Women on Wheels: Rolling into Ann Arbor's roller derby scene

Courtsey of Farzin Montazersadgh and Andrew Potter

By Lucy Perkins, Daily Arts Writer
Published November 6, 2011

BELLEVILLE, Mich. – Quietly nestled beyond a deserted intersection outside of Belleville, Mich. sits Rollers Skate Park – home turf of the Ann Arbor Derby Dimes, Ann Arbor’s roller derby league since August 2010. On a Wednesday night in November, middle school pizza parties linger in the lobby under the neon lights. But push through another set of double doors and the energy heightens.

The Game

On the shiny wood rink, painted lines gleam and direct a swarm of fishnets, leopard print kneepads and neon roller skates in continuous circles. The sound of a whistle commands skaters to jump or stop – a warm-up to practice skills essential for the team to win a game.

In derby, the game is known as a bout. It comprises two 30-minute halves, according to referee Andrea Gruber, also known by her derby name, Whiskey. Each half is split up into two-minute sections called jams, which is the equivalent of a play in football.

Looking out at the track, Gruber noted the calls the refs were making as the teams scrimmaged, while explaining how a bout works.

According to Gruber, each team has five skaters on the track at a time. On each team, there are two types of players: jammers and blockers. When the first whistle blows, the blockers start skating around the track. They’re called the pack. When the pack moves past the pivot line, the jammers are released.

“What makes derby special is that it’s both offensive and defensive at the same time,” Gruber said. “The blockers are trying to get their jammer through the pack, but stop the other one. The first jammer to get through is called the lead jammer. After passing through the pack a second time, every opponent she laps is one point she gains for her team.”

The Ann Arbor Derby Dimes League is composed of two home teams, the Tree Town Thrashers and the Huron River Rollers, and one travel team, the A2D2 Brawlstars. The Thrashers and the Rollers are both made up of 15 to 20 members and often play each other.

For the Brawlstars, bouts are always against teams from other leagues throughout the state.

“The travel team is the best of the best,” Gruber said.

Brawlstars skaters practice at least three times a week, bouting at tournaments twice a month on an almost year-round schedule, according to Gruber. Tournaments attract many of Michigan’s 14 derby leagues and often span entire weekends.

This Saturday, the Brawlstars will be heading to Shelby Township for the Mitten Kitten Tournament where 11 teams hailing from Traverse City to Port Huron will bout it out for the tourney title.

This weekend the Brawlstars are playing Floral City and then the Motor City Disassembly Line.

“Each team is seated depending on what their scores have been in past bouts," said Brawlstars member Dani Van Dusen, known as Hermione Gank-Ya when bouting.

"You’re guaranteed at least two matches. If you win one and lose one, you might get a chance to play again. Like for us, if we lose against Floral City we play the Killamazoo Derby Darlins on Sunday.”

The Teams

For a skater new to the derby world, there’s a lot to learn before she can set a skate on the track for a real bout. Inexperienced Ann Arbor skaters — often referred to as “fresh meat” — must go through a three-month boot camp and pass a skills test before being drafted to the Thrashers or the Rollers.

For a lot of the women on the Derby Dimes, the learning doesn't stop after they're drafted.

“All sorts of women are here,” said Elizabeth “Biz” Nijdam, a Rackham graduate student and a skater for the Thrashers.

“There are some girls who need parental consent, but we also have women like me who are 30, to women married with children working in libraries, to women on the verge of retirement, who are actually some of the sportier ones.”

According to Nijdam, the range in ages and sizes often works to the Derby Dime's advantage.

“We have these tiny little girls who can skate so fast, and then we have these blockers who can knock anybody down,” Nijdam said. “It’s the most accepting environment I’ve ever been in because you don’t have to be anything in particular.”

Alaina Lemon, who skates under the alias of K.G.B. East, is an associate professor of socio-cultural and linguistic anthropology at the University. Though she recently started skating for the Derby Dimes, she already appreciates the camaraderie among the women.

“It just makes me happy,” Lemon said. “It gives me something to think about, to get better at … to fail at. Just being with all these women who are urging each other to be better and better is really great.”

Though Lemon wasn’t new to the roller world, she said the bouts were tough to get used to.

“The game is the hardest thing,” Lemon said. “Getting all the rules down and not getting confused about what to do is difficult. The first bout I scrimmaged in, I made every mistake you could make — I got on the jammer line and fell as soon as they blew the whistle. The rulebook is 43 pages thick, and I forgot it all out on the track.”

Even for the referees, it's "definitely a work out," Gruber said.

“We do a lot of different drills to build strategy, endurance and agility," Gruber explained. "I ran for Eastern, but once you get on skates, it’s a completely different story.”

For Nijdam, though it’s challenging, roller derby has become an integral part of her weekly routine.

“It pushes you to your absolute limits,” Nijdam said. “It’s what gets me through grad school. If I didn’t have derby, I don’t know if I’d make it. It’s my outlet … we do endurance tests that can last anywhere from five to 30 minutes where you skate really hard and really fast. It’s just blissful; I’ve never been pushed so hard.”

According to many skaters, roller derby is not only physically taxing, but it can even be dangerous or harmful.

Heidi Nicewander, a graduate student in the School of Social Work who rolls under the alias of Charm School Reject, has permanent damage to her cornea because another skater’s wrist guard caught the corner of her eye.

“A lot of people have gotten broken legs or broken ankles,” Nicewander said. “One of our refs broke her leg in the first three minutes of the first bout we ever played, so now she’s reffing because she doesn’t want to play. Stuff like this just proves that this is definitely an aggressive sport, just like football and rugby.”

The Spectacle

The intensity of roller derby is often compared to football or rugby, but many aspects of the game distinguish derby from these contact-driven sports — one of these is their costumes.

According to Nijdam, the knee and elbow pads hardly get in the way of the Derby Dimes’ self-expression.

“It’s really neat that some girls’ names become their persona,” Najdim said. “They dress up so their ‘boutfits’ match their character. I’m ‘Biz’ by day, ‘Biz’ by night and ‘Biz’ by derby, but we have girls like ‘Hermione Gank-Ya’ who always wears a Hogwarts tie around her waist and uses that Harry Potter font on her jerseys.”

Sirene-Rose Lipschutz, a graduate student in the School of Social Work, skates under the alias Kitty N. Pink. She said that choosing derby names is a process based on the player's unique interests and their amount of loyalty to the team.

Each Derby name must be registered to each player – A National Derby database disallows anyone to have the same name as another player in the country.

“You have to go to a certain number of practices to show that you are dedicated, and then you get to choose it,” Lipschutz said, a skater on The Tree Town Thrashers. “Numbers are important too. I’m 34A. It’s my bra size.”

“There’s a big dramatic aspect to it,” Mark Schaffer, an avid derby fan and friend of a Huron River Rollers skater, said.

“It really just draws the crowd in. Everything from the costumes the girls wear, to their aliases, to the numbers they choose for their jerseys. It’s almost more like watching a show than watching a spectator sport,” Schaffer said. “It has the skills and finesse of a hockey game but the theatrics of pro wrestling in some respects.”

Because of derby’s outlandish persona that Schaffer referenced, the sport has not had a large following in the past. But recently, especially in Michigan, derby has begun gaining momentum.

The 2009 movie “Whip It” offered a first glance into the world of roller derby for many moviegoers and also gave the sport a couple hours of national attention.

In Michigan, “Whip It” struck a chord with many local women and resulted in the creation of several leagues throughout the state. One of these leagues was Ann Arbor’s Derby Dimes, headed by Coach J.T. Slyde, who trained actresses Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page during the filming of “Whip It” in the Detroit area.

Many of the women on the team had been looking to play derby in the Ann Arbor area, but the sports wasn’t something that was available at the same time, Gruber said.

“I had heard about (roller derby) happening in Detroit,” Gruber said. “I was interested in it after ‘Whip It’ came out but Detroit was just too far to go, but then the one in Ann Arbor started.”

The size of Derby Dimes’s membership is steadily growing, but to women like Whiskey, Biz, and K.G.B. East, it has been an essential part of their lifestyle and they're not giving it up.