In the past, the sport of roller derby has been consumed with connotations of choreography and scripted outcomes. Today’s version of roller derby, though, has morphed into something much different than it was years ago. So, what should come to your mind when you think of roller derby today?
“It’s a family. It’s a sisterhood. It’s probably one of the weirdest, but best, sororities you could ever join,” says Joye “St. Abby von Shanks” Schmeling, the current captain of a Fox Cities Roller Derby team, Valley Vixens. Roller derby isn’t the traditional, dangerously scripted, performance-based form of sports entertainment anymore.
The roller derby of today is a sport with a competition between two teams. Unlike its theatrical counterpart, this form of roller derby is played on a flat track with no pre-determined winners. There are 10 women on the track at a time with five on each team. Within the team there are three different positions including blockers, jammers and a pivot. The goal of the game is to lap the opposing team. The lapping is done by the jammer while the blockers and the pivot play defense, attempting to stop the other team’s jammer from passing them. The pivot is the only other player who can act as a jammer, but can only do so by switching helmet covers with the current jammer.
What many people are unaware of is the amount of thought that goes into the sport. “I like the strategy a lot,” says Schmeling. “A lot of people don’t know how much strategy goes into it, especially when you’re playing offense and defense at the same time.”
Since its beginning in the Fox Valley, the women of the derby have been following rules set by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. “We were the third league in Wisconsin behind Madison, the first, and Milwaukee, the second,” says Shelly “Secretary of Skate” Hitchcock, a previous player and current referee and non-skating official for the Fox Cities Roller Derby.
“WFTDA put out a rule set and (they) have a set of minimum skills that every girl has to do before they hit, play and scrimmage,” says Hitchcock. That skill set includes passing a test which proves each player’s ability to skate, fall and recover. “Everything you need to play (the sport) safely,” explains Schmeling.
But joining WFTDA wasn’t easy, says Hitchcock. “We used their rule set before we were a member of them. It was season three before we were actual members,” she notes, adding that was in August 2007 and the team consisted of around 25 players. It wasn’t until six months later, in February 2008, that the women competing had their first public outing.
“It was very successful,” says Hitchcock. After their first bout, they increased to about 60 members and were able to split into four teams. Currently, the Fox Cities Roller Derby has two home teams, Valley Vixens and Roller Vortex, along with an all-star team. Anyone is welcome to try it out and see if it’s a good fit for them.
Women of all sizes, ages and skills are invited to join the fun, but if you’re having cold feet about it, you wouldn’t be the first. “It took me about a month to show up because I was afraid,” says Emily “Just the Hip” Henrigillis, a sixth season roller derby player.
It’s also not uncommon for new players to need a little extra time to get settled. “I used to grab the carpeting along the walls for weeks,” says Hitchcock. “It took me longer than the average time to get comfortable out there, but if you put the time in and put the effort in, you’ll get it,” she states.
And once you get in, you become a part of a family. “With our league, you don’t get to pick your derby name until you pass all of your minimum skills,” Schmeling clarifies. Once you pass and pick your name, “then everybody calls you by your new name,” she says. “You could almost call it a baptismal name.”
Henrigillis agrees. “This is it,” she says. “This is the best thing in the whole world. It’s super empowering. It’s a bunch of women coming together who all do different (types of work). It makes you a more rounded person.”
For anyone interested in checking out the derby, their fourth home bout of the season is taking place April 9 at 6 p.m. at Skaters Edge in Appleton.
“Since last June, we’ve been bringing in outside teams to play and it’s been a very positive experience for us,” says Hitchcock. The event will have the home teams challenging Med City Mafia from Rochester, Minn. and Chicago Outfit Shakedown from Chicago, Ill.
The doors will open at 5:30 p.m. and spectators are encouraged to bring a lawn chair as seating is limited. The cost of the event is $10 for ages 16 and older, $5 for ages 9-15 and is free for ages 8 and under.
For more information, visit foxcitiesrollerderby.com.