Blockers, Jammers, and Whips. Oh My!
In researching the “Ladies…Play Ball!” article for this issue, I stumbled across a local team playing a sport that’s in the midst of both a stunning renaissance and a complete redefinition. Welcome back to the roller derby, now starring the SoDels!
Since 2011, our own Southern Delaware Roller Derby team has been climbing the ranks of the women’s flat track world. With players like Armajennon, Blaze O’Gory, and Semi Automedic (to name a few), derby is a high-octane night of— to quote Cyndi Lauper—“Girls just wanna have fun.”
At a derby event, two teams of five players skate around a track, with the “jammers” scoring points as they lap players of the opposite team, a feat often accomplished with a little help—in the form of pushing, shoving, and (wo)man-handling from their cohorts, the “blockers.”
Now, if you’re finding yourself smirking, let me share a little secret: roller derby is no longer just a guilty pleasure; it’s one of the most feminist, empowering, queer-loving, trans-affirming sports around.
In fact, The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) recognizes that “Identifying as transgender, intersex, and/or gender expansive is not in any way related to an individual’s eligibility for participating as a volunteer or employee. An individual who identifies as a trans woman, intersex woman, and/or gender expansive may skate with a WFTDA charter team if women’s flat track roller derby is the version and composition of the roller derby with which they most closely identify.”
Quick backstory. Roller derby started during the Great Depression. Taking its inspiration from those grueling dance marathons for cash prizes, the Transcontinental Roller Derby was born. Like those dance marathons, it consisted of two-person (male-female) teams, with 25 teams per event, circling a wooden oval banked track thousands of times for over 11 hours a day, until they “covered” the 3,000 miles from coast to coast.
It was during these years roller derby crowned its first queen, speed record holder, and skating legend, Ivy King.
Then came television and roller derby was part of the fun from broadcast’s earliest days through the seventies, having a final seminal moment with the release of the 1972 Raquel Welch movie, Kansas City Bomber.
Those years belonged to the Brooklyn Red Devils, the New York Chiefs, the Los Angeles Thunderbirds, the San Francisco Bay Bombers, and the Philadelphia Warriors—names that remain legendary.
Early sheroes of the sport included the 4-foot-11 inch, spitfire plumber’s daughter, Midge “Toughie” Brasuhn, who, in 1950, was voted one of the ten leading sportswomen by the Sportswriters of America. These sportswriters understood you had to be one hell of an athlete to skate those banked tracks at over thirty miles an hour, while being hit by other people—not to mention flying debris.
And Brasuhn was not derby’s only star. Her rival was the very beautiful, always fashionable, Gerry Murray. In 1957, Darlene Anderson joined the Brooklyn Red Devils, making history as the first black women to skate in the roller derby. She was voted rookie of the year. Unanimously. In 1957.
Eventually, those names gave way to another generation of skaters, including “Queen of the Penalty Box,” Ann Calvello, Judi (McGuire) Gammon, Judy Sowinski (who retired to Philadelphia with her partner) and…Joan Weston.
Born in 1935, Joan attended Mount St. Mary’s College, where she considered becoming a nun. Her family helped convince her otherwise, and instead, Joan channeled her energy into sports, becoming a standout softball player. But upon graduation, in a story we know only too well, there weren’t many career opportunities for standout female athletes.
Joan stood five foot ten, had bleached blonde hair, and knew how to skate—at least, on a sidewalk. She moved to Northern California, mastered the indoor, banked track, paid some dues, and became a star—the San Francisco Bay Bombers’ very own “Blonde Bomber.”
In the 1960s, Joan Weston was America’s highest paid female athlete. She was still making $20,000 less than her male counterparts.
And then, it was over. By 1973, the original roller derby was relegated to a curiosity for history buffs.
Except, somehow, against all odds, it’s back (for fun, there’s the 2009 film, Whip It, starring lesbian/activist/actress, Ellen Page) and it is thriving—rescued from obscurity by the girls who needed it then, and who need it now.
Representation matters. In the 1990s, many young women did not see themselves represented in mainstream music or sports. So they built their own. WFTDA operates “by the skater, for the skater,” with every member league owned and operated by the athletes—athletes who value their bodies for what they can do, not what they look like.
Skaters are a hugely diverse group of ethnicities, gender presentations, body types, and sexualities.
And maybe it’s thriving because it’s fun. Because within this mix of audacious, playful sexuality and pounding hits, there’s a pull just too hard to resist. Scroll through the online registry for rollergirl names. You’ll find everything you need to know as you laugh, spotting skaters such as Intoxiskate, Tequila Mockingbird, and Arya Snark.
And if you’re still thinking “why?” check out Erica Tremblay’s emotional documentary, In The Turn (intheturn.com). Then check out the SoDel’s schedule at sodelrollerderby.com. ▼
Stefani Deoul is a television producer and author of the award-winning YA mystery On a LARP