Roller derby: Avenue for community and outlet for aggression

By MELANIE PLENDA
Special to the Sunday News
April 15. 2016 6:47PM
The Elm City Derby Damez (in red) duke it out in their annual bout with a regional men's roller derby team, a match-up that co-captain Daisy Duke Nukem, a.k.a. Sarah Farnsworth of Keene, in red at right, says is her favorite. (MELANIE PLENDA/SPECIAL TO THE SUNDAY NEWS)

KEENE -- Kimberly Kempf likes to hit people. An assistant manager at a college bookstore, one can imagine this is not an impulse she can act upon daily.

That's OK. She saves it for the track.

"It's kind of a great way to get aggression out," said Kempf, 32, of Chesterfield, a founding member of the Elm City Derby Damez who in the alternate reality of roller derby is known as Demonic Delight.

"So anything that happened during the day, you just come to practice and you kind of skate it out, and everything's A-ok at the end of the day."

Her co-captain, Sarah Farnsworth, aka Daisy Duke Nukem, was similarly inspired when she started with the Damez eight years ago.

"I too enjoy hitting people," deadpans the 33-year-old insurance agent from Keene. "But for me, at the time, I was just looking for a change of pace. Life gets a little stagnant at times and this was something new and cool; and I had never skated in my life and I was falling against the wall and awful. And then I just fell in love with it anyway, and there were a lot of wonderful people there. The camaraderie is really nice. And that's pretty much how it starts for a lot of people."

Roller derby in New Hampshire is not new. Teams have been cropping up at school gyms and YMCA spaces across the state since at least 2007. What is remarkable is the staying power of what could have easily been a fad that fell by the wayside as it did once before.

Roller derby's earliest origins can be found in the great skating marathons of the 1930s and '40s. By the 1970s, however, it had morphed into more entertainment than sport. Fueled by disco, feathered Farrah hair and questionable fashion choices, roller derby was wildly successful, until, critics argue, its ever more outlandish antics and dubious outcomes ultimately sunk the pastime.

Roller derby resurgence

But then there was a sort of renaissance around 2007 and 2008. The game was safer, being played now on a flat track as opposed to a banked track.

The game has strict rules, and while the women playing have fun names and dot their uniforms with leopard prints and pink, they take it seriously.

There are more than 280 roller derby teams ranked in the WFTDA (Women's Flat Track Derby Association) and myriad more who compete but aren't ranked.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, leagues consisting of several teams each and dozens of players have formed, including NH Roller Derby in Manchester, Granite State Roller Derby in Concord, Seacoast Roller Derby and Twin State Roller Derby in the Upper Valley. Even men and kids have gotten in on the action, with men's, unisex and junior leagues forming throughout the state and region.

"I think roller derby inspires a lot of people," said Susan Cook, 36, assistant professor of English at Southern New Hampshire University by day and the Tartlet Dodger on the track in NH Roller Derby. "It's a physically demanding sport that takes a lot of passion and dedication, and I think people respond to the way it brings people together. The derby community is unique, very tight-knit, and at the same time very open and welcoming."

And that seems to be uniformly true. Most if not all New Hampshire teams welcome newcomers of all shapes, sizes and ages throughout the year. Many don't even care if a newbie can skate.

"We'll teach you," Kempf of the Derby Damez said. "It's all about getting your center of gravity and balance in place, and from there, it's small steps, kind of just like walking. And then you progress from there, little steps. A lot of people hold onto the wall at first."

But how does one go from barely standing on skates to the rock-'em, sock-'em stylings of a roller derby dame? Farnsworth said they have a "pretty aggressive training program that follows WFTDA guidelines. First, they teach balance and getting comfortable on skates. From there you take a test, to assess basic skating skills.

"And then we teach you the roller derby part," she said. "The part about the hitting - after you've learned to skate on one foot and crossing over and all of that kind of stuff. And then you take another assessment and then you scrimmage and then you play."

How the game is played

As for playing, the women explain, each team puts four blockers on the track; one of them, the player with a stripe on her helmet, is the pivot. "They are pretty much the brains of the operation," Kempf said. Each team also has a jammer on the track. The jammer, who wears a star on her helmet, scores all the points.

When a jammer is released, her goal is to be the first to pass through the pack so she becomes the lead jammer. Points are scored during subsequent passes through the pack each time a jammer passes the hips of an opposing team member. "And you can score up to five points if you pass the lead jammer," Kempf explained.

All of this, however, is a very polite way of describing what happens during an hourlong bout. She neglected to mention her favorite part: the hitting.

"The hitting is mostly done by those eight blockers," Farnsworth said. "They're hitting each other, they're hitting the jammer, they're trying to stop the jammer, so it's all a mess in there."

You want to get your jammer through while stopping the other jammer and making sure that they stay behind your hips so they don't get your point, Kempf said. So that's where all the shoving and hitting comes in.

"People think it's like 'Rollerball' where you clothesline people, but it's not like that," Farnsworth said. "We absolutely do hit, but it's all within legal hitting zones, and there are rules. No punching."

Safety matters

Jocelynn Drew, a 39-year-old middle school art teacher from Antrim who goes by the name Cow Plow in Monadnock Roller Derby, said that while the sport can be dangerous, no question, the teams take safety very seriously.

"It can be dangerous, but staying low, knowing how to hit and how to fall, and wearing the right gear helps," Drew said. "Besides the required helmet, mouthguard, knee and elbow pads, and wrist guards, I also wear crash shorts (butt pads). This protects my behind and tail bone if I fall.

"No one is out to get hurt, nor does any player intentionally hurt other players. It is all in good fun. The only thing I ever broke was my thumb, and it was during a pushing drill where I fell thumb first. With three and a half years under my belt, I would consider that not as dangerous as people expect."

A community

Aside from all of this, there's a uniformity to the reasons women give for being attracted to roller derby, and it's bigger than the game itself. The women interviewed all said they started because it was something different, but they stayed because of the inclusiveness of the roller derby community.

"You build relationships in roller derby that are different from the ones you build in a workplace, school, or even with family or friends," said Jess Gerrior, 39, of Antrim. "I live in Antrim, a full-time doctoral fellow, pursuing a Ph.D. in environmental studies." She, and now her 11-year-old twin daughters, are members of Monadnock Roller Derby. She goes by the name Jessicutioner.

"You develop an inner strength and resilience you didn't have before," she said, "or, you discover you had it all along, and roller derby brings it out. ... If other parts of life were more like roller derby, the world would be a better place."


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