Dutchland Derby Rollers enter second decade of play

By on May 10, 2017
Jammer and Captain Becky Charles (Harper's Fury), right, breaks away from the pack as a lead jammer.

Jammer and Captain Becky Charles (Harper’s Fury), right, breaks away from the pack as a lead jammer.

Women’s Roller Derby sounds like a 1950s thing, and if you watch it on YouTube it’s pure entertainment with skaters on a high-bank track creating havoc with their opponents at breakneck speed.

But don’t be fooled, roller derby today is a modern sport growing in popularity. In the first decades of the new millennium, it has attracted thousands of women athletes across the world.

Roller derby started as a spin-off of marathon dancing for prize money during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Promoters looked for something new and they created a banked track for marathon skating events. It grew into roller derby. In the 1940s, some five million spectators watched derby events in 50 U.S. cities.

In time, roller derby, for both men and women, lost much of the “sport’ and moved more toward entertainment than competition, and then just faded away. An amateur, grassroots revival began at the start of the 21st century with women taking the lead. Under the direction of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), there now are some 400 teams in the U.S. The sport has grown worldwide and was under consideration for the 2020 Olympics.

In Central Pennsylvania, there are teams competing in several cities including Reading, Harrisburg, Allentown, Stroudsburg, Hanover, Wilkes-Bare and Williamsport. In Lancaster County, it’s the 40-plus member Dutchland Derby Rollers who began their second decade of competition in 2017 and call the Overlook Activities Center in Manheim Township home.

The Dutchland Derby Rollers’ local connection are (left to right) Eli Johnson, Lititz;  Denise Alexander, Ephrata; and Samantha Rodgers, Lititz. (Photos by the author)

The Dutchland Derby Rollers’ local connection are (left to right) Eli Johnson, Lititz; Denise Alexander, Ephrata; and Samantha Rodgers, Lititz. (Photos by the author)

In Derby competition, five skaters (four blockers and a jammer) start a two-minute period called a jam, moving counterclockwise on the track at a slow pace. There is a strategy to the jam. Blockers spreads out to cover as much of the track as possible to stop the opponent’s jammer from breaking away, circling the track and passing blockers to score points. The pack blocks and checks to help its own skater succeed in passing opponents and scoring. Body checking happens from mid-thigh to shoulders and there are lots of spills, and plenty of bumps and bruises.

Many derby women started with limited skating ability and getting up to speed, literally, can take months. In the Dutchland Rollers, newbies are called “skater tots.”

“Regardless of your toughness and strength, if you don’t have the balance and skating ability, you are at a big disadvantage,” says Alison Kohler who handles media relations for the group.

Many participants use alias names, which some feel is one of the reason the sport may not be taken seriously. The alias gives players some anonymity if they are in a sensitive job, or their employer isn’t aware of their derby participation. However, today in some leagues, skaters are beginning to use their given names on programs and on uniforms.

Blockers cover the track at the start of a two-minute jam.

Blockers cover the track at the start of a two-minute jam.

Ephrata and Lititz are well represented in the DDR program. All have high praise for the team and the sport.

Denise Alexander, Ephrata, joined the DDR in 2010 without any real skating experience. Skating under the name Acute Toxicity — Tox, to her teammates — it was several months before she skated in her first match, mainly as a blocker.

“It has become a sisterhood, and the camaraderie is awesome,” Alexander says. Recently she has been working as a coach to skater tots.

Eli Johnson, Lititz, joined in 2016. She had been a recreational skater and had to put derby on-hold for a few years to raise her family. She is now in the tot program, which she describes as “Fantastic; the coaches are dedicated and insightful.”

The Dutchland program has two teams, the All-Stars and the Blitz, and Johnson skated in her first game with the Blitz in March. “Scarface O’Hara” on the track, she is a jammer. She works as a paralegal and her attorney boss has joined the Rollers’ referee training program.

“I love the inclusiveness along with the athletic and mental challenge,” Johnson says. “We’re competitive but all here to play a game we love.”

Stacey Sockel, Ephrata, has been a skater since 2012.

“I came to a recruiting meeting and I was hooked,” she says.

Her only skating experience was at childhood birthday parties. She went through the training program and skates as a blocker under the alias “Donna Vetta,” which in PA Dutch means “thunder and lightning.”

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Radicals' blockers are ready for Dutchland Jammer Bonnie Mae Carol (#302 Genghis Bon).

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Radicals’ blockers are ready for Dutchland Jammer Bonnie Mae Carol (#302 Genghis Bon).

Currently a social work and counseling graduate student at Widener, she has put regular skating on hold while she interns at a helpline in Harrisburg.

“Derby has made me strong and empowered,” Sockel says. “It put me in great shape and makes me feel like I could conquer the world.”

Samantha Rodgers, Lititz, a.k.a. “White Winged Shove,” has been a member since 2011 and had only skated a few times as a child. She took six months to train and another three months before her first match. She skates as blocker and pivot. She is a pharmacy technician.

“I love the structure,” she says. “Yup, I have my share of bumps and bruises from games including ankle, hip and shoulder. I just turned 30 and have no plan to stop.”

Roller Derby 101

Female derby teams consist of up to 14 players with only five skating during a two-minute jam. Games are 60 minutes, divided into two 30-minute halves. Points are scored by lapping members of the opposition.

Four blockers (without any markings on their helmets) team with one jammer (star on her helmet) to start the two-minute period or jam. One blocker is called a pivot (striped helmet) and can receive the star cap from the jammer and become a jammer.

Each team’s jammer tries to be the first out of the pack to lap the opposition to score points. That jammer is designated “lead jammer,” and it allows her to stop the action if it is to her team’s advantage.

The blockers do what their name implies and “mix it up” in the pack to support their jammer.

According to the WFTDA, there are more than 1,000 flat track derby leagues in the U.S., Canada, U.K., and Australia. More than 60 percent of the skaters are women ages 25 to 34. Some 37 percent are married, and 31 percent have children. Two-thirds of the fans are females ages 25 to 54.

Skates, boots, plates, wheels and bearings can cost a skater upwards of $600. DDR is a 501(c)(3) organization, and donates to charities with income from game admissions and sales of shirts and souvenirs.

Currently, the WFTRA ranks the Dutchland Derby Rollers 246th among 400 teams; they were ranked in the top 25 in 2011.

The Rollers’ next home match is May 13. Doors open at 5:30 p.m., and the match starts at 6. The All-Stars will battle the New Jersey Roller Derby All-Stars, of Morristown, N.J. The Blitz will take on the Black Rose Rotten Cherries, from Hanover.

You can follow the team at dutchlandrollers.com.

Art Petrosemolo is a freelance feature writer and photographer who recently retired to this area from New Jersey. He welcomes reader feedback at artpetrosemolo@comcast.net.

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