The queens of quads: Roller derby lives in Massachusetts

Mac McEntire

After securely lacing up her quad roller skates, a young woman skates onto an oval-shaped track. She’s dressed in a colorful tank top, small skirt, and fishnet stockings. Several tattoos are evident. She’s also wearing a helmet, elbow pads and kneepads.

She’s a roller derby jammer.

In front of her on the track is a pack of eight women, four of them are her teammates, and the other four belong to an opposing team. They are the blockers. Standing next to her is another woman on skates, the other team’s jammer.

The referees at the center of the track blow a whistle, and the pack moves forward around the track in a counterclockwise direction. The two jammers ready themselves, and at a second whistle, they take off in a sprint, racing toward the pack. The “jam” has begun.

One jammer weaves her way around the blockers and breaks out in front of the pack. A referee points one finger at her and another in the air, signifying her as “lead jammer,” a strategically important position.

The lead jammer pumps her legs furiously, blasting around the track a second time, until she ends up behind the blockers again. She sneaks around her opponents with a combination of speed, stealth and agility, earning one point for each opposing skater she passes. Her teammates help her out by slamming into the other skaters, sending them spinning out of control and off of the track.

This high-speed, hard-hitting action is what thousands of fans have come to expect from the Boston Derby Dames roller derby, whose new season starts this Saturday in Wilmington.

The season’s first bout — games are called “bouts” in roller derby lingo — will be held at Shriners Auditorium at 99 Fordham Road in Wilmington on Saturday, Sept. 22. Doors open at 5 p.m., and the bout starts at 6 p.m. Tickets are $14 in advance, $16 at the door. Tickets may be purchased in advance at www.bostonderbydames.com.

The Boston Derby Dames is an all-female roller derby league composed of three teams, the Wicked Pissahs, the Cosmonauties, and the Nutcrackers. There’s also an all-star team, the Boston Massacre, which routinely plays all-star teams from leagues in other cities. On Saturday, the Massacre will play against the Dominion Derby Girls from Virginia.

In preparation for Saturday’s bout, members of the league gathered at the Holbrook Athletic Center in Holbrook for practice, where the Massacre played a scrimmage against some of the league’s newest skaters, called “fresh meat” instead of “freshmen.”

As a new skater, Jeni Connell, who skates under the name “Nora’easter,” played her first scrimmage at Sunday night’s practice, going up against members of the all-star team.

“It was a pretty harrowing experience,” she said, “but I got some good hits on some of the veterans.”

What’s in a name?

All the skaters adopt new names when they join the league, such as “Jodie Faster,” “Triple Deck-Her,” “Shelby Shattered,” “Lois Carmen Denominator,” “Cheryl Crowbar,” “Quick Sandy,” “Jennasaurus Wrecks,” “Maude Forbid,” “Queen Kamahamayhem,” and “Ivana Clobber,” one of the league’s founders.

But the names are more than just jokes, according to Alicia Marcaurelle of Salem, who skates under the name “Claire D. Way.”

“When you become a Derby Dame, you take on a new side of your personality, one you maybe didn’t even know existed,” she said. “The name gets you into that mindset.”

When asked how they became Derby Dames, a common answer among the women is “I was hooked.”

Marcaurelle said she learned about the league from another skater, who invited her to a bout.

“When I watched Boston play Providence, and I was hooked,” she said. “I knew I wanted to do this.”

Nicole Rand of Quincy, who skates as “Bettie Spite,” said she read about the league just after it was formed in a newspaper article.

“I was hooked right away,” she said. “I loved the competitive spirit. I thought it was awesome.”

Connell learned about the league from a coworker who is a member.

“I was hooked immediately,” she said. “Right after I heard about it, I said ‘I want to play.’”

Despite the colorful names and equally colorful costumes, the Dames are quick to point out that the bouts are not staged, like the professional wrestling seen on TV.

“This is a real sport with real rules. Just look at all the referees we have,” said Eva McCloskey, who skates under the name “Evilicious.” There are almost as many referees in the center of the track as there are skaters on the track, she said. Different refs monitor different aspects of the game, from points scored to penalties for elbow blocking or tripping.

“It’s a well-structured sport,” Connell said. “There’s a lot of aggressiveness, but within boundaries.”

“I’m not an athlete, and I never was an athlete before this, so it’s pretty exciting to start a sport that is so new that no one’s coming into it with any big level of experience,” said Kristin Bierfelt of Cambridge, who skates under the name “Ruby Khan.” “Nobody was an all-star point scorer on their high school roller derby team. It’s exciting to try a sport in my late 20s for the first time, where everybody’s starting on pretty even ground.”

Tradition and teamwork

Roller derby is played on the older-style quad skates, and not on inline skates. Marcaurelle has a simple explanation as to why there are no inlines:

“Because they suck,” she said.

“It’s tradition,” Rand said about the quads. “Roller derby started on quads. It would be like playing football with a different shaped ball. You won’t see that changing anytime soon.”

“Plus, they look a lot cooler,” Marcaurelle said.

With high speeds and hard hits on the track, several skaters pointed out that strategy plays a role as well. A jammer can pass the opposing team’s blockers much easier if her own blocker knock them out of the way for her.

“A team with skilled players but not a lot of teamwork will always lose to a team that’s not as skilled but better at working together,” McCloskey said.

Rebeccah Pereira of Whitman, whose derby name is “Bloodbath Bettie,” said a lot goes through her mind during a jam.

“You have to focus,” she said. “It’s a mental game and a physical game. It’s good to have both of those on the same level.”

Although the game can get rough at times — and the skaters have the scrapes and bruises to show it — Marcaurelle and Rand say all the Dames are close friends.

“It’s an aggressive sport, but afterward we have drinks, hug and laugh,” Rand said.

For first-timers and veterans alike, the sport continues to be a learning experience.

“There are so many little victories, like every time you learn, ‘Oh, I can skate backwards’ or ‘Oh, I can turn around really fast,’ Bierfelt said. “That’s really exciting.”

‘That D.I.Y. spirit’

The Boston Derby Dames first formed as a league in the spring of 2005.

“There were only about five to ten girls showing up for practice,” McConsky said. “It was very D.I.Y. [do it yourself].”

With a few skaters who had experience from the Providence roller derby leading the way, the league began to grow.

“It was a new thing,” McCloskey said. “Modern roller derby only began in 2001.”

Thanks to their association with the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), the newly formed Boston Derby Dames played for the first time at a tournament in Las Vegas in December 2005. At home, their first exposition bout against the Providence league took place on St. Patrick’s Day 2006, in the gym at the Massachusetts College of Art.

“It seated 600 people, and we sold out in the first 10 minutes,” McCloskey said. “It was amazing.”

The Dames then traveled to a tournament in Seattle over Labor Day weekend in 2006, where they played one of their first bouts against a team from Texas, the home the sport’s grassroots movement. McCloskey said the Texas team is considered one of the best in the country.

“It was a learning experience,” she said. “They taught us how to play real roller derby.”

The Dames “outgrew” the college gym, McCloskey said, finding a new home at Shriners Auditorium in Wilmington.

“It’s been a match made in Heaven,” she said. “They love us. It’s a great partnership.”

The Shriners volunteer their time at bouts, McCloskey said, performing various duties such as taking tickets, serving food, bartending, and more.

The Wilmington auditorium hosted the Dames’ first season, which began in September 2006. With bouts roughly once a month, the league’s three teams all played each other, and the all-star team played visitors from Philadelphia, Providence, and Baltimore. In April, a combined Boston and Providence team, called the New England Roller Derby (“N.E.R.D.”), played against a team from Texas at the Providence Convention Center.

Also during last season, McCloskey said, there was an additional unofficial bout with a team from Atlanta.

“There really wasn’t time to promote it, so we did it just for fun,” she said. “We became new best friends with them.”

The season concluded in May, when the Wicked Pissahs won the local championship in a bout against the Cosmonauties.

“We’ve had an average of 1,000 people at each bout,” McCloskey said. “Our goal for this season is to double that.”

The league’s most recent bout was at the WFTDA Eastern Regional Tournament, held in August in Columbus, Ohio.

“We didn’t win, but we had the closest game in the whole weekend,” McCloskey said.

Like all WFTDA leagues, the Boston Derby Dames is owned and operated by the skaters themselves.

“It’s very feminist and very pro-women,” McCloskey said. “No one’s exploiting us except ourselves.”

The diversity of people in Massachusetts shows itself in the league, McCloskey said, with skaters from a variety of backgrounds and lifestyles.

“We’ve got everything from scientists to project managers to nannies,” she said. “They’re all smart, educated women and great athletes.”

The league also hosts fundraisers throughout the year. The most recent was earlier this month at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, with a midnight showing of the classic 1979 film “Roller Boogie,” starring Linda Blair.

“We skated all over Brookline, telling everyone about the bout,” McCloskey said.

The Dames also donned their skates to participate in the annual AIDS Walk Boston both this year and last year. Visitors to the league’s Web site could pledge a donation for the team or skater of their choice.

Although growing in popularity, the league is still a “D.I.Y.” operation, McCloskey said.

“We do everything ourselves,” she said. “All of us have day jobs and families, and some of us are married and have kids.”

“I love that D.I.Y. spirit,” Connell said. “That really appeals to my sensibilities.”

“I can’t really imagine any other situation in which I would get along with 50 other women all being aggressive and trying to hit me,” Bierfelt said.

- Wilmington (Mass.) Advocate