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A world of slams, whips and blocks

They love roller derby and it loves them back


I recalled seeing local women’s roller derby teams raising funds for LGBT organizations.

I saw a parallel in challenging our gender norms: Adam Rippon’s figure skating - the softness of his skating - with local roller derby leagues challenging gender - the hardness of the women’s skating

The local league is called Harrisburg Area Roller Derby, or HARD, for goodness sake! Was my impression correct that there is something queer about women’s roller derby?

Leslie Hall, whose roller derby name is Bismashual, said, “I feel personally that it’s a very queer sport because it’s very accepting,” noting that one teammate shared that the confidence she gained in roller derby helped her come out to her family.

Cassidy Frazee, a league member who is working toward certification, described roller derby as a safe space for women, including queer women.

Beyond LGBT participation in the sport, local skaters pointed out the queer aspects of the roller derby and the community around it.

There's a history here

There is a history of rebellious women participating in roller derby. And HARD’s outreach had been to people on the margins: women with tattoos, women with an unconventional personal style, women who worked tough jobs.

Yet HARD is not exclusively queer. The team has many LGBT players but also straight, married moms. Each player stands in the face of society’s expectation that women don’t engage in full-contact sports.

Sarah Benoist said that she’s had bad experiences in the past with sports, and specifically pointed out the toxic body image prevalent in sports like gymnastics. That hasn’t been her experience with HARD.

“It’s nice to find like-minded people who are coming from a common viewpoint with acceptance and sexuality,” said Benoist, also noting that people of all body types can participate in roller derby.

Frazee said that “nobody said anything” about her being transgender when she joined: “People were like, ‘can you do it?’”

Frazee emphasized that the governing body, Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), has demonstrated strong leadership on the acceptance of transgender skaters. “They’ve made it clear that any woman can play.”

WFTDA-participating leagues are expected to deal with any transphobia. Charters can be pulled if a league doesn’t actively deal with transphobic incidents, because the league would be violating the code of conduct. It’s difficult to think of any other sport that makes such a strong effort to support its trans participants.

A serious sport

For the uninitiated, roller derby is a serious sport. To participate in a league like HARD, skaters need to become certified by the WFTDA.

Certification involves passing a 27/5 (twenty-seven laps, or just under 1 mile, in 5 minutes), doing 1 lap in 13 seconds, and demonstrating skating skills like moving forward and backward and performing certain starts and stops. Skaters also have to demonstrate that they can hit and take a hit, and they must pass a 50-question test on WFTDA rules.

While roller derby certainly has qualities that are unique, there are a lot of familiar tropes that fans of other sports may find familiar. HARD referee Registered Curse said that roller derby is “like a Mario Party of sports.” The skating may feel familiar to fans of other skating sports like speed skating and figure skating; the hitting, blocking, and formations may feel familiar to fans of rugby and football; the stamina and agility may feel familiar to fans of soccer and hockey.

Names are part of the games

Those who aren’t sport enthusiasts may be drawn to parallels with drag culture: a big part of roller derby is selecting your name, which is an expression of identity that may involve wordplay, reference to fictional characters, and innuendo. Self-expression is encouraged; for example, Bismashual competes wearing makeup and lipstick referencing the colors of the bi flag.

Some fans that remember the televised roller derby from the 70s may also have the idea that it’s similar to WWE wrestling, but they would be making a mistake. Contemporary roller derby isn’t scripted like versions of roller derby have been in the past; the sport has evolved and continues to evolve.

Announcer Gretchen Little reflected that while roller derby has developed more rules and become more technical, a downside is that prospective fans may be unfamiliar with the rules and find the pace of play difficult to follow. That’s where her role as announcer comes in. Little has been announcing for HARD bouts since she moved to the area in 2008, and if you attend a HARD bout without knowing much of what to expect, her commentary will help you understand what’s happening.

Besides announcing, there are other non-skating roles that lots of people take on in order to sustain the league. Referees like Registered Curse don’t only officiate bouts, but help advise the skaters in the league on the rules. Referees and non-skating officials often show up to the two or more practices per week in order to stay sharp on their ability to call penalties, and to participate in the community. Registered Curse started skating with HARD as a player but got hurt and wanted to stay involved.

All in the family

In talking with the skaters, I received a strong message that they feel that they’ve become part of a family with HARD. Bismashual, who is now the president of HARD’s board of directors, started participating in the league at the end of college. Roller derby helped her settle into the area when she moved to Harrisburg for a job. She had countless examples of the ways she’s given and received support from teammates: she got a flat tire and one of the teammates picked her up, she’s jump started other teammates’ cars. Teammates have taken each other to doctor appointments, helped with watching kids and getting groceries when someone is sick, and visited a teammate in the hospital.

The vibe is accepting and encouraging. Some “fresh meat” have certified very quickly, and some take a year or so. Roller derby is mentally and physically challenging, and the team encourages one another through these challenges.

Bismashual talked about the culture of acknowledging each other’s different strengths and not comparing oneself to others. Coaches have offered one-on-one practice time to develop certain skills. When someone falls, it’s turned into a positive by cheering on the teammate for a “good recovery.”

Frazee got into it for one primary reason: she wanted to do something that she had a chance at succeeding at.

“A majority of my life has been defined by failures,” she said, citing two failed marriages, being estranged from her family, and financial challenges. “I felt that with derby if I worked hard I would succeed, I got the sense of accomplishment I needed. I felt that with people I knew in the league it would push me to succeed. I want to be an active, contributing member of the team.”

After about a year skating, Frazee says she’s found success in being integrated into community, with a group of people who have her back. “Once you’re in derby you’re always in derby. It goes beyond just a simple community, it’s almost like you’re a family. My biggest group of friends right now is all my derby sisters.”

Click HERE to learn more about Harrisburg Area Roller Derby.

Click HERE to learn more about Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.