Minnesota RollerGirls: 10 years after revival, popularity continues to rise

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Photo by Sophie Nikitas ’14.


Before I saw the Minnesota RollerGirls for the first time in 2012, any understanding of roller derby came from the 2009 movie “Whip It.” The movie, about a girl who joins a roller derby team to escape her small-town Texas life, bombed at the box office despite its solid cast (Ellen Page, Kristin Wigg, and Drew Barrymore to name a few) and positive critical and audience reviews. My friend and I worshipped the movie: we left the theater pretending we were on skates, imagining the crowds on screen cheering us on as we raced around the track.

Roller derby stayed in the back of my head until the second semester of my sophomore year, when a few of my friends invited me to go watch a RollerGirls bout at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in downtown St. Paul. We braved the frigid weather and caught the 63 into downtown, arriving in time to buy tickets and nab the first row of balcony seats. We paid $5 for one of the RollerGirls to give us “black eyes” (created via eyeshadow), and took our seats as the announcer began to introduce the teams.

For those unfamiliar with the rules of derby, here is a quick explanation:

In each “jam” (round of point-scoring) the two opposing teams put five players on the oval track. One player on each team is the designated “jammer,” who wears a star on her helmet, and earns points by lapping the members of the opposing team. The ref inside the track follows the lead jammer, counting the points she gets with every lap. The job of the other players is to create a path for their team’s jammer to pass through, and to block the opposing jammer from breaking through the line.

In roller derby, every team member has a “derby name.” The names are often plays on phrases or famous figures, altered to include the player’s name or a declaration of femininity and agency. Some personal favorites are “Venus Thigh Trap,” “Terror Swift,” and Mac ’08 grad “Madame de Stompadour.”

“Choosing the names is a big deal,” said Crop Dustin, the league photographer, at the bout on Nov. 2. “Everyone takes a long time to decide.”

That same night, a four-year-old girl walked by wearing a tutu and a T-shirt that said “Ruby Slip Her” on the back.

Speaking of which, the RollerGirls are surprisingly family-friendly. I say “surprisingly” because, on the surface, roller derby seems to celebrate violence with its “black eyes,” the players’ names, and the intense physical contact that occurs on the track. But in reality, roller derby is much more about expressing aggression in a positive and empowering way.

“I’m the kind of person who needs to be kept busy, or else I’ll just be a troublemaker,” said Scootaloo, RollerGirls PR liaison and member of the Garda Belts, one of the teams within the larger group of Minnesota RollerGirls.

She joined after stopping at the recruiting station on Grand Old Day, deciding it was what she was looking for in an outlet for her energy. Since then, she has dedicated herself to the team — all participation in which, by the way, is unpaid and volunteer-based.

Earnings from tickets go towards organizing the bouts, paying for equipment, and funding transportation for traveling teams, and any leftover money is donated to the “Let Me Play” grant at the Anne Bancroft Foundation, which funds female athletes in Minnesotan schools.

Knowing that the teams, announcers, refs, crew, DJs and anyone else who makes roller derby happen are volunteers demonstrates how strong the derby following is. All those volunteer efforts have carried the MNRG to its 10th year—they celebrated their anniversary in August.

Roller derby’s popularity, which declined after its initial heyday in the 1940s and 50s, has steadily increased since its revival 15 years ago, with the Minnesotan teams at the forefront. Umpire Strikes Back — one of the world’s leading derby refs, and a former Macalester student — has worked with the MNRG since 2008, and is now flying to international conferences on the derby circuit. Currently the MNRG are ranked 11th in the nation for Women’s Flat Track Derby, and average about 4,000 attendees per bout.

“I love walking around bouts and seeing so many different kinds of people here,” said Madame de Stompadour. “Old people, young people… all different kinds of people. And that’s what we aim for.”

The next MNRG bout is Dec. 14 at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in downtown St. Paul. Visit www.mnrollergirls.com for information, and show your student ID to get $2 off regular ticket prices.