It’s a weeknight in mid-May, and the women of Seacoast Roller Derby (SRD) are gathered for one of their three weekly practice sessions at the Dover Arena. The flashy gear they break out for bouts (glitter, brightly colored socks, etc.) has been replaced with regular workout clothes and the usual padding and helmets, and their skating is subdued. They weave around cones, then drop to the floor with their skates still on for a few sets of push-ups. It’s undeniable: under the fearsome personas and colorful derby names, these women are serious athletes.
“I’ve seen a lot of women really grow and thrive because of the demands of the sport — not just the athletic side, but everything else as well,” says Gina Bowker, the league’s vice-president. “They see what needs to be done, and they come out of their shell, step up, and get it done.”
SRD begins its fourth season on May 30 at the Dover Arena with a bout against the Elm City Derby Damez, a roller derby league out of Keene. Roller derby has come a long way since the 1960s and ’70s, when televised bouts often included scripted fights. In the last 10 years, roller derby has undergone a renaissance, with leagues forming across the country, most of them made up of all female members. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, the sport’s governing body, has 308 regular leagues and 99 apprentice leagues — and that’s not counting the leagues that aren’t part of the association. New Hampshire has five roller derby leagues. Today’s derby matches involve real competition, intense training, and a strong feminist edge.
“It’s not derby from the ’70s. There are rules. It’s a real sport,” says Bowker, who goes by the name Ginan Toxxic when she straps on her skates. “It’s less like WWE wrestling. You’re not going to see brawls on the track.”
That doesn’t mean it’s tame, though — roller derby is still full-contact. “We have certain hitting zones, just like you would in hockey,” says SRD president Judy Purington (a.k.a. Toy Named Sue), who has been knocked unconscious on the track. (Editor’s note: Purington is part of The Sound’s sales department.)
Pivots, jammers, and derby names
How does a roller derby bout work? Bouts are divided into two-minute sessions called jams. During a jam, each team has five skaters on the track: four blockers (the lead blocker is called a pivot) and a jammer. After the jammer has passed all the blockers (collectively called the pack), she tries to score points for each blocker on the opposing team that she legally laps again. The blockers try to block the opposing team’s jammer while letting their own jammer through.
In other words, it’s not a free-for-all. And, though SRD isn’t part of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, the league does follow its rules.
SRD has 33 members, including skaters on two teams, the Poison Pixies (the traveling team) and the Valkyries (the home team), as well as rookie skaters (nicknamed “Fresh Meat”), coaches, and referees.
By day, they’re ordinary people: nurses, cubicle dwellers, and moms. Once they’re in their skates and on the track, though, they become fierce. Many of the skaters’ derby names are puns related to their day jobs: Shear Chaos and Purr Oxide are both hairdressers, for example. Other names incorporate skaters’ real names or interests. As for Toy Named Sue, Purington says she “might be a little bit of a Johnny Cash fan.”
To get one of those coveted derby names, though, you’ve got to be a rostered skater. And that means passing a series of increasingly difficult assessments. Not all these women started out as impressive skaters. The league has a 12-week training program for rookies. “We’ve had girls come in who’ve never put on skates in their lives,” says Bowker.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today or nearly as happy as I am today without my derby family.” — Vikki Holmes
Vikki Holmes is one of those skaters. At 19, she’s one of the league’s youngest members and says she’s proud to be “Fresh Meat” this season.
“I’ve had a lot of confidence issues in the past, and I also have an irrational fear of failing and looking like a fool, but roller derby has really helped me overcome those fears and insecurities,” she says. “Am I all the way there yet? Not at all, but I wouldn’t be where I am today or nearly as happy as I am today without my derby family. They’ve been the most supportive and helpful friends I’ve had the pleasure of making.”
That sense of camaraderie is an inherent part of roller derby culture.
“Derby offers me, as a player, a sense of belonging and family. Roller derby is one of the most welcoming, accepting groups of people that I’ve ever been involved with,” Bowker says. “No one cares how old you are, what your background is like, straight, gay, nationality, ability — it doesn’t matter. You’re part of the league, or a volunteer. You’re one of us.”
According to Purington, SRD aims to be especially welcoming to new skaters. There are no tryouts and anyone interested in skating can get a taste of derby life through recreational skater programs or joining up as a rookie. There are monthly attendance requirements, but even those are flexible because so many of the skaters have families.
For Bowker, roller derby “really empowers women.” SRD is a grassroots, skater-run league. The team began as a nonprofit but recently became an LLC so that it can eventually acquire a year-round space (the team’s season ends in the fall, when the Dover Arena opens for ice skating and hockey).
“We don’t have big corporate sponsors or league owners or anything like that. It’s just us. We’re running this league, and this business — doing all of the marketing, organizing the season, doing fundraisers, finding advertisers, vendors — ourselves,” she says.
The league also strives to be family-friendly. Unlike other leagues, SRD does not allow raunchy derby names, and they have a strict no-cheek policy for shorts. (Fishnets are also discouraged, but for a practical reason: a notorious condition called “rink rash.”) Otherwise, skaters can express themselves however they want. It’s one of the hallmarks of roller derby. During the workday, skaters may have to dress conservatively, placate annoying co-workers, and generally play nice. But, once they lace up their skates, they can let loose. Bowker says she often texts her teammates, “Is it derby time yet? I need to hit someone.” She’s not really jok