It’s more than a “League of their Own”, it’s a sport of their own, and it’s becoming a cultural staple in the sports industry. Teams all across Michigan are fueling the growing prominence of Women’s Roller Derby, and the Upper Peninsula is following suit. In Marquette, the seventeen Jammers and Blockers who make up the roster of the Dead River Derby team are rolling on a wave popularity.
It was once reserved for a fringe collective of entertainment athletes. Today, it’s no longer in a category with the likes of professional wrestling and cheap sports-theater. Roller Derby has grown leaps and bounds from its awkward retro past. In less than a decade, the legitimacy of Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby has taken the nation by storm. It’s said to be one of the fastest growing amateur sports in the world.
Before the most recent resurgence of organized teams and competitive amateur leagues, Roller Derby was barely considered an alternative sport, meant solely for entertainment. Although the high-speed contact of its modern day version makes for a thrilling watch, these athletes are not competing for audience attention.
The goal is to rack up as many points as possible in a complex game of strategy, using highly developed skills, teamwork, and endurance. There are plenty of rules, and not abiding by them can result in player-penalties that can cost big points. It’s not a relay race, and despite first glances, it’s not a hodgepodge of dueling roller skaters trying to knock each other down.
Two teams face-off on a simple flat oval track. Each team designates a single “Jammer” and four “Blockers”. The two opposing Jammers battle for front position by facing off against the opponent’s four Blockers. The Jammer that first gains lead position has the advantage of circling the track to lap skaters for points. For every Blocker that a Jammer laps, the team gets one point. One jam can last up to two minutes, and a Jammer can rack dozens of points in the process. There are two 30 minute halves.
For many first-time watchers, Roller Derby isn’t easily understood. It takes time and practice to learn, but its introduction to a mainstream audience is helping the sport become very popular with multiple generations of female athletes. So popular, in fact, that it’s been associated with feminists movements. Even though this is not by design, the empowerment of women is something derby enthusiasts fully embrace. The only thing alternative about the sport itself may be the type of athlete it attracts.
“I would have to say it is pretty alternative. It takes a certain type of person to be able to put eight wheels on your feet, and skate as fast as you can while other people are trying to hit you and knock you down,” said Dead River Derby’s Vice President Janelle Buttery, known on the track as “Knitta-Pleazzz”
No other contact-sport has seen such exclusive enthusiasm among women. Because of the gender barriers the sport breaks down, it attracts a niche culture that celebrates a modern-day, progressive version of a female athlete. The skaters sport a unique pride in their independence from the usual male-dominated sports arena.
“There are leagues for men. The more and more popular it gets, the more it’s integrated with women’s roller derby, which is a little bit of a controversial issue because we do like the empowerment that roller derby gives to women, and there are already so many male-dominated sports. Sometimes people get a little bent about that, but for the most part everybody is pretty supportive,” said Buttery.
Women’s Roller Derby isn’t only celebrated because of its incidental cultural impact, but mainly because it’s just fun to watch. Tomorrow, Dead River Derby battles in their second home Bout against the Escanaba Rollin’ Hellcats. The Bout starts at 7pm at Lakeview Arena in Marquette.
The team is recruiting for a youth league and always looking for “Fresh Meat”. They have an extensive training regime for newcomers to join the Derby craze. More information is available on their website: deadriverderby.org