Perhaps it has something to do with Smith students’ feistiness, their willingness to take on challenge, turn toward conflict, get ahead of anyone slowing them down, and overcome obstacles.
Or maybe they just like to skate around an oval track.
Whatever the reason, several Smith alumnae (and a visiting faculty member) have taken up the fast-growing sport of roller derby. Half a dozen Smith women compete with the local league, Pioneer Valley Roller Derby (PVRD), the premier flat track roller derby club in Western Mass., and nearly as many have past experience in local roller derby.
For those who haven’t noticed, flat track roller derby has seen a wheel-spinning growth since the sport evolved in 2001. Unlike the roller derby of the 20th century, which became overshadowed by theatrics and fixed outcomes, modern roller derby has grown into a widely respected competitive game, played internationally. The sport is dominated by women’s amateur teams, though it is quickly adding men’s, co-ed and junior teams, and is among consideration for inclusion in the Olympics. PVRD is a co-ed club with a budding junior program.
“Roller derby embodies a lot of the values I saw being cultivated on campus during my time at Smith,” says Teresa Huang ’10, whose team is slated for competition this weekend. “The importance of teamwork, perseverance, pushing through obstruction, leadership. The culture of the sport is very do-it-yourself, and has very woman-centric roots.”
Huang, who joined the league early last year, had never even skated before, nor had she any experience in contact sports, like rugby or ice hockey, that might have helped her efforts in muscling other competitors aside. But, as she says, practice pays off, and roller derby has taken on an important role in her life.
“We all play this sport because we love it and because of the community we’ve built around it,” she says.
As the local Smith-heavy roller derby club approaches its final games of the season this weekend, Huang recently talked with her fellow Smith teammates—Aleks Kajstura ’05; Alex Deschamps ’05, who officiates roller derby; Myra Lam ’11; Sharla Alegria, visiting instructor in sociology; and Diane Williams, who completed her masters degree in exercise and sport studies in 2010—about the sport and their participation.
How did Smith College prepare you for roller derby and life on eight wheels?
Aleks Kajstura: Smith prepared me for PVRD by providing a supportive sports environment via the Smith hockey team. Having some hockey experience definitely helped with derby.
Diane Williams: One of the things I loved about being at Smith as a graduate student and coach was seeing the ways that the undergraduates on my teams seemed to really embrace opportunities to be themselves and follow their passions. This same spirit is present in PVRD, and is part of what I have long loved about derby culture. Everyone has different talents and powerful contributions to make, and in a supportive environment, we can work together to realize a goal much greater than each of us could accomplish individually. Also, we have a lot of fun playing together, working hard, being silly, and just being a team!
Alex Deschamps: The reality of officiating in derby is that the majority of referees are male. This past May, I was the head referee of an officiating crew at a tournament, in charge of a group of extremely skilled referees, and in addition to being the only woman, I was also shorter than all of them by at least a foot. Smith helped prepare me for this type of situation—learning how to speak my mind and stick with my convictions. The Smith community is all about intelligence and understanding differences—that plays a large role in officiating roller derby, especially when an angry coach wants you to overturn a call.
Myra Lam: There are a lot of similarities between roller derby and synchronized swimming, which I began at Smith: moving in tandem with teammates, for example, competing in front of a crowd, wearing lamé costumes, and unfortunately, getting accidentally kicked in the sternum.
How have you seen roller derby evolve over the time you have been involved with the sport?
Diane Williams: Some changes reflect the sense that derby is becoming a more “legitimate” sport. Themed uniforms have largely disappeared, replaced by shiny, corporate, fancy, traditional uniforms. This is one of the ways that the sport has moved to be more mainstream. However, many teams still have their own space for individuality, in ways I find really important. The members of PVRD’s women’s A-team, Western Mass Destruction, wear a uniform top and anything we want on the bottom, as long as it is black. This way, the women on the team don’t have to play in a uniform that forces them into someone else’s notion of what they “should wear” as a “female athlete.” Women play in long, baggy shorts, in tight shorts, and in “skorts,” and they are still recognizable as a team. In traditional sports culture we have this obsession with teams being identical, as though that is the only element that would bring a team together. I love that our team wears what we want, but there is no doubt we are a team.
Sharla Alegria: We are not playing the same game now that we were four years ago. When I started playing derby it was all about skating fast, making big hits, and embodying a kind of tough, cool, DIY/punk aesthetic. Now speed is reserved for occasions when it makes strategic sense; hits are smart, which usually means small; some of the DIY, “bad girl” aesthetic is still there, but it’s sharing space with more athletic focus. This kind of derby is actually much harder to play. Derby players have to be better skaters—more agile, faster, better at stopping, and much smarter—and teams have to be much tighter. Many plays just don’t work without trust and communication.
What’s the strangest misconception about modern day flat track roller derby that you’ve heard?
Diane Williams:That it’s all fake!
Alex Deschamps: “So where does the ball come in?”
Sharla Alegria: “Aren’t you worried someone will just beat you up?”
Pioneer Valley Roller Derby’s 2013 season closer takes place Sunday, Sept. 15, at the Mullins Center, University of Massachusetts, starting at 3 p.m. Tickets ($10 general admission, $8 for students) are available online and at Turn It Up Records in Northampton, Food For Thought Books in Amherst, and at the Mullins Center box office.
Photographs courtesy of Black Dog Pictures.