tory and photos by Art Petrosemolo
Women’s roller derby may resemble organized chaos but don’t be fooled. There is real strategy in what you see on the flat track and these women take this extreme sport seriously. They train hard and have a lot of fun doing it.
This isn’t the derby that drew a 1950s black-and-white TV audience. That mayhem — at best — was closer to professional wrestling.
Today’s derby is a five-a-side, grass roots revival of the sport and overseen by the WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association). The extreme sport grew from indoor skating and speed skating popular from the 1970s to 1990s. Today, women derby athletes exhibit skating skills, balance, athleticism and yes, the ability to take and give a bump and a block in a long, 10-month season.
For a growing fan base it is exciting, fun to watch and could be described as a “hoot.” It is one of a new generation of sports, like ultimate fighting, that appeal to an audience who likes reality events and being put in the middle of non-stop action.
In women’s roller derby, you actually pay to play. Players’ dues support practice time, arena rentals and marketing. Team members purchase their own quad (four wheel) skates and uniforms. Although many of the women don’t describe it this way, the league also is a sorority of sorts where players have made close friends while gaining confidence in their ability to succeed at something most of us can’t even attempt. And, for many, it gives them a chance to blow off steam and frustrations from balancing work and family in a 24/7 world.
In coastal New Jersey, the Jersey Roller Girls have been growing steadily since 2007 and their first bout Convention Hall in Asbury Park in 2008.
So what is it that attracts the attention of mainstream American women, bringing them out to multiple weekly practices and weekend matches?
For Gloria Newman, (aka “Hell O’Newman”) Toms River, who has been skating for nearly two years and was recently paired with a team, it’s all about the team and comradery. She got started when a British friend who skates there got her interested. “This isn’t easy,” she smiles, “it takes time to first learn how to skate correctly and to develop the skills, agility, leverage – the whole package – to be ready to skate on a team.”
Newman likes the self-confidence it brings her and she has learned to live with the bumps and bruises she is all too familiar with in her other life as a hospital nurse.
New skaters to the league are called “Pork Rollers” and train under the watchful eye of Christine Hodan, the league trainer. They hone their skating technique and skills until they pass the proficiency exam and are placed on a team. There is no fast track to success and the training process can take months for some and years for others.
Hodan, who once went under the moniker “Joy Kill Her” and now skates with her own name on the back of her jersey, is a recent college graduate and a derby skater for the past five years. She can jam, pivot and block, and skates like the wind. “It’s chess on wheels,” she describes. “It’s all about the positioning, not just skating fast, giving or taking a bump and a block.”
Now as the league trainer Hodan explains how it works: “The 10 week program can handle 30 students who practice twice weekly.” After 10 weeks, maybe 15 of the starters who are remaining will test and out of those 12 will pass and be eligible to move onto a team. “The others,” Hodan says, “will either continue with the training or lose interest. It is demanding.” Also, the league has become so popular that it now has 20 women on a waiting list for the next training class.
Most derby skaters use alias names. “It’s an alter-ego at times,” says Kim Hartman, Beachwood, (aka “Bash N Onya”) who handles PR for the league. “Some of the women’s work colleagues do not know they are derby girls,” she says, “and they try and keep it that way.”
The alias names may be one of the reasons the sport isn’t taken as seriously as players would like. Recently, many skaters have begun to use their given names on game day programs and uniforms, and this trend is continuing.
The JSRG league has five teams. Bouts are held against each other throughout the year at Convention Hall. The best skaters form the A and B travel teams who skate against similar teams from leagues in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and beyond.
Lisa Weisse, Jackson, (aka “Lita Floor Her”) has been a member of the group since the first season in 2007. “It is a chance for me to do something different,” she remarks, adding that it provides her outlet for any frustrations and aggressive tendencies she builds up during the week working — primarily with men — as a manager of a landscaping company.
Joanna Fleming, Brick, (aka Koopa Troopa), whose husband is one of the league’s refs, skates on the travel team. She was a track and field athlete in high school and loves the speed. Fleming has been a team member for three years and says, “I was hooked after watching one game. I saw it as a challenge and was able to learn the skills in six months.” Fleming is what’s known as a “jammer” (see below) and is one of the league’s speedsters.
Christine Genthe, Jackson, known to everyone as “Bella” (like in aka “Belle Maul Her”) for her favorite beach, saw a poster a few years back and said, “this is for me.” She is one of the team’s fierce blockers who help free the jammers in game strategy. Bella, like an increasing number of skaters, soon will play under her real name but it may be Bella – and not “Christine” Genthe.
Lee Petrollo, (aka “Leethal”) is in her third season as a referee. “These girls make it look easy,” the elementary school art teacher says. After training, Lee felt she fit better as league official enforcing the rules and it puts her right in the middle of the action. Both Petrollo and her boyfriend are officials.
For Ali Kurasz Brick, (aka “Pinky and the Pain”) who started at 18, and was the league’s youngest skater, it’s a whole other word. She is a child of the ’90s and says, “I always have had color in my hair and pink just works for me now. I always wanted to skate and I love this.”
Amanda Pearce (aka “Wicked Kitty”), Toms River is a swim instructor in her hometown. She has been skating for more than four years and went through the first organized training program. Pearce is married with two children, and all three are fans. (can’t leave hubby out, I’m sure he is too!)
Pearce first saw the JSRG in a local parade and then saw a girl with a Roller jacket in Target. She approached her and the rest is history for the versatile skater who jams and blocks.
The league is skater owned and governed by the rules of the flat track derby association. Players and referees wear protective equipment at all times. However, with the object of the game to score points by helping your jammer lap the pack and work her way past opposing players, skaters get bumped, bruised, can lose their footing and find themselves sitting unceremoniously on the track. It isn’t a sport for everyone, team members admit.
The JSRG’s first home bout was in February 2008 and the community response was, as Hartman describes, “overwhelming, with Convention Hall packed to capacity.” The support has remained and matches see strong audience involvement for the teams with players from Monmouth, Middlesex, Ocean and Atlantic Counties.
Besides practice and bouts, team members are expected to participate in community activities and many times have teamed with local charities and organizations to help in their fundraising events.
(for brevity, I omitted the demographics)
Understanding Women’s Roller Derby
Derby teams consist of up to 14 players with only five skating during a two-minute jam. Points are scored by lapping members of the opposition. Four blockers (identified by no helmet markings) team with one jammer (star on her helmet) to start the two-minute period or jam. Each team’s jammer tries to be the first out of the pack to lap the opposition; she is designated “lead jammer” and it allows her to stop the action if it is to her team’s advantage.
The blockers do what their name implies and “mix it up” in the pack to support their jammer. Blockers make contact with their opponent anywhere between shoulders and mid-thigh using appropriately named moves as “booty block, ” “shoulder check” and “hip check, ” which might look harmless but is effective in changing a skater’s center of gravity. The final check is called a “can opener” and happens when a shoulder meets a sternum and is a real “ouch.”
Bouts are 60 minutes divided into two halves.
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Art Petrosemolo, Shrewsbury, is a photojournalist whose work has appeared locally and nationally. He specializes in action photography and likes to write feel-good feature stories as a hobby. He is the assistant to the president at Fairleigh Dickinson University.