Roller derby empowers local women, provides outlet for athleticism
Originally published at OU Daily Nov. 7, 2017
Every Monday at 7 p.m., Star Skate Norman skating arena smells like sweat. Women wearing elbow pads and helmets gather. It is All Skate Scrimmage Night — the weekly communal crux of the Oklahoma City Victory Dolls Roller Derby League.
Oklahoma Victory Dolls Roller Derby League is comprised of a competitive A-League (All-Stars) and B-League (Tornado Alley). The league also has three recreational home teams: Outlaws, The Lightning Broads and Battle Squad. The various teams hold scrimmages as well as an open invitation for skaters from other leagues to join in and scrimmage together.
Recreational teams only compete at home games, whereas competitive A and B-League teams travel to compete. All-Stars is the only team that competes for rankings.
Brittani Brown, an OU alum on All-Stars, skates around the track with a "3" etched in Sharpie on her shoulder. “Betch” is carved into the back of her tank top, a signifier of her derby nickname. Her short, purple hair sticks out from her derby helmet, and layers of kneepads, elbow pads and protection equipment cover her body.
With a brief shout from a whistle, the warm-up begins. Competitive teams and home teams, jammers and blockers alike, skate around the track in a circle. Skaters fall in line, stretching their arms above their heads and skating backwards at angles and performing short increments of fast skating and immediate stopping exercises. With the final whistle, they are ready for the scrimmage to start.
Powerful female athletes
Roller derby has a long history, beginning in the 1930s in Chicago as just a race and later developing into a more serious form of athleticism and physical contact. This led to the wrestling-type dramatized version of derby in the '80s, where players were clad with fishnets, tutus and extreme makeup.
Today’s international roller derby league, Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), has strict rules and has turned derby into a modern, strategic sport where players exude athleticism and skill.
The Victory Dolls practices every week at Star Skate in Norman. When the 2017 season wrapped up, they ranked within the WFTDA at No. 40 out of 335. The Oklahoma Victory Dolls also ranks 34th in the U.S. and 38th in North America. Twenty-nine countries are represented within WFTDA.
Oklahoma City Victory Dolls All-Star team captain, Kaley Meyer “Trigger Trixie,” began her career with derby seven years ago in Lawton as a skater. This past year, she was ranked as No. 1 scorer in the state, scoring 1,600 points.
“I’ve never seen as many strong, powerful female athletes as I have just in the derby community,” Meyer said. “As you get exposed to the women who are putting it all out there and baring it all, it makes you want to (do the same), and it changes you as you go.”
The head non-skating official (NSO), Hattie Cakes, calls out “Five seconds!” and then blows the first whistle of the scrimmage, and the action begins. Three officials in black-and-white referee polos skate around the center of the track, keeping an eye on individual team members.
In roller derby, games are called bouts. They last an hour, with two 30-minute halves and a 10-15 minute halftime. Each half consists of individual “jams,” which can last up to two minutes each.
Each team has five team members on the track at a time: four blockers and one jammer. The goal of a blocker is to block the other team’s jammer to make sure she never gets out of the pack of four blockers. Jammers have a star on their helmets so they are recognizable, and they stay behind the starting line until the whistle is blown. Each jammer’s goal is to fight her way out of the other team’s pack.
Brown skates as a blocker in the pack, holding on to her other three blockers as they attempt to keep the other team’s jammer from breaking loose. They move as one. In between jams, the skaters from each team laugh together. While skating, their faces are etched with vigor and passion, but at the end of the day, they are all friends playing a game they love.
According to Brown, who studied anthropology at OU, The Victory Dolls gave her a positive and healthy environment to be involved in during her time at OU, and this has continued through to the present.
“We’re like a little family. It’s a healthy environment and really promotes strong, athletic women,” Brown said.
The Derby Community
The Victory Dolls' 2018 season will begin in January, with home bouts as well as a new recruitment class. New recruits will go through a three-month class where they will be taught how to skate, stop and fulfill minimum skills, which is a requirement of being rostered in bouts.
The level of commitment required by being involved in the team varies from one practice a week for members on a home team to two or three practices a week for members on competitive teams.
During a bout at Star Skate, fans line up around the rink to enjoy the action and bring chairs to set up just outside the “crash zone,” a line on the actual track where it is relatively safe for fans to watch the bout.
Head coach Ralph McKenzie first got involved with roller derby after his then-future wife was a skater for OKVD. He had previously coached soccer, basketball and football, but when he discovered roller derby, he fell in love with the sport and he has remained involved since he became head coach in 2011.
“The most amazing thing about it is that it can be really physical but finesse at the same time,” McKenzie said.
Many of the skaters stay involved in derby over the years due to the inclusive culture of derby, as well as the empowerment of strong, athletic women.
Cheyenne Riggs “Professor Flex,” an instructor of first-year composition in the English department at OU, is also a skater in Tornado Alley. Riggs describes derby’s original reputation of being counter-cultural as still holding central to the culture of modern derby today. Embedded within the culture of derby is inclusivity and non-discrimination, Riggs said.
“Derby allows women, who are often treated as being weak or uninterested in sports, and it gives them an outlet to be in a sport that’s full contact — to hit and be hit,” Riggs said. “A lot of girls have said they’ve learned how to care less about other people’s opinions, learned how to set goals and work towards them. It’s really the social, physical and personal fulfillment all together.”
Meyer said that the women she has encountered in derby have taught her to care less about what others think of her. Over the years that she has been involved in the sport, she has gained confidence in her personal life as well as on the track and she has seen that occur for her teammates as well.
“When you see a girl without her derby gear, oftentimes she sits with her legs crossed and seems small. And then as soon as a girl puts her derby gear on, her stance gets wider, she takes up more room. There’s a physical change that happens that says: I’m here because I’m strong. Let’s do this,” Meyer said.