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VOL. 131 | NO. 90 | Thursday, May 5, 2016

Memphis Roller Derby Knocks Its Way to New Horizons

By Madeline Faber

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In the 1970s Memphians could watch back-to-back broadcasts of professional wrestling and roller derby taking place at the Mid-South Coliseum.

Baton Rouge’s Red Stick Roller Derby’s #23 Karen Huff, aka “Hippie HeadbangHer,” catches an elbow from the Hustlin' Rollers' #17 Whitney Baird, aka “Poptart,” during a recent Memphis Roller Derby bout at the Pipkin Building. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The popularity of both full-contact sports eventually tapered off. While World Wrestling Entertainment has since developed a national audience, the latter has reemerged as a women-only sport with a grassroots following of computer geeks and soccer moms, said Brooke Gettys, co-captain with Memphis Roller Derby.

Now in its 10th year, the league is distancing itself from its spectator-sport heritage and aggressively going after national recognition.

“It used to be more about the personalities on the tracks,” said Naudia Vanelli, a board member with Memphis Roller Derby. “Especially since Memphis has started climbing the ranks, we’re getting a lot more competitive and trying to find different ways to raise our ranks within the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.”

Memphis comes in at the fringe of division 2 and 3 within the WFTDA, the international convening body for roller derby leagues. Memphis Roller Derby ranks 102 out of 369 international teams. By progressing in regional competitions, Memphis can move up in the rankings and break into higher brackets. Skaters pay dues to compete with Memphis Roller Derby, which is considered a nonprofit.

“We’re on the better half of it, but you have to break the top 60 to make the playoffs,” Gettys said.

While she doesn’t expect the big break to happen this season, Gettys said that her team is playing a whole new game that puts Memphis closer than ever to that goal.

“In 2006 it was every man for himself out there,” she said. “You can’t play that game now. “Before, it was more individualistic, and now team members are constantly working with each other on plays.”

For the uninitiated, roller derby looks like football on skates and is played on an oval track. One skater on each team is designated as a point-scoring jammer. The jammer’s aim is to lap as many skaters on the opposing team as possible. The other eight skaters on the team form a pack to block the opposing jammer while making a clear path for their own jammer.

A jammer earns a point every time she legally passes a member of the opposite team.

Games take about an hour and are split into multiple, two-minute segments.

After holding bouts in skating rinks across town, Memphis Roller Derby has returned to its Fairgrounds roots. This season six home bouts will take place at the Pipkin Building. With the location, Memphis Roller Derby switched from being a banked-track league to a flat-track league.

Instead of skating counter-clockwise along a railed-in rink, teams skate along a flat surface outlined in tape. Die-hard fans sit up close to the temporary rink in the “suicide zone.”

The sport grew out of roller skate racing competitions, Gettys said. When team owners started adding contact to the sport, attendance grew. Those early games were staged much like wrestling.

The sport is authentically vicious. Women use their hips, rear, and shoulders to crash into each other and the concrete floor to prevent jammers from moving forward. They wear knee, elbow, and wrist pads and heavy-duty helmets.

The Hustlin' Rollers' #901 Jessica Crownover, aka “Muse of Bruise,” warms up before a Memphis Roller Derby bout with Baton Rouge’s Red Stick Roller Derby in the Pipkin Building at the Mid-South Fairgrounds.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Just this year, Memphis Roller Derby has seen four ankle breaks.

Protection is pretty thin otherwise. Jerseys bear custom numbers ranging from 901 to 18-N-UP.

Emblems of Memphis Roller Derby’s early days, tutus, and colorful knee socks have died out in favor of what Gettys calls “serious athletic wear.”

“People like to lump it into, ‘those are pretty girls in hot pants playing a fringe sport.’ And it’s not. It’s a real sport,” Gettys said.

Like professional wrestlers, roller derby skaters choose a name and a persona. When she’s on the track, Gettys goes by Brooken Bones.

She’s been around Memphis Roller Derby since its fledgling days in 2006. More than 60 women showed up for that first gathering, and virtually none of them knew how to skate.

Because there was such a high interest, the founding members established four home teams: The Legion of Zoom, the Angels of Death, the Prisskilla Prezleys, and the Women of Mass Destruction.

In 2014 Memphis Roller Derby moved to a two-team format. The travel team, the Memphis Hustlin’ Rollers, travels over the region to compete with other top derby teams. The B-Team is the Blues City Bombers.

Memphis Roller Derby moved to an A team/B team format because the league was down by half to about 30 skaters. Instead of four teams playing against each other, the league is focusing on moving its travel team forward in a national forum.

Vanelli, who has been a part of roller derby across the country as a skater, referee, and spectator, said that a trim-down season is common after a team finds its groove and starts to become more competitive.

Moving from skating rinks to the Pipkin Building brought out the competitiveness in the league, Gettys said. The interest in lighting, music and costumes fell away because the concrete building isn’t equipped for staging.

“Slowly the spectacle kind of died,” Gettys said. “It’s less of a show and more of an athletic competition. There isn’t as much face painting anymore.”

Because of decreased participation, Memphis Roller Derby is allowing men to participate for the first time in the league’s history. As recreational skaters, they won’t travel or play publicly, but Vanelli said that a men’s league could develop if there’s enough interest.

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