Hell On Skates: Roller Derby Enters The New Millenium

Roller Derby Enters The New Millennium

Sonja Dewing
6 min read
Hell on Skates
Derby name: Amber Cadaver, Affiliation: Duke City Derby, Position: Blocker (Eric Williams ericwphoto.com)
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In the big, bad, 1970s-black-and-white photo days of roller derby, you’d see elbows flying into faces, women flinging themselves into a brawl, inventive skater names and a total lack of rules. But this is 2015. Some of those things have changed.

Roller derby is still about skills and strategy. But many derby leagues are now members of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) and/or Modern Athletic Derby Endeavor (MADE). Being a member of these associations automatically sets up requirements for skaters and codifies the rules of the game. For example, since 2013, all WFTDA players must pass a written test and a rigorous physical skills test. Imagine jumping over a six-inch obstacle and landing safely on your quad-wheeled skates. For newbies that’s just one of the many tests that can be daunting, but training and passing the lengthy test pay off in the end by having skaters less likely to become injured or injure others.

Take newbie skater, Amber Cadaver, of Duke City Derby. She joined about the same time I did, in April 2014. She was inspired by the 2009 film
Whip It, starring Ellen Page, whose misfit character finds a home in roller derby. After the movie, Amber was left thinking, “Why have I never thought to try this before?” She found the sport much more difficult than the film had depicted, but she’s glad of the required skill test. It makes things safer for the skaters. She comes back because of the people, the exercise and because she enjoys challenging herself to do better.

Another change is that as the 1970s’ “no holds barred” mentality faded, roller derby has become more about clever strategy. That might include: one team rushing in front so it will take longer for the opposing team’s jammer to score; knocking the jammer off the track and forcing them to move backwards; a jammer moving quickly in side steps like football players to make blockers think they are going one way, but quickly stepping the other to get through.

And local skaters definitely know their strategy. Max the Arctic Blast of Albuquerque Roller Derby is amazing to watch. She’s what you call an evasive jammer. She evades hits, barrels through blockers and dances around the tiny spaces that people barely leave between them. She can also make legal hits on blockers and jammers like any pro (the legal hitting zone starts at the thighs and goes up to the chest—not including the center of the back). She understands not only the skills of derby, but also the strategies and the myriad rules and ideas. I’d compare her to Yoda.

These days, more men are joining the historically woman-dominated sport. This has led to more coed and men’s-only teams in recent years. In addition, roller derby seems to be in a resurgence of sorts. In 2013 there were over 40,542 active skaters registered, and even here in Albuquerque we have two leagues. The oldest league is the 10-year-old Duke City Derby, affiliated with WFTDA and its travel team, Muñecas Muertas. Duke City Derby also has a B team, Juggernaughties, as well as a junior team, Marionettes. Albuquerque Roller Derby was established by a group of veteran skaters in January 2015 as a nonprofit. It has one team and is in the process of deciding on an affiliation but currently follows WFTDA guidelines.

Many of the players are drawn to the transformative and empowering world of derby. We appreciate the supportive teammates, leagues run as intelligent businesses and the badass athletic challenge. Our occupations range from professional business owners to baristas to teachers to full-time students. In the current Albuquerque league’s adult teams, you’ll find ages 18 to 47, men and women of different ethnicities and sexual orientations. Some are married with kids; some are single with kids, or just plain single.

There are a lot of tough players. Take Doom De Doom of Duke City Derby. She started in 2005 before the more advanced skills requirements and passed within a month to play derby in bouts where she had no breaks. Tough as nails, she admits she had no idea what she was doing in the beginning. After a shaky start, she had to work her way back after giving birth to her daughter. Not that you could tell she was ever anything but an expert from watching her now. She hands out hits like a linebacker, and players whisper, “Have you ever been hit by Doom? She hit me five feet off the track. I want to be just like her.”

Other local legends include: Heisenberg, LakeN’ Loaded, Psycha Dalek, Mock One, TamTrum, Ivy A. Nightmare, Jerk of all Skates and, someday, the Author of Pain (my own future derby name). We share photos of our derby bruises, aka derby kisses; we commiserate over super-stinky gear; we get excited over new wheels or our next tattoo; and we always have duct tape on hand to repair worn kneepads or layer on our leather skates to protect them from skidding stops.

Just like any sport, people build camaraderie; they feel themselves getting stronger and better. More specifically in roller derby, many fans and participants love the diversity of the players. The physical work required to be good enough to play derby sounds hard, and it is. But with perseverance and practice, there are payoffs like losing weight, great physical conditioning and the ability to show off in roller skates.

But I have to admit that after watching a fellow newbie break her ankle during a scrimmage, I had to reflect on how I felt about continuing to play. Truthfully, the sight of someone’s ankle hanging off their leg was a bit gruesome. I’m sure it was tougher on her husband, our coach; and I worry about my own health as I’m not sure how I’d deal with a broken bone. But it’s true: you can get hurt doing anything, and at least I enjoy derby, and I love my teammates in Albuquerque Roller Derby. Even my fellow newbie is planning on coming back as soon as she can, and she still comes to practice to cheer us on. Tough it out!

There are two leagues in Albuquerque: Duke City Derby (
dukecityderby.com) has newbies join them on Mondays from 6:30-8:30pm at the Heights Community Center (823 Buena Vista SE). Albuquerque Roller Derby (albuquerqueroller.com) meets at Wells Park (500 Mountain NE) Tuesday and Thursday from 6:30-8:30pm, as well as Saturday 10am-noon, and newbies can meet up and join at any of those times. If you want to watch these skaters use their skills and strategy, check out these websites for info on future bouts. Both leagues welcome men to join and hope to have male and/or coed teams in the future.
Hell on Skates

Clips, Wench and Big Wheels

Eric Williams ericwphoto.com

Hell on Skates

Derby name: Big Wheels, Affiliation: Albuquerque Roller Derby, Position: Jammer

Eric Williams ericwphoto.com

Hell on Skates

Derby name: Clips, Affiliation: Albuquerque Roller Derby, Position: Blocker/Pivot

Eric Williams ericwphoto.com

Hell on Skates

Left: Mojave Zero, coach and jammer. Right: Mock One, jammer.

Eric Williams ericwphoto.com

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