Talk derby to me: Team shows the changing face of sport (Sunday, April 4, 2010)

Rebecca Martinez/ROVING REPORTER

Women’s roller derby from the 1960s and ’70s left a certain image in the minds of its American spectators.

The derby girls of the past — who endure in footage on YouTube — were ruthlessness on eight wheels, shoving and tripping each other on their way around the banked track.

“It was completely fake. It was staged fights, it was ‘This team’s going to win, this team’s going to lose. These players are going to have a fist fight,’” said Janna Basye, who co-founded the Rocktown Rollers women’s flat-track roller derby team in Harrisonburg in 2008. Rocktown includes members throughout Staunton, Waynesboro and Augusta County.

Smack down
Basye goes by “Janna-cide” in the derby world, where women from a variety of backgrounds are jumping at the chance to create their own alter-egos and compete in an increasingly popular full-contact sport that has seen an international renaissance in the last decade.

Janna-cide said things have changed since the heyday of derby.

Banked-track derby is being replaced by flat tracks, which can be improvised with masking tape on almost any surface.

A do-it-yourself ethic pervades the sport. Teams raise their own money, make their own functional and sometimes revealing uniforms and organize their own bouts.

The Rocktown Rollers, or RTR, are on the path to certification under the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, which ranks participating teams and hosts regional and national championships. WFTDA’s frequently updated rule book sets standards of safety and sportsmanship for hundreds of derby teams domestically and internationally.

Specific, controlled hits with shoulders and hips are allowed, Janna-cide said. Injuries occur occasionally, but other recently formed teams in the area — including Charlottesville, Lynchburg and Richmond — are generally fair and friendly opponents.

“It’s not staged at all. It has very strict rules and regulations that we have to adhere to,” she said, explaining that seven referees per bout are on the lookout for kicking, tripping, elbowing or punching — all forbidden. “In the two years that I’ve been doing it, I’ve never seen a fight.”

At a scrimmage against the Star City Roller Girls in Roanoke on March 28, the Rollers thundered around the track in brightly-colored tights, neon-accented roller skates and homemade white T-shirts emblazoned with nicknames like “Snakelegs,” “Xena WompHer” and “Afro Die T.”

RTR coach Thom “Troch” Metroka said the roster boasts 14 “vets” — who have been skating for up to two years since the team’s inception — and about as many “fresh meat” who are learning to skate, block and fall with a purpose in accordance with WFTDA standards. He said the team takes and recruits all types.

“We have a real estate agent, we have teachers, nurses, moms. We have graphic design artists, we have a librarian,” Troch said, adding that his players are regular people who happen to love a full-contact sport. “Not any one of them is mean, aggressive, the stereotypical roller girls in the outside world.”

Jam session
Harrisonburg’s Kaitlin Ilnitzki, “Kill-nitzki” is a petite, lithe schoolteacher and a quick, graceful jammer — the single player on each team who skates through the pack to earn points.

She agreed with other competitors who said the derby tradition of alter egos is meant to be ironic and to overturn stereotypes of the submissive woman.

“It is fun to have the alter egos,” she said. “It’s just nice to come out and celebrating being a woman. It’s not about going shopping, it’s about being tough.”

Beyond the bad girl image, the fun is in the competition for Christina Steele of Stuarts Draft. Steele is a blocker — one of four who skates with the pack to help RTRs jammer through and tries to keep the opposing team’s jammer from passing.

Before she became “Blue Steele,” she was a self-proclaimed “wall hugger” who had trouble standing on her skates. Determined to become a better player, Steele practiced skating on her own time and lost about 70 pounds of excess weight. In the process, she made friends on the team and learned intricate details of the WFTDA rule book.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” Steele said. “It’s kind of saved my life in a way.”

Retired banked-track derby player Alex Cohen — formerly “Axles of Evil” for the Los Angeles Derby Dolls — said the reincarnation of roller derby began in 2000, about 20 years after the first wave died off in the late 1970s, first with a few women’s banked-track teams followed by an explosion of DIY flat-track teams. The A&E reality series “Rollergirls” and movies like 2009’s “Whip It” have only pushed the sport further into the mainstream.

“It came at just the right time,” said Cohen, who helped train the actors in “Whip It” and has co-written a book called “Down and Derby: The Insider’s Guide to Roller Derby.” “Having a sport that (women) totally owned, it was an opportunity to be strong and be sexy at the same time. It really was a one-of-a kind opportunity.”

Despite the Rocktown Rollers’ solid fan base, team members say the general public views them negatively because they don’t understand that their roller derby is a different breed from the televised sport of the ’70s. Troch said area skating rinks have refused to let the team practice there. Of the several teachers on the team, only Kill-nitzki was willing to comment for this story. Others feared repercussions from colleagues, school administrators and parents.

“That kind of image of a really unruly, scary female beating people up (is) not what parents and administrators want to see as like an ideal teacher,” said Kill-nitzki, adding that she’s optimistic their public image will change with time. “I think the more roller derby girls that people actually get to know and people get to see who they are, that’ll humanize the sport.”

In the meantime, Rocktown makes frequent public appearances — including hosting trivia nights at local cafés — and raise money for a crisis treatment center and a local literacy campaign.
According to derby author Cohen’s philosophy, they’re on the right track.

“When you’re out there doing good things on skates, I think that goes a really long way to helping out,” she said. “It’s just about talking to people and getting them to know the skaters and let them know they’re okay.”

RTR will take on Maryland’s Mason Dixon Roller Vixens at Funky’s Skate Center in Harrisonburg next Sunday. The Charlottesville Derby Dames will host the Rollers at Expoland in Fishersville in June.

If You Go

  • What: The Rocktown Rollers vs. The Mason Dixon Roller Vixens, RTR’s first bout of the season
  • When: 5-7 p.m. April 11. Doors open at 4 p.m.
  • Where: Funky’s Skate Center, 100 Miller Circle, Harrisonburg
  • Cost: $5 in advance at the Artful Dodger in Harrisonburg, $8 at the door.
  • More Info: Bout is open to all ages. A portion of ticket sales will benefit The Collins Center for violence prevention and the Gus Bus. For more info, visit www.rocktownrollers.com.

Rules of the Track: derby Dos and Don’ts
A pack of roller derby skaters moves fast in tight formation, but there’s a method to the blur of wheel-bound women circling the track.

The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association keeps a strict and current code of conduct.

“The rules are there to keep us safe,” said Beth “Betty CrasHer” Pleasants, a Fishersville mom and member of the Rocktown Rollers.

How a WFTDA bout works
The 30-minute halves of each game or bout are broken into shifts called jams. Four blockers from each team skate together in a pack. One jammer — the point-scoring player wearing a star on her helmet — from each team begins behind the pack and attempts to skate through it, hazarding blocks, which can be hits from the hips and shoulders of the opposing blockers. Once the jammers make it through the pack, they’re able to begin scoring, earning a point for each opponent they pass legally. The jam ends at two minutes or sooner when the lead jammer — the one who made it through the pack first — signals by putting her hands on her hips. After a 30-second break, a new jam begins.

For safety’s sake, the Rollers wear helmets, knee and elbow pads, wrist guards and mouth guards. The short skirts and tights many of them wear allow mobility while protecting their legs.

CrasHer, a 6-foot-tall jammer and blocker, said all the Rollers are trained to WFTDA standards on how to skate, hit and fall properly.

“When you fall big or flail, you endanger other players,” she said, adding that players can be penalized if they don’t resume skating after two seconds. “So the idea is to fall small and properly so you can regain your speed into the pack efficiently.”

DOs: Players can hit opponents with their shoulders and hips to knock them off balance or out of bounds. Blockers are encouraged to keep a low, wide stance as they skate to remain stable while taking hits from opponents or helping jammers pass. Jammers can push off their own blockers to “whip” themselves forward and out of the pack.

DON’Ts: Any player who illegally blocks an opposing player will serve one minute in the penalty box while the jam continues without her. Elbowing, tripping, back blocking — running into an opponent from behind, even by accident — and passing an opponent out of bounds can put a player in the penalty box.
Warning: Falls are frequent, and bruises are a fact of life, but Rocktown Rollers co-founder Janna “Janna-cide” Basye said hits shouldn’t be taken personally.

“It’s like football. It’s a full-contact sport,” she said. “You’re not out there to put anybody in the hospital, but occasionally those things do occur. As in any sport, there can be injury.”

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About gumshuz

I'm a writer and journalist living in Wyoming. Audio is my passion. My reporting has aired on Naitonal Public Radio, Wyoming Public Radio, BBC/PRI, APM and WAMU. My writing has been published in The News Leader, the Daily News-Record and The Star-Ledger. I deal in Americana and the human condition.
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