Gotham Girls Roller Derby competition.
Photo courtesy of Alex Erde.
Written by Lisa Han
Ellen Page would not have made it onto a Gotham Girls Roller Derby team. At least, that’s the impression I came away with after seeing the Manhattan Mayhem and Brooklyn Bombshells go toe to toe at a Gotham Girls Roller Derby (GGRD) bout. I’ve never actually seen Drew Barrymore’s 2009 directorial debut, Whip It, but what the trailers suggest is that the sport involves plaid skirts, punk girls elbowing each other in the face, and WWE theatrics. While the arena at Hunter’s College was certainly amped up, its stars weren’t defined by unhinged drama so much as their quads of steel.
Perhaps the film would have been accurate during its early years—but today, roller derby is recognized as a legitimate sport. Donna Matrix, a long time skater for the Queens of Pain and a member of the All-Stars team explains, “The outcome is not scripted. It’s not about a spectacle anymore. It’s not about fighting and a show for the fans. It’s about an actual sport where we’re trying to win and we have strategies.”
After its 1970s decline, modern roller derby was reborn in Texas, LA, and New York and later spread throughout the nation with the establishment of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). The GGRD itself was founded in 2003 and is comprised of four home teams and two travelling teams representing Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. Today, it stands as one of the earliest and most influential roller derby leagues around the country.
However, the story of the league’s turbulent beginnings is certainly worthy of a movie script. Donna Matrix recalls being at the first expo, which featured Manhattan versus Brooklyn at the Skate Key rink in the Bronx with only about nine players on each side. The league had been practicing at the Skate Key regularly, but in 2005, the teams experienced a major blow when the track unexpectedly closed down and kicked them out without any notice.
Donna Matrix explains, “We had to practice outside under the Westside highway and anywhere we could. There were no other roller rinks in New York, so we finally found a warehouse space where we could lay our tracks and practice.” Their games have subsequently taken place at institutions like Hunter’s College, Long Island University, and City College in Harlem. Last year, GGRD’s All-Star team re-established themselves as top dog after taking the national championships for the first time since 2008.
Most spectators at GGRD’s bouts are newcomers to the sport, but while the strategy is complex, the basic rules are easy enough to pick up. A derby team is composed of two types of players: jammers and blockers. There is one jammer, identified by a star on their helmets, and four blockers per team on the rink at any given time. Jammers are responsible for scoring points by lapping their opponents as many times as possible. On the initial, non-scoring lap, the first jammer to pass the blockers is named the lead jammer, and is subsequently given the power to end the particular jam (the two minute play) whenever she wants.
Everyone else on the team must create barriers to prevent the other team’s jammer from scoring, or they go on the offensive to clear a path for their own jammer. One blocker, called the pivot, works as the leader of the pack and calls out plays to the rest of the team.
Speed plays a big part in group strategy. “There’s a lot more team plays now where the whole team will be doing one thing. If you want to keep a very slow game, that works to your advantage if you know how to play that game…We find a way to use the rules to our advantage and then we play to them,” says Donna Matrix.
In addition, each team has its own strengths. NameLes, a blocker for the Bombshells and GGRD’s bout producer, explains, “Brooklyn is known for really strong walls, and that’s what I’m really concentrating on—being a solid wall and not letting anyone pass me, and not letting them distract us.”
Formations aside, roller derby’s reputation for ferocity is not unfounded. The hits delivered by each side are ruthless, resulting in hard falls during every Jam as the crowd members cringe and cheer in full force.
Mayday Malone, a pivot for the Manhattan Mayhem, explains that while injuries do happen, there’s a method to the madness: “We call it the taco that we hit with. It’s the sides of your body, it’s your hips, your shoulders—but it’s not things like your elbow or tripping with your leg. It’s the outside core, and of course your butt, or booty blocking, as we call it.”
By the end of the first half, every player was visibly dripping in sweat from the sheer physicality of it all.
So how exactly does one go about becoming the next Bonnie Thunders or Suzy Hotod? Well the truth is, roller derby has increased so much in popularity that a novice is seldom able to make the team simply by showing up to attendance. Out of some 125 people trying out, only 12 to 15 spots are typically available, which means skaters come in with some amount of prior experience. But that’s no reason to lose hope. GGRD offers a recreation league for those who are just getting hooked into the sport.
“We have classes and we train them from the ground up,” explains Donna Matrix. “They may want to try out for the league at the end of those three sessions or they may just want to maintain that level.”
Even more importantly, becoming a skater necessitates a willingness to commit seriously to the lifestyle. With practices three days a week and bouts throughout the season, roller derby is a full time-occupation, and it doesn’t pay the bills. In fact, all members on the team still maintain their daytime jobs. NameLes, who works on an art gallery on the side, explains that recruiters look for “people we know will be hard workers and committed—dependability and stability in their life so they can handle something like this.”
Even though the skirts and fishnets have been have been traded in for spandex, there’s still plenty of fun to the outfits. Some girls wear intimidating face makeup, while others prefer to deck out in colorful spandex and socks.
“Each team does have their schtick,” explains Malone. “I’m on Manhattan Mayhem and we’re prison riot themed. So we wear orange and black and white stripes and teardrops on our faces.” The Bombshells, in contrast, wear blue jerseys to show off their sailor theme.
And then there are the nicknames. Every player gets their own alter ego, including such fierce names as “Sexy Sladie”, “Evilicious”, and “Bitch.” Even the refs get monikers like “Punk You” and “Chopsaw”, and it’s impossible to miss the “jeerleaders” festooned in pom poms, wigs, and team paraphernalia. It’s no wonder that GGRD’s bouts are sold out every time.
The players stay passionate about the game both for the good exercise and sense of camaraderie, you don’t have to have a sports background to start.
“I think people join it for a lot of reasons… It’s fun, it’s a teamwork sport, it’s very female centric,” says Donna Matrix. “But by the time you’re done you’re an athlete. If you’re not, you can’t hang with us.”