As the start time neared for last September’s regular-season finale, dozens of overhead lamps slowly burned on. The University of Pennsylvania Class of 1923 Rink was heating up as the Philly Roller Girls skated out to the theme from Rocky, rounding the flat oval track like chicks in an incubator.
As the names were announced, each girl made herself known, pumping fists into the air before skating to the team bench. Redheaded Kristen Herrmann wore the No. 93.3 stamped on each bicep in honor of her employer, WMMR in Bala Cynwyd, where she produces the afternoon show and hosts the overnight slot on a part-time basis. She skates as Ginger Vitis, a name selected by listeners. “It’s said that redheads have no soul,” says Herrmann. “But [the name] works on many levels.”
Then there’s Katrin Kelly, who wears No. 0049, Germany’s dialing code. Kelly is a native of the country, which also explains her skating name, Mercedes Bends. Becky Twiford settled on Elle Viento, a play on el viento, Spanish for “the wind.” And to see Twiford skate is to know what it means to fly like the wind. “I’m a jammer, so I need speed,” she says.
Twiford is the co-captain of the Liberty Belles, the elite team among the Philly Roller Girls, part of the national Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. Uniforms involve low-cut skirts or short-shorts; more modest skaters wear leotards underneath. Among the female referees, Nikki Mergency is known for her fishnet stockings, with more than one gaping rip around the thigh area.
Trappings are modest at most WFTDA events. At the Philly Roller Girls’ regular-season finale, the scoreboard and clock are projected from a laptop. Music plays in the background, but you can’t hear it. Two color commentators bark away on mics, but you can’t hear them, either.
On the floor, Philly’s B-level travel team, the Independence Dolls, top the Carolina Bootleggers 154-29, and the Belles shake the Carolina All-Stars 190-43. For the WFTDA postseason, the Belles were the No. 4 team in the country and No. 2 in the East. “We should treat it as a pro sport,” says Kelly, who’s finishing her teaching certification at West Chester University this spring. “But we’re not paid for it.”
When roller derby began in the 1970s, there were only banked tracks. And like in pro wrestling, it was usually scripted, with tattooed women in fishnet tights roughing each other up.
The modern flat-track incarnation began in Texas in 2003. By 2005, it had migrated to Philadelphia, once home to sassy banked-track vixens the Warriors. Today, about 100 leagues—or WFTDA chapters—are divided into four regions.
So far, it’s been an uphill battle to change the sport’s image, and the 2009 feature film, Whip It, likely hurt more than it helped. The banked-track roller-derby image portrayed in the movie doesn’t accurately reflect flat-track competition.
Herrmann says Whip It is “pretty theatrical”—and she warns not to let their skimpy outfits fool you into thinking the whole thing is a joke. “This is no lingerie football league,” she contends. “But some people look at us like it’s the banked-track days, like we punch each other in the face. If they knew how athletic you have to be, we’d have a lot more competition to make the team.”
Right now, all 60-70 interested women in Philly get to skate. Aside from the Dolls and the Belles, three home teams play for the Warrior Cup: the Broad Street Butchers, the Philthy Britches and the Heavy Metal Hookers. The Philthy Britches had been undefeated until July 2010, when the Butchers beat them for the Cup.
Like a reality show, the women, who train and practice three times a week, vote on the 20 players for the travel rosters. The women coach themselves and run the league like a business.
This season began on Jan. 1 and won’t end until after Thanksgiving. All participants must be at least 21. Dues are $40 per month. When you throw in wheels, pads, travel, food and lodging, it costs $3,000-$3,500 to skate each year.
So what’s a “jammer”—and how do you become one?
On each of Philly’s two travel rosters, 14 dress for a bout, and five are on the track per jam (a skating period of up to two minutes). There’s one jammer—the skater trying to score. There’s also a pivot—who sets the pack’s pace and is the last line of defense—and three blockers.
Over her crash helmet, the jammer wears a knit cap with a star on the sides. The pivot wears a cover with a stripe. The two opposing jammers start opposite one another, but 20 feet behind the pack. The referee’s first whistle starts the pack; the second jumpstarts the jammers.
The object is simpler to explain than it is to do: Get your jammer past the other team’s jammer within the first lap around the oval track to become the lead jammer and then, on subsequent laps, past as many of the other team’s pack as possible—all while trying to prevent the other team’s jammer from passing your teammates. It’s like a rugby scrum on wheels. The lead jammer is the “human ball,” says Vanessa “Euro Thrash” Jackson, who handles Philly Roller Girls events and publicity.
Twiford, a Liberty Belles co-captain who lives in Drexel Hill, makes jamming look easy. So does Kelly, who first arrived in America as an au pair for a Wynnewood family and has since tutored in West Chester and at Devon Preparatory School. She’s also worked as a graduation project aid at Radnor High School.
One trip around the oval track is required before any points are scored. It’s in that lap that the jammers position for the lead. A team scores a point for every skater the lead jammer passes. A jam can go on for two minutes, or until the lead jammer decides she’s scored enough points and calls it quits by aggressively putting both hands on her hips to prevent others from passing. Fatigued from the run, the lead jammer is essentially saying, “Enough is enough.”
Teams average 25 jams per bout. There are two 30-minute periods to a bout and a 30-second changeover between jams, which start with a new shift of skaters.
All jammers have their secrets, but you definitely need speed and agility on the turns. You also must take hits and remain standing, so balance is essential. Roller derby is a full-contact sport. The women wear crash helmets, elbow pads and knee pads. And size matters, big or small. “You can be fast, but you need the ability to skate,” says Kelly. “I always describe the sport as NASCAR meets ice hockey.”
There are penalties, but no fighting. “There’s enough interest in the sport itself that we don’t need the fake fighting for it to be appealing,” Jackson says.
All of the women have jobs. Jackson is a bartender, so when she’s skating on a Saturday night, she loses money. Everyone associated with the league volunteers, including officials.
Herrmann was working at a tattoo convention for WMMR when she found the Philly Roller Girls, who were also exhibiting. Herrmann was among six Philly Roller Girls who posed naked in last July’s issue of Philadelphia magazine. “We got the centerfold,” she says. “It was cool, but my dad wasn’t too happy.”
Herrmann was on the women’s crew team at Temple University. Kelly played competitive soccer, practiced karate and danced as a teen in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express. She says roller derby is a combination of all three—except on skates.
The Philly Roller Girls have a surprisingly large and passionate fan base. “They think we’re crazy,” says Twiford. “We want people to like it for the competition. We don’t want to make it silly and ugly. We like to hide all the crap.”
Twiford has one (visible) tattoo: a small, nondescript bird on the inside of her left wrist. And it’s flying—“like the wind.”
For more, visit phillyrollerderby.com.