At a Sonoma County Roller Derby meeting in March a few days prior to a bout with Fresno's Smog City Rollers, the team is talking strategy.
League president D. Enforcer (Mari Almeida, age 32), an unlikely defense player at a slim 5 feet 4 inches, and team trainer the Teacher (Erica Saya, age 26), a petite and pretty blond, preside over the group assembled at Rohnert Park's Cal Skate rink. They assign positions, answer questions and relay the opposing team's strengths and weaknesses, which they've learned from studying videos and attending live games.
One player reminds that Smog City is famous for fighting and playing dirty. D. Enforcer responds, "We are not fighting." Another player asks uneasily, "What are we in for?" D. Enforcer coolly explains that she knows the referees and has talked to the opposing head coach, who seems aware of the rules. She says she hopes the team has outgrown its unruly behavior. (Turnover is high in roller derby, so this is not an unlikely scenario.) "If they start a fight, our medical bills will be paid," D. Enforcer stresses. "If I lose this tooth I just paid $2,000 to fix, I'm going to be mad."
Despite this reassurance, some of the players still seem unsettled. As the team disperses to lap the roller rink a few times before heading home—some to young children—at 10:30pm on a Thursday night, D. Enforcer calls after them, "And check out this store called Blooms at the Coddingtown Mall. They have awesome garter belts!"
So goes a typical meeting at the SCRD—busted teeth and garter belts, all in a day's work.
Sonoma County is in the middle of a significant hotbed of female roller derby, with surrounding leagues in San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento. Roller derby is historically a form of professional sports entertainment most popular in the 1950s and '60s; by the '70s, as it waned, derby gained notoriety for its WWF-type staged fights. The current incarnation of roller derby is all-female, amateur and self-organized by newer enthusiasts with an indie/punk/hardcore/goth aesthetic and an eye toward providing regular charitable donations.
Most current roller derby leagues follow the rules of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), formed in 2004. Two teams send five players each onto a flat circuit track. Sonoma County Roller Derby divides itself into the Wine Country Homewreckers and the North Bay Bruisers. The players wear quad skates and helmets, as well as knee, elbow and wrist pads and almost whatever else they feel like; torn fishnets, garter belts, hot pants and miniskirts prevail.
Gone are the banked tracks and precarious railings Raquel Welch jackknifed over in the Kansas City Bomber. This kind of roller derby, though still a full-contact sport (the women say "It's not a matter of if you get hurt, but when"), seems much more about camaraderie, sportsmanship and empowerment than anything else.
The WFTDA currently comprises 53 teams. Hundreds of registered flat-track teams are not part of the association but play by its rules, including teams in Canada, the U.K., Germany and Australia. Sonoma County Roller Derby is home to two teams, the North Bay Bruisers and the Wine Country Homewreckers and is working to become a member of the WFTDA, which requires a lot of paperwork and hoop-jumping.
The March 29 Smog City bout in Fresno turned out to be a dirty match, indeed. The Fresno team seemed to want to rile the crowd up by treating SCRD disrespectfully: making obscene gestures at the visiting players, spitting at them, hitting illegally, screaming at players and refs alike.
Swinging of the elbows in a forward and backward motion is not a legal blocking move. D. Enforcer, whose job as a blocker is to look out behind her to keep the other team's jammer from getting through, saw this illegal move twice during the game, while the ref never did. The second time, that elbow hit Pepe, one of SCRD's best jammers, and cracked her sternum; she'll be out for a few weeks.
A particularly hard, but entirely legal, block by game MVP Grateful Red put Smog's jammer in the hospital with a concussion and a CT scan. "I plowed into their jammer with speed and determination, apparently a painful combination," Red explains. "I still feel so guilty. Don't get me wrong, I meant to smack into her and I meant for her to fall down, but I never meant for her to go to the hospital."
Final score, according to Smog's scorekeeper: SCRD, 97; Smog City, 66. Final score, according to SCRD: 124&–66.
One week later, the gals played Chico's NorCal Roller Girls, and although SCRD won again, D. Enforcer says, "There was so much love between the two teams when we were done, because it was a good, clean bout, really competitive, beautiful to watch. We were hugging each other afterwards!"
April 26 marks the league's one-year anniversary and is the date of the first home bout of their first season. With a professional approach, organization, commitment and a hardcore training regimen, plus a 4&–1 record, this team is shaping up to be a serious contender.
The women of SCRD are a tight-knit group of organized, dedicated women ranging in age from 21 to 53. They are single, married, gay, straight. They are mothers, teachers, businesswomen, EMTs, college students, real estate agents, hairdressers. And most of them didn't know how to skate or hadn't done so in ages when they joined the league.
"We can teach you how to skate, but the desire must be within," is an SCRD motto, and with three practices a week, organized drills, a seasoned trainer and a lot of support from encouraging teammates, it's only a matter of perseverance and time before players skate like pros. The Teacher has been skating since she was four years old. Her parents met at a roller rink and her mother skated with her in utero, making her a natural as the head of training and lead jammer. She has taught most of the girls in her league the skating basics, including league president D. Enforcer, with whom she started SCRD only a year ago.
D. Enforcer, a single mother, says, "I did a lot of research before we started the league to learn why other leagues failed: disorganization and money. So when we started the SCRD, it was really important to get organized. Now we have 13 committees [including community outreach, fundraising, recruitment and publicity], with a leader for each one, and we meet every month. We pay dues, we are constantly doing fundraisers. We have to pay for everything—gear, rink rental, hotel rooms for away bouts, the ref's insurance." Not surprisingly, her father coined her derby name when she was just a kid because, she says, "I always liked to take charge."
Why do these girls do it? What makes them want to subject themselves to harm? "It's great exercise. I get to be someone that I'm not in my regular life—it's an alter ego of sorts that is super sexy and really tough at the same time," says Grrrl Haggard (Jen Jenkins, age 32) of Eureka's Humboldt Roller Derby Redwood Rollers. "The most surprising aspect that I love about roller derby is the physical contact. I've never been a team sports player and never been all that aggressive, but once we learned how to hit and fall properly, I loved it!"
Heather Harris, 35, has two children, eight and 10 years old. At an open practice on recruitment night, she stood at the wall watching the skaters zoom past, and explained that a chapter had just closed in her life and she was ready to start over. "I have a lot of pent-up frustrations, and I think roller derby would make a good outlet. I like that you can be somebody else for a while, that I could kick off that mom persona. But my friends and family think I've freaked out." Was she scared to get out on the rink and get hit? "We've been through childbirth, what else can you throw at us?" she answers with a smile.
About a quarter of the SCRD players have children; the Eureka team has even more. "We have a lot of young mothers on our league," Grrrl Haggard says, "and they were like, 'Hey! I used to be cool and do stuff just for me.' They've found a home in roller derby."
Solidarity abounds. "It's like a sorority without the sorority—no drama," says SCRD vice president Big Nick. "We don't allow dissing of players; we confront it. And we don't kick people off the team. Our team is not about creating problems in people's lives; it's about enhancing lives."
Grrrl Haggard concurs. "At first I was skeptical about participating in a sport with all women, thinking there would be lots of drama, but that's not the case. The sport seems to be dominated by strong and opinionated women who also are very cool."
Most of the players cite fun, exercise and camaraderie as their reasons for joining and staying in the league. But one player, Bushido (Sarah Norgar, age 30), lays it out straight. "You know, you don't get to knock annoying girls over in the mall, because you get arrested," she says. "I play derby so I can hit other girls."
After attending six tryouts, new players in SCRD have a three-month probation period before they can bout. They must do a battery of drills and scrimmaging to learn how to fall and how to take a hit.
Susie Roundwheels (Susan Asbell, age 53), the oldest player on the team, has just completed her probation period. She feels ready for the rink. "If you stay low, follow what they teach you and wear your equipment, you'll usually be all right," she says. "You've just got to give it better than you get it!"
Asbell rode skates for transportation around San Francisco in the 1970s. When she saw the roller derby booth at Santa Rosa's Health and Harmony Fair, she started to think about all her years as a soccer mom. "Now I hope my kids will come watch me!" she says at practice one night, to which she drives an hour and a half, twice a week, to attend.
Many of the spectators at last December's preseason home opener claimed they had attended because they had a friend skating or they thought it would be fun. But one man simply said, "I'm here to watch chicks beat the shit out of each other."
On the surface, the sport is appealing because the women are dressed provocatively and it offers a trainwreck-catfight allure that's hard to look away from. But look a little deeper, and it becomes clear that roller derby requires strategy, passion and commitment. It's layered—players get to put on a show and take on an alter-ego, work out their aggressions, while also striving individually and as a team to be strong and win.
"Derby makes you find yourself. Define yourself. Express yourself," D. Enforcer says. "It pushes you to extremes. I fall so hard for this team, and I get right back up. You find qualities in yourself you never knew you had—I shock myself."
Sonoma County Roller Derby season home opener is an intra-league bout between the Wine Country Homewreckers and the North Bay Bruisers titled 'The Battle for the County' on Saturday, April 26, at Cal Skate. 6100 Commerce Blvd., Rohnert Park. 9pm. $10&–$12; a portion of the proceeds go to United Against Sexual Assault of Sonoma County. 707.585.0494. To become a derby girl, open practices are held 8:30pm to 10:30pm every Tuesday at Cal Skate. For more info, go to [ http://www.sonomacountyrollerderby.org/ ]www.sonomacountyrollerderby.org.
(Courtesy of WFTDA)
• Hitting the arm from shoulder to elbow, the chest and front and side of torso, the hips, the upper thigh.
• Initiating contact with the following body parts: arm from shoulder to elbow, torso, hips and booty.
• Incidental forearm contact between skaters if arms are pulled into the body to absorb the force of a block.
• Hard hits, which are not illegal hits. (Penalties are meted out according to the legality of the hit, not the force or speed of the hit or the outcome of the hit.)
• Hitting anywhere above the shoulders, the back of the torso or booty, on or below the knee
• Contact initiating from: elbows, which may not be swung with a forward/backward motion (contact may not be made with point of the elbow (i.e., jabbing), and elbows may not be used to hook an opposing player); forearms and hands (no grabbing, holding or pushing); the head.
• Blocking from behind (i.e., no hitting another skater in the back).
• Tripping or intentionally falling in front of another skater.
• Improper uniform, jewelry or skates
Major Penalties (Resulting in Expulsion)
• Deliberate and excessive insubordination to a referee; fighting; hitting or punching to the face or neck; pulling of the head, neck or helmet; choking by helmet straps; kicking another skater; biting; dog-piling.
(Adapted from TXRD Lonestar Roller Girls, Grrrl Haggard of Humboldt Roller Derby's Redwood Rollers and the Women's Flat Track Derby Association)
blocker Defense player who works to keep the pack in a tight formation to prevent jammers from skating past.
blood and thunder A favorite drill in which all skaters take the track and proceed to knock the hell out of each other until only one skater remains standing.
bout A game, lasting 60 minutes divided into 20- or 30-minute segments, including a series of two-minute jams. Each team has one pivot, one jammer and three blockers on the track.
cannonball Deliberate (and illegal) fall to trip several skaters on the opposing team at once.
clawing A jammer pulling her way through a tough pack.
contact zones Areas of the body that may be used to give or receive a hit.
dog pile Jumping onto or into a pile of fighting skaters.
fishnet burn A semi-permanent fish-scale pattern, resulting from falling while wearing fishnet stockings.
give a whip An assist move in which a skater extends her arm and whips her jammer around the track, propelling her with momentum and quite possibly taking out unsuspecting blockers in her path.
grand slam When one jammer completely laps the opposing jammer, scoring an additional point.
jam Two-minute period during which the jammer fights her way through the pack. After making it through once, she scores one point for each opposing team member she passes.
jammer Positioned at the back of the pack wearing a starred helmet, a jammer is the point-scorer.
lead jammer The first jammer through the pack.
pivot The skater at the front of the pack wearing a striped helmet. She sets the pace and call the plays and is the last line of defense to prevent a jammer from scoring.
Purple Heart Award (aka Hall of Pain Award) Given to the most heinous injury of the year, usually taken home by recipient of a broken bone.
red rover Effective but illegal block by two skaters with linked arms.
rink rash Stinging, red streak across buttocks and/or legs resulting from exposed skin (from too-short skirts/pants/shorts) hitting the track.
take-downs Stopping a player by any means necessary.
t-stop Dragging the back skate perpendicular to the front skate.