Bad Girls, Beautiful Communities

A Look Inside Minneapolis’s Roller Derby Scene

From a second floor balcony, the sport appears downright elegant: agile bodies swing around a track, weaving in between one another in an entrancing orbit, bodies ricocheting with ease and elasticity. Trackside, however, the scene transforms. Women heave themselves against gravity, bruised elbows and knees bang into the track, bodies plow into one another, and players skid into the penalty box, dripping with sweat and spitting out mouth guards. These are the gritty close-ups of roller derby.

Photographer: Bella Dally-Steele

Photographer: Bella Dally-Steele

After gaining popularity in the 1970s as an alternative to the speed skating craze, roller derby has since earned the status of the ultimate cult sport. On a superficial level, a derby team is made up of five players: a jammer, three blockers, and a pivot. The jammer, helmet emblazoned with a golden star, attempts to weave through the blockers to lap the brawling pack as many times as possible. The blockers throw themselves in the jammers’ way, hoping to prevent their passing. In the event that a team’s jammer is called out on a penalty, one blocker, the lucky pivot, may take her teammate’s place. Each skating period, dubbed a “jam”, lasts two minutes, with 30 jams per half. Throughout the game, fists fly, bodies slam, and skates skid.

“Roller girls”, as players are called, exude a certain aura of bravery, spunk, and rebellion that enthralls spectators. They are the guerrilla fighters of the track, the brawling women who spit on convention and clash with the man. Because of this, the influence of the roller derby community extends far beyond the typical bounds of athleticism to inspire a culture of inner strength and self-love among their players and spectators. Beneath the gritty exterior of the game, derby is much more than a rolling Fight Club.

Photographer: Bella Dally-Steele

Photographer: Bella Dally-Steele

Minneapolis is home to two major roller derby leagues: The Minnesota RollerGirls and the North Star Roller Girls. Before their second tournament of the season, Minneapolis’s reigning champions the Atomic Bombshells invited me to shadow their practice. All four teams in the Minnesota RollerGirls league—the Dagger Dolls, the Atomic Bombshells, The Rockits, and the Garda Belts—practice in Roy Wilkins Auditorium, dividing the room into various sizes of practice tracks. A local chiropractor has set up shop in the corner; he visits the team before every tournament, offering complimentary massages and the occasional knee alignment.

While lacing up, Jessica Sawicki, known as Hurtrude Stein on the track, explains the team’s structure to me, their strong ties with their sponsors, and their “Skater-run, skater-owned” mentality.

The teams divide up tasks amongst themselves, creating and staffing committees for the various activities that make bouts possible: production, ticket sales, and human resources, to name a few. Working in conjunction with a committee, each player is required to fulfill a minimum of seven event credits each season to keep the league running. Because they support themselves, the teams are considered amateur, a classification which Jess LaRotonda, a fellow Atomic Bombshell, kindly clarifies for me:

“Being an amateur team, it means that we have control over what we do. It’s not that we’re not fucking good,” she laughs.

Photographer: Bella Dally-Steele

Photographer: Bella Dally-Steele

In addition to staffing and running the team, the players give back to the community.

“We focus on women’s and children’s charities; those are really special to us,” Sawicki explains. “Our main charity partner is the Ann Bancroft foundation. The part of her organization that we help fund is a micro grant program called the Let Me Play grant. It’s for girls who want to play sports but need a little bit of money to pay for equipment or association fees, so it helps more girls get into sports.”

After lacing up for practice, the players take to the track, rubber wheels slamming on cement. The girls practice blocking techniques, refine their communication skills on the track, and work on their agility. After each drill, they circle up to discuss the techniques.

Two hours and countless collisions later, the players hang their mouth guards from their bra straps, unlace their skates, and take to the hallway for a team meeting. Orange cupcakes, matching the team’s uniform, sit in the middle of the team, along with a giant cardboard rectangle covered in a rainbow of scribbled post-its. The players each take two fresh post-its and jot a few words down. One by one, they share their two goals for the upcoming tournament: one personal, and one for the team. Stephanie Karau, aka Chocolate Pain, evokes riots of laughter when she displays a post-it that reads “NOT SO DAMN NICE.” After sharing their goals, each roller girl sticks their post-its to the dream board, filling it to capacity.

Photographer: Bella Dally-Steele

Photographer: Bella Dally-Steele

When I ask Sawicki about the dream board and its origin, I discover that the tradition started just this year.

“Our captains Bully Jean and Steel Magnolia started it. It’s more powerful to visualize things than to just say them out loud. It’s helpful as you go through the season to see your initial goals, and how they grow.”

The dream board certainly comes in handy, as the following Saturday the Atomic Bombshells steal the show, placing first. At halftime, the teams descend upon the track to dance with the spectators. The voices of announcers Stalker Channing and John Maddening boom over the loudspeakers, inviting skaters and spectators to let loose to that night’s featured band. The four teams mix in the crowd, dancing together on skates, their bodies covered in bruises inflicted by both their own teammates and their competitors.

After the tournament, I track down Stalker Channing, Minnesota RollerGirls announcer and former North Stars Roller Girl from 2006 to 2011.

“What I like about announcing is that I just come here and I still get to be part of the community. I get to watch awesome derby, and I get to talk about awesome derby. [The Minnesota RollerGirls] really have upped the game across the nation, and that shows from their national standings, and the quality of the events that they put on.”

Watching the Minnesota RollerGirls train and compete, it is impossible to ignore the extreme kindness that permeates the community. To uncover the secret behind this comradery, I turn to University of Minnesota biology professor Annika Moe, aka Moe Rawder.

“The competitive atmosphere and physicality of full contact sports can often feel… hostile (at least to me). But I go to a derby bout and see women blowing each other up on the track and then after the whistle, helping each other back up and hugging,” Moe explains to me.

Photographer: Bella Dally-Steele

Photographer: Bella Dally-Steele

“You form close relationships, not just within your team, but across teams.”

Moe plays with the North Star Roller Girls as a blocker for the Violent Femmes. A few months ago, while training to become a jammer, she suffered a serious concussion and subsequently has been out of the game. She hopes to recover in time to skate in her team’s next bout on January 7. When I ask her if she considered leaving roller derby after her concussion, she barely hesitates.

“I thought about it—retiring. But when I think of the most important parts of my life, derby is one of them. My health is important too, of course. But I want to skate.”

Despite her hiatus from skating, her relationship with the league hasn’t changed one bit. To prove this, she pulls out her cell phone to show me her league group chat, which is overflowing with messages. This camaraderie, she explains, isn’t limited to teammates or even league mates. When she spent five weeks in California for research, the local team adopted her on the spot, making room for her in their practices and bouts.

“If I have to stop skating competitively, I’ll find a way to stay in the derby community. I’ll become a bench coach, a non-skating official, or teach beginners to skate.”

The reason for the roller derby community’s incredible camaraderie, she explains, is the sport’s uncanny ability to empower its players.

Photographer: Bella Dally-Steele

Photographer: Bella Dally-Steele

“Many people come to roller derby looking for some kind of change or empowerment. I’ve seen women change their career paths, leave unhealthy relationships, battle through a serious illness, come out to their friends and family, or start their own businesses after joining roller derby. It just seems to give people the confidence to do what needs to be done.”

From what I’ve seen, this is nothing short of the truth. In the short time I’ve known them, the women of the Minnesota RollerGirls have embraced me, encouraging me to participate in their team chants, join their pre-bout traditions, even indulge in their spirited cupcakes. Their strength is not founded in the conceited pride we often associate with major league sports teams, but in a strong sense of self and community as well as a deep love and respect for each other.

As she speaks about her hopes of returning to the track next month, Moe’s eyes light up.

“I have this crazy theory, it might be naïve, it might not, that roller derby can change the world. There are thousands of women across the world playing this sport, feeling stronger, becoming stronger and empowered to do good for themselves and others that they might not have otherwise dared to do. That could bring about palpable change in the world.”