Roller derby in 2019 is a different animal than it was in the ’70s and ’80s when folk/rock icon Jim Croce sang about the night he “fell in love with a roller derby queen, meanest hunk o’ woman that anybody ever seen.”
Back then, roller derby was more theatrical and bloody, resembling WWE — women’s World Wrestling Entertainment — on roller skates.
Today, it’s a sport more keen on athleticism, safety and tight rules, and it’s practiced by dozens of women in eastern Idaho on the Portneuf Valley Bruisers team.
“You’ll see us wear more athletic wear and less tutus and fishnets,” said Dee Dee McKenzie of Idaho Falls. “Not as many booty shorts and things like that. It’s a true sport, especially if you watch some of the teams that are really big, like Denver and Manhattan. They really are athletes.”
Despite the shift from theatrics, modern roller derby still clings to some vestiges from its past. Contests are called bouts. Players go by clever or mean-sounding derby names, some paint their faces for bouts, and teams have sinister names like “Eves of Destruction,” “Hell’s Ballerinas” and “Ruthless and Toothless.”
McKenzie plays blocker for the Bruisers. Her derby moniker is Speedy Dee Dee. Others on the team go by Sugar and Spite, Freckles Fatale, Assault E. Hag, TriixE Titanium and Melucifer.
TriixE, whose real name is Darci Kearn, is team captain and one of the Bruisers’ more experienced players. She took up the sport in North Carolina in 2012.
“My mother told me there was a roller derby team in Pocatello, so I could come back home,” Kearn said. She chose her name after a motorcycle accident left her with a titanium rod installed from her hip to her femur. “So it fits.”
A bout is played on a flat, basketball court-sized floor between five players on each team. An oblong track is designated on the floor and skaters must stay within the track. Teams can have 15 players total and switch out players often. During a 60-minute bout, two-minute episodes called a “jam” are held. Each team designates a scoring player called a “jammer.” The other four players are “blockers.” The object is to get your jammer past the other team’s blockers. If the jammer laps the other team’s blockers, points are scored. Penalties are called often for out of position play or illegal use of arms or the body. Penalized players must sit out in a penalty box similar to hockey games.
During a recent bout, Bruiser jammer “Miss Mayhem” — aka Melissa Hicks of Shelley — leaped around a group of opposing blockers by jumping across the tight corner of the oblong track and landing back inbounds beyond them.
“She’s one of our better jammers,” McKenzie said. “That is called jumping the apex. So what she does is jump a straight line but because the track curves she’s able to go out of bounds and come back in as long as she doesn’t touch her skates in the out of bounds. She was able to pass all of the blockers and she got four or five points with that one move. That’s a great move.”
Busting through blockers and trying to bump opponents out of bounds means that it’s a serious contact sport.
“Some bouts feel like you got hit by a Mack truck,” McKenzie said. “You don’t even feel it when it happens and then the next day and at the after party people are showing off their bruises that are appearing. I wear a lot of long sleeve shirts to work sometimes in the summer.”
Melissa Lile (derby name “Melucifer”) says roller derby is like a cross between NASCAR and rugby.
“It’s a game that you can’t be afraid to use your body,” Lile said, who is a blocker. “You can’t be afraid to get hit or to hit. Our intention is not to hurt the other team. Our intention is just to play hard.”
Indeed, between jams or during timeouts at a recent game in Pocatello, players from both teams were joking around and dancing to the background music.
“Then as soon as that whistle blows, we’re game face,” Lile said. “It’s an interesting and amazing culture because it’s the only place I’ve ever seen where someone hits you really hard, and you walk up to them and say, ‘That was a great hit.’”
To help with safety, players wear helmets, mouth guards, kneepads, elbow pads and wrist guards. Each player must also pass a minimum set of skating skills to join the league.
“The reason for minimum skills is so we’re safe on the track,” McKenzie said. “It’s also like a rite of passage. One of the hardest skills to pass is that you have to do 27 laps in 5 minutes — we call it 27 in 5. It’s probably one of the hardest skills to pass. It’s speed, and it’s endurance.”
Women who are working on their minimum skills are called “fresh meat.” Other skills women are tested on include standing on one skate for 30 seconds and skating backward three laps within a minute.
To keep up with game skills the Bruisers practice twice a week and have a bout on Saturdays. The Bruisers hold a skate camp in the fall after the competitive season for women interested in joining the league. Besides the commitment of time, there is also the cost of gear. Skates cost between $200 and $600, and there are helmets, pads, jerseys and monthly dues.
“We have some gear that we have collected over the years, and they can borrow our gear,” McKenzie said. “Not everybody has $200 or $300 to just spend on something that they are not sure they are going to stick with or not.”
But the women say it gets in their blood, and they acquire a whole new group of female friends.
“I love it. It’s addictive,” Lile said, who joined the team at 40. “It came at a good time in my life. If I had known we had it here in my 30s I would have done it then.”
Lile’s husband became the team coach. He sports a Bruiser jersey that says “Church of Skatin.”
Some of the women make it clear to their significant others that roller derby is also near and dear.
“We actually have a name for our husbands and boyfriends, we call them our derby widows because derby tends to take over your life,” McKenzie said. “We’ve had some boyfriends who don’t support the derby, and they don’t last very long. They learn to support it or they’re in trouble.”
To learn more about the Portneuf Valley Bruisers and find a schedule of their upcoming bouts, go to portneufvalleybruisers.com or find the team on Facebook at Portneuf Valley Bruisers Roller Derby Association.