The Queens of the Derby

“The night that I fell in love with a roller derby queen” – Jim Croce

Posted In: Culture, Community Profiles,   From Issue 806   By: Matt deHeus

05th March, 2015     0

As I remember it, Sunday mornings were a bit of a coin flip when I was a kid.  Some weeks we would go to church and some weeks we wouldn’t.  As I was a male adolescent, you might be able to guess which I preferred, but the reason might surprise you a bit.

Television was simply not a big part of a kid’s life back then.  There just wasn’t that much that would be interesting to a boy.  But, weekends were different when it came to TV.  Saturday morning had its cartoons, but Sunday took it up a notch.  Staying home Sunday morning meant Wrestling and Roller Derby.

Forget Big Time Wrestling, for me it was the Derby that caught my attention most.  This is, possibly, due to it being on first and my attention span was something less than 30 minutes.  But, my actual recollection is it was more about the game.  It was fast. It was very easy to watch and simple to understand.  There were funky nicknames.  Oh, and it was played by girls.  The roller skate wheels roaring about the hardwood track sounded like a perfect storm in tights to me.


The Making of a Derby Girl

While this bit of nostalgia might be familiar to many, it may come as a surprise that roller derby has made quite a comeback.  In fact, it is becoming all the rage in our own back yard. The Chemical City Derby Girls are an independent roller derby team based in Midland.  Drawing team members from the Tri-City area, the squad scrimmages and competes with other teams in the region.  

Any idea in your head of who the typical “roller derby girl” is would probably be permanently altered upon your first visit to a practice.  The team draws from different age groups, social circles and occupations.  On the team you might find a schoolteacher, a photographer, a skilled-trades journeyman, a nurse, and many of them moms.  The age range on the team is nearly 30 years between its youngest and “most experienced” members.

When I asked derby veteran Bull Leigh (Mindi Bannan) what the common attraction was among women who compete in roller derby, she said “These are mostly women who have been athletic and active in their youth.  It’s good exercise.  And I think of it as ‘me time’.” 

A very similar sentiment was echoed by team leader Jane Ransom (Elizabeth Domine), who stated “it is fantastic exercise.  You get the combination of skating and being on the team.”

Ransom also offered that “roller derby is a great way to network and meet people you normally wouldn’t meet up with.” 

One possible divergence in the motives of the participants made me smile a bit.  Team President and chief instigator Stryker Out (Jamie Griffin) countered with “It’s a just a good outlet.  I work in retail and it can be stressful. Sometimes you just need … aahhh … an outlet.” 

We mutually agreed that roughly translated to: “sometimes she finds it soothing to sm*ck a b*tch.”


Roller Refresher

Part of the attraction of roller derby is its simplicity.  Basically, two teams place five members at a time on the track.  Each team fields four Blockers and one Jammer.  Points are scored as the Jammer passes members of the opposing team.  There are times when one of the blockers (a Pivot) can score like a jammer, but that is getting into details.  The Jammer and Pivot will both typically wear a helmet that specifies their role.

The games (or bouts) consist of two halves.  The halves are made up of a series of “jams,” which last up to two minutes.  During a jam, blockers move around the rink in a loose pack, clearing a path for their jammer to make as many passes as possible.  The blockers use body checks and many other tactics to clear space for their jammer.  The penalties would be recognizable to those who have watched basketball, hockey or football: no elbows, no tripping, no grabbing and no hitting someone from the rear, among others.


Bad to the Bone

The requirements to play roller derby are pretty simple – a roller rink, a helmet, wrist an ankle braces and a few pads.  Oh … and a waiver of liability. Clearly, one question that had to be asked was about injuries.

Bull Leigh, who has yet to return to practice after knee surgery, reinforced “You get bruised up.  We get sprained ankles.  We had one girl who broke her fibula.  This is a contact sport and you get minimal padding.”

If you follow the team or some of the member on Facebook you will see the occasional photographic proof that it is indeed a very physical game.  But what’s a pair of crutches between friends, right?

Even without an injury, playing and practicing the game is a very physical activity.  Even a brief view of the practice routine of the team would be enough to indicate this is a very athletic event. 

And they do it all on wheels.


On A Roll

Stryker Out was very enthusiastic about the prospects for the sport:  “There are around 39 teams in Michigan, with 8 in a Detroit league.  There is a new league in the UP.  Near us there are teams from Mount Pleasant, Flint and Mt Morris.”

Ms. Out also relayed that the International Olympic Committee has been petitioned to make Roller Derby an Olympic event.  This is apparently not out of the question for 2020, as part of an attempt to include “roller sports” into the Games.

At a more grassroots level, the ladies agreed that the interest in roller derby is part of the overall growth in women’s action sports.  There are now local or college club teams in the area in Women’s Lacrosse and Rugby. 

“A lot of the girls treat this like going to the gym,” said Jane Ransom. “We get them here and they get suckered in.”

The last line was followed by the kind of laugh that seemed pretty common to the group.

It is pretty clear that the Chemical City Derby Girls is a labor of love for its core members.  The team is self-organized, self-governed and self-funded.  Team members pay for their incidental expenses, including team t-shirts.  I also learned by watching that skates and their replacement parts are not cheap.

The team is seeking sponsors and marketing partnerships.  Stryker Out indicated that opportunities include placement of advertisements in game programs or sponsorship of the penalty box, “pivot line” and “jam line.”

The team’s Facebook page is the best place to as they place information about the team and its events.


There’s a Hole Under Your Bucket, Dear Cindy

My visit to Midland’s Roll Arena for team practice happened to be the night honorary team member Bitch On Wheels (Cindy Powell) became the newest Chemical City Girl.  (Similar to my little opening story, one of the other practice observers suggested she might want to wear that jersey only to practice and never at church.)

While polite gentlemen do not ask a woman’s age, my guess is that Mrs. Wheels and I wouldn’t get a second look if we ordered senior coffees together. 

She has, over the last several years, endured four craniotomies – where the surgeon opens up your skull to perform procedures on your brain.  Three of them were due to complications from the first surgery.  It was a little bit jaw dropping to hear her tell the story.

Wheels went on to say, “I decided to make a bucket list and going to see a roller derby was on it.  The first time we showed up the girls joked we were the only people that would pay to come watch them who weren’t related.  But I just loved it.”

Adorning the top of her head was the same helmet that she wore during periods of her recovery, when she was often literally left with a hole in her head.  I did not get the impression that she had any plans to lace them up and take a few jams, but I could tell she had the same spirit as the rest of the team. 

And – if she did decide to skate – my guess is a sprained ankle or two wouldn’t faze her a bit. 

That’s what you do when you are Queen of the Derby.




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