The names come booming through the PA system one by one.
“N. Raging Grace!”
“Cee N. Spots!”
“Ivanna B. Vicious!”
But there’s one that’s not like the others. When Emma Donnelly, co-captain of the Skate Free or Die All-Stars, makes her way to the track, she steers away from roller derby tradition. Instead of an adopted derby name, she skates with her given name on the back of her uniform.
“I want people to know what my real name is when I knock them down,” Donnelly said.
Off and rolling
With seven years of derby experience, Donnelly has done her share of pushing and shoving in rinks nationwide. She’s also been knocked down countless times, but she keeps coming back for more. In just her second season with the All-Stars, the premier travel team in the New Hampshire Roller Derby league, she’s risen to the role of co-captain, serving as a blocker and training new skaters.
She skated in Boston for five years before transferring to the smaller New Hampshire league. Donnelly said that while she loved the bouts in the big city in front of capacity crowds, joining New Hampshire Roller Derby has been an exciting opportunity to play as an underdog trying to fight its way to the top.
“New Hampshire has always been an underdog league, so it’s really been great to come up here and share what I know,” Donnelly said. “It’s been great to play with brand new girls and learn the game all over again. I love it here.”
On April 13, roller derby returned to Manchester with a home-opener doubleheader. Donnelly and the All-Stars took down the Rideau Valley Roller Girls from Ottawa by a score of 208-112. That bout was preceded by a matchup between two of the league’s home teams, with the Nightmares on Elm Street beating the Granite Skate Troopers 341-51.
The New Hampshire league, like many derby leagues, has travel teams that will face teams from other leagues and home teams that strictly play against other teams within the same league. In addition to the teams that played in the league’s home opening weekend, New Hampshire Roller Derby features the travel team Queen City Cherry Bombs and home team Seabrook Meltdowns.
New teams in town
New for this derby season, the Concord-based Granite State Roller Derby will feature two home teams. Since 2010, the league has hosted the Legislashers, a travel team. But league member Katie “Holy Bacamole” Baca said to give more Capital Area roller girls more game play experience, the Fighting Finches and Demolition Dames will be introduced on Saturday, April 27, at Everett Arena.
“Each of the home teams has been a way to keep people more interested and that dedication is huge,” Baca said. “It’s a very addictive sport.”
Baca, who skates with the Legislashers, will also serve as a co-captain for the Demolition Dames in their inaugural season. She said one of the attractive aspects of roller derby is that many skaters start their derby careers with little knowledge of the rules or skating techniques. Because most new players start this way, Baca said the Granite State Roller Derby coaches and players look forward to turning inexperienced newbies into fleet-footed jammers or bruising blockers.
Though many of the necessary skills have stayed the same throughout derby’s history, Baca said her league’s teams are constantly improving their strategies. Even with just three years together, she said the Legislashers have significantly changed some of their playing styles and techniques since the team’s inception.
“As the game gets played more, the strategies and general approach changes,” she said. “There are things we did three years ago that we would never dream of doing now. It’s evolved so much, and in a way, we’re all learning.”
Know your bouts
Roller derby is unique among team sports in that it’s likely the only sport where there is not a ball or object being passed among teammates, and teams play offense and defense simultaneously.
Games are referred to as bouts and are broken up into 30-minute halves that are split into two-minute-long jams. Up to five players per team take the track at a time, with one skater designated as her team’s jammer. A jammer must be identified by wearing a star on her helmet.
A jam begins with blockers and jammers starting around the track at the same time. As the jammers try to work their way to the front of the pack, the blockers will attempt to prevent the opposing jammer from emerging while trying to clear a path for their own jammer. Once a jammer has emerged, she can earn points for her team by lapping opposing blockers. A jam ends either at the end of the two minutes or if the lead jammer, the jammer who breaks through the pack first, signals to the referee that she wants the jam to be called off.
Once a fan starts to understand the basics of derby, Andrew “Johnny Cash Machine” Cook, a coach for New Hampshire Roller Derby, said the finer points of the sport can be appreciated. He compared the sport to American football in that newcomers can quickly pick up on the rules, while seasoned fans can grow to appreciate the more technical strategies.
“Even if you’re a novice or a newcomer to the sport, you can appreciate a great hit or a really great juke by a jammer,” Cook said. “After you’ve been coming for a while, you can appreciate the intricacies that go into it like the blocking schemes.”
A new normal
Donnelly, like many of her teammates, is strong and athletic, and tattoos cover her arms. But she said that unlike the scripted violence of the 1970s roller derby, modern derby players are not like those characters.
Instead, she said she and the other members of New Hampshire Roller Derby relish their stature as role models to young female athletes. At the end of each bout, instead of heading straight back to the locker room, Donnelly said skaters will stick around to meet fans and sign autographs.
“When you step back and think about it, we’re really accessible to girls,” Donnelly said. “They can see us and say, ‘I can play a sport that’s just as dirty and hard as boys’ sports and not get punished for it.”
In addition to promoting athletic activity to young girls, Baca said the Legislashers have made a point to be a part of charitable efforts and events in and around Concord. She said the team has made an effort to lend a hand to the Concord YMCA and Boys & Girls Club and has put on demonstrations downtown at Market Days.
Baca said since 2001, when flat track roller derby began its revival, thousands of leagues have blossomed worldwide. In 2011, Blood & Thunder, a roller derby magazine, hosted an inaugural roller derby world cup in Toronto.
Locally, Baca said fans who have seen Legislashers bouts in Concord have been appreciative of the athleticism and strategy required to put on a competitive bout. On occasion, there are fans who come to Everett Arena expecting to see the glamorized, almost WWE style of derby, but once the bout begins, Baca said, they quickly come to understand the legitimacy of the sport.
“We want real athleticism and that’s more exciting than a show being put on,” Baca said. “There are big hits and big falls and we’re competitive. We’re reliant on our actual ability out there.”