The Sisterhood of Roller Derby

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Whether the sporting event you attend is professional, amateur, men’s, or women’s, the one constant ingredient to a successful, winning environment is support among the teammates. One women’s sport that stands out as far as camaraderie is roller derby. The tremendous encouragement among the skaters who cheer each other on, revving the team along, is a great lesson for life’s bouts.

I posed some questions to Gina Bowker who is involved with Seacoast Roller Derby in New Hampshire. We discussed the camaraderie among the women skaters, as well as the resurgence of women’s roller derby, player nicknames, and how a roller derby league functions.

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Nailer, Quikki Rikki, and Toy Named Sue of the Poison Pixies
Nailer, Quikki Rikki, and Toy Named Sue of the Poison Pixies

How long has Seacoast Roller Derby been around?

We first formed as a single team—the Poison Pixies—in 2010. We grew to become a full league—Seacoast Roller Derby—in 2012 and added a second team—the Vicious Valkyries—in 2013.

What is the season length?

While we practice year-round, taking the winter holidays off, our main season is from April-September. We practice and play at the Dover Arena in Dover, New Hampshire. They take up the ice the first week of April and put it back down the first week of September. We’re in there when the ice is out.

How did you get involved as a player—and are they called “players” or is there other lingo?

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Player is fine. We’re also skaters—to differentiate from referees, or NSOs—non-skating officials, or other volunteers. I first started when my husband and I were living in Pennsylvania. He was working on his Ph.D. and I needed something to help me get through the long, dull, central Pennsylvania winters. I saw a flyer at the grocery store that the local team was recruiting. One of the women on the team was a student of my husband, so he got me in touch with her. I went to a practice and immediately decided this was something I had to do.

Ginan Toxxic of the Poison Pixies
Ginan Toxxic of the Poison Pixies

What is your position on the Poison Pixies team?

On the track, I am a pivot. This is the skater with the striped helmet cover—or “helmet panty” in derby lingo. The pivot’s job is to set the pace of the pack and direct her teammates on the track. There is also a technique called the star-pass, where the jammer passes the star helmet panty to the pivot, making the pivot become the jammer for the rest of that jam. While that is technically a legal thing to do, it isn’t something that our team does often. Off the track, I am Vice President of the board, Interleague Liaison, and Webmaster.

Your derby name is “Ginan Toxxic,” and others on your team go by monikers such as “Gladys Happy Hour” and “Pinky Not a Taco.” How did you come up with your derby name? Where and when did the tradition start to have derby names?

In my old team, we had derby big sisters, like sororities will have big sisters. My big sister helped me pick out my name, partly because it sounds fierce, and partly because it has my real name—Gina—in it. Skaters really started using derby names or nicknames when the derby resurgence started around the year 2000 with banked track derby in Texas. Some teams are going back to using their legal, government names now, but a lot of skaters still like using derby names.

Does having a derby name provide you with an alter-ego on roller skates? If so, how is your alter ego different from yourself?

Some skaters feel like their derby name gives them an alter-ego on skates. I think, personally, it helps me be a little more confident, a little more aggressive.

Poison Pixies cheering each other on
Poison Pixies

The camaraderie and support system for each other seems tremendous, not only within the Poison Pixies team, but across to the rival teams as well. Have you been involved in any other sport, and if so, was the teamwork as special? I’m struck by the emotional bond you all seem to have to each other.

I was on the swim team in junior high and high school. I quit in my freshman year because it became too competitive within the team. Being in derby is like being in a family. My teammates are like my sisters, cousins. The refs are like my brothers. Even the NSOs grow to be close as family members. I’ve made some of my best friends in this team. We’ve supported each other through good times and bad.

How would you respond to naysayers who claim the sport is too violent and dangerous for women?

I think whoever says that underestimates the strength of women. I also think they don’t fully understand the sport; how we train and prepare for the contact—or how any athlete trains and prepares for their sport—and how we support each other as players, and how our trainers support us and prepare us for competition.

What makes roller derby distinctive as a women-only sport? There is also roller derby for men, but women’s roller derby seems to be more on society’s conscious map.

Roller derby’s revival was brought back to the world by women, hence the dominance. However, since women in roller derby represent camaraderie and teamwork, there is more than enough room for both sexes to enjoy what we’ve grown to love so much.

Seacoast Roller Derby
Seacoast Roller Derby

Do players sometimes switch teams within the Seacoast Roller Derby league?

Yes, Seacoast Roller Derby is our league, under which we have two teams: the Poison Pixies is the travel team, and the Vicious Valkyries are our home team. The Pixies have more competitive assessments they need to pass. They are judged on a higher level and are required to attend more practice hours than the Valkyries. That said, skaters do sometimes switch teams. Typically, a new skater will start out on the Valkyries and then get rostered with the Pixies as her skills improve. Sometimes, a skater will be with the Pixies, and due to various life circumstances, not be able to make the attendance requirements, and she will be rostered with the Valkyries.

How often do you accept new players? And how long does it take to get a new player “up to speed” to be able to participate in a bout?

We are always accepting new league members—skaters, refs, NSOs, or otherwise. As far as participation in a bout is concerned, we have a six-week probationary period, during which a skater may practice with us, but cannot participate in a bout. She must meet minimum attendance requirements during that time and pass assessments for the team she will bout with—Pixies or Valkyries. Otherwise, it varies per person. Some people breeze right through training and are rostered shortly after their probationary period is up. Some people stay “fresh meat”—our loving term for not-yet-rostered skaters—for a much longer time.

What is the age of the youngest player you’ve seen, and what is the age of the oldest player?

Our insurance only covers skaters ages 18 and over. Our youngest skater currently is 20 years old. Our oldest skater is currently in her mid-40s. There are junior leagues out there. My first season, we skated with a junior league. I was skating against girls who were only 14 or 15 years old. They were just a tough as the other women on my team! Some leagues throughout the country have junior leagues with much younger girls, 8-11 years old. It is Seacoast Roller Derby’s goal to start a junior league at some point.

And finally, how many pairs of roller skates have you gone through since being involved?

I’m on my second pair of skates right now, not including the rental skates I used when I first started. I’m probably due for a new pair soon, but I need other gear first. A decent pair of skates will run $200-$300.

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Margaret McAleese is a playwright. Her produced plays include Black Mayo, Salley's Garden, Captured, Air Tight, Seven Sisters and There's a Girl in Boston. Her essay "From Haystacks to Handbrakes" is a past winner of the annual "My Brooklyn" writing festival. Margaret has also contributed as a writer for a 24 Hour Novel project and two 48 Hour Film Projects. A native New Yorker, she now lives in a renovated mill along a New Hampshire river, and every day is astounded that the view out her windows is no longer a brick wall ten feet away. Available at her Web site and @MaggieMcAleese.