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Women on wheels

With its theatrics and rough play, roller derby is gaining a following in Halifax. But for the skaters, there is more to the game than hard hits and costumes.

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Photo: Tammy Fancy

Photo: Tammy Fancy

Editor’s Note: This feature was originally published in the June 2013 issue of Halifax Magazine.

Moira Peters had a pair of roller skates in storage for years when she finally got a chance to use them. At a party, a friend mentioned she was checking out a game of roller derby, so Peters went, too. That was in 2011—and Peters was immediately hooked.

“I like roller skating so I thought I’d try this crazy-sounding sport,” says Peters, who’s played competitive sports in high school and university. “I didn’t even know what the game looked like. I didn’t see it in videos or online…it’s more physical than I thought.”

The local roller derby teams are organized by the Halifax Roller Derby Association, which got its start in 2010. No skating experience is necessary, but all new players, like Peters, take part in “fresh meat” intake training where they learn all the skills to play the game. If they pass the minimum skills test, players are named to a team. There are a few Halifax-based teams that play teams from around Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, P.E.I. and Saskatchewan. The association is run entirely by volunteers. Many of the skaters, like Nadrin Friis, volunteer in other roles and dedicate hours every week to keep the games running. In Friis’s case, she works as a league director and a skater on two teams. The association is always recruiting referees, coaches and non-skating officials.

Each game consists of two 30-minute halves and each of those is broken down into a series of jams. A team may consist of at least a dozen members, but only five of them—four blockers and one jammer— play an individual jam. The goal of each jammer is to pass the blockers of the opposing team, earning a point for each player passed. Skaters can use positioning, legal body contact and strategy to help their own jammer while preventing the other team’s jammer from getting through.

“There is so much strategy involved,” Peters says, “so you have to have your wits about you all the time since you’re always playing offence and defence.”

Today’s roller derby is not as rough as in its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s (the sport has been around since the 1930s). Back then, the track was sloped and included ramps and jumps. Players, most of whom didn’t wear helmets, found themselves going over the sides of the rails after an aggressive hit. Now, players are outfitted with helmets, mouth guards, elbow and knee pads and wrist guards. And the game is played on a flat surface. The rules and regulations are set by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.

But the players here aren’t completely shielded from injury. Friis, for example, has suffered from a black eye and cracked sternum. During a bout in early May, star jammer 19-year-old Atom Bombshell of the Las Bandidas Locas broke her foot. On that same night, two other players sat on the sidelines, one with a cracked humerus and the other with a dislocated shoulder. Peters has, to date, escaped injury.

This era’s roller derby, like its predecessor, is known for its theatrics. Every player has a derby name: Peters is “Joy Romane,” Friis is “Box Blocker.” Each team also has a name and personality, all reflected in the players’ costumes. The Las Bandidas Locas disguise includes handkerchiefs. And the Dead Ringers, who wear skeleton-inspired costumes and paint their faces in white and black ghostly makeup, are led onto the track by their own personal Grim Reaper. Short shorts and fish-net stockings, ripped from previous bouts, seem almost a standard part of every player’s uniform.

The costumes and makeup make for a great show for the audience, many whom carry banners cheering on their favourite teams. The bravest fans sit in the “suicide seating” space directly on the floor surrounding the action. But the players say the costumes, makeup and alter egos also serve as a motivator for the game. You’re all part of a team, but each player retains their own personality. Friis says the game allows many women to “come out of their shells.”

“It’s cool because you get to have an alter ego,” Friis says. “You get to be another person on the track and that really helps when you need to vent.”

“It also attracts a certain type of person that likes to play,” Peters adds. “It’s a seriously competitive sport, but it’s also about play. I like to take fun seriously and I think the other girls do, too.”

But for many of the players, it’s the camaraderie that keeps them coming back.

“There is an understanding that derby is not about individual stars or individual alter egos,” Peters says. “It’s not just about one team getting all the glory. It’s about the league and everyone playing together. There’s this understood level of respect for what we do.”

The association expects the league and its following will continue to grow. They’d like to have as many players and teams as New Brunswick or Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, both regions with successful leagues with large followings. “We want to be that big,” Friis says.

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