That’s the biggest difference about today’s roller derby. Sure, these days the track is flat, not banked, and the girls skate on an open floor, not into and up against walls. But bigger than that, the sport is now a sport. There’s no script here, and the competition is full-contact. Fierce.
Meanwhile, the rules are as sophisticated as any other sport. 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; 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, all while opening a lane for their own jammer to skate through.
Like other sports, there are rules of play and refs. There are legal blocks and illegal blocks, packs and no-pack calls. There are penalties. Privileges, too: the jammer can call off a jam at will, and the jammer and 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.
Still, roller derby “needs description,” Sean Fowler, a.k.a. Sean the Shark, told me. Fowler is one of the league’s announcers, and they’re the ones who really open the sport up to all 300-odd people in the audience at each game. Announcers entertain and involve the crowd and fill the breaks in the action. (Sean even has an “Awkward Pause Theme Song” that he sings.)
Primarily, though, they 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 intense 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.
Perhaps surprisingly, 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 off-color campiness either, but the night is geared toward everyone. There’s music and candy, with raffles and half-time contests for kids, who, if they’re under 12, get in for free. And the sport is so fast-paced, the competition so closely matched—the last game I saw hinged on opposing penalties in the final seconds—that it’d be hard for anyone not to have a good time.
The league itself is just as inclusive. CT RollerGirls is a skater-owned and -operated, not-for-profit and full-on democratic sporting league. The players are a diverse group of girls in their twenties, thirties, and even forties—lifelong athletes and sports rookies alike. Tryouts are open to everyone 18 and over (and out of high school), and new players are voted in by the league’s membership. Most who try out—even relatively new skaters—make it onto a team after a pair of introductory bootcamps and a twelve-practice training program.
“We’ll teach you to skate. We teach endurance, we teach competitiveness, we teach team cohesion,” says Parker Poison (Cassandra McNeil, the league’s chairwoman). “We even teach you to fall”—which happens a lot—without injury. Nobody wants to do any serious damage to anybody else, because, however competitive it might get on the track, the league is ultimately about teamwork and community.
This makes sense of the pervasive humility of the players, even amidst all the outward swagger. Speaking with relative newcomer to the sport Folsom Bruise (her real name is Laurie Lawless, ironically enough) after the bout, I somewhat indelicately mentioned the obvious talent of one of the opposing skaters Folsom had just played against. The spirit of the league, and probably a certain amount of inborn sportswomanship, shined right through: “I can never be that skater,” she said. “But I can certainly try.”
League Championship: Saturday, November 10, at 6pm (doors at 5pm)
CT Sports Center, 21 South Bradley Road, Woodbridge (map)
Website | Tickets
Written and photographed by Jonathan McNicol.