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Iowa City roller derby athletes show new batch of beginners how to roll (and fall)




The Old Captiol City Roller Derby team scrimmages on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022. The scrimmages, called “jams,” last two minutes each. The blockers form a pack to prevent the jammer from getting through. Jammers score points by lapping opposing blockers. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

It’s the second day of 101 Bootcamp. There are seven new recruits for the Old Capitol City Roller Derby (OCCRD) team. Tart of Darkness #323, Cara Delaney, straps on her knee pads and elbow pads, her wrist guards and mouth guards, followed by her skates and helmet.

She glides around Scanlon Gymnasium comfortably, easy as breathing. She’s been skating since elementary school but became interested in roller derby after watching the 2009 film Whip It, starring Elliot Page. Tart started derby almost seven years, and now serves as the OCCRD head of public relations and interim head of training and coaching.

Cara Delaney, or Tart of Darkness #323, straps on her kneepads and laces up her skates for on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022. Tart has been skating since she was young but considers herself mediocre. – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

“I grew up skating with friends at the roller rink. That was a regular thing all through high school for me. Never learned how to stop during any of those years. That’s why they have the carpeted walls at roller rinks. So, you can just, like, run into them,” she said. “I was not very good at roller skating for a very long time, and only within the last couple of years, I’ve moved from like ‘hmmm’ to mediocre.”

After two years off the flat track because of the pandemic, OCCRD is in a “rebuilding phase.” They have around 20 skaters on the team, excluding the 101 skaters. Bootcamp lasts through November, but it can take up to six months before new skaters are ready to compete.

“I’m excited to see how our skaters continue to develop,” she said. “We haven’t skated with a full team because we just don’t have the numbers of bout-ready skaters.”

The mechanics of roller derby

Roller derby has an almost century-long history. In 1935, the first Transcontinental Roller Derby attracted 20,000 spectators to the Chicago Coliseum. Leo Seltzer, the founder and head of the original Roller Derby league, hosted the event as a cross-country marathon race, where both male and female athletes skated on a banked track. After a few years, roller derby evolved into a contact sport with two five-player teams scoring points by lapping opponents.

Today, roller derby follows a similar ruleset. Each game, called a “bout,” consists of two 30-minute halves on an elliptical flat track. Teams have up to 15 players, but only five players are on the track for each round, called a “jam,” which last up to two minutes.

Both teams play offensive and defensive during jams. The offensive player is called the jammer, designated by a star helmet cover. The defense has three blockers and the pivot, who can become a jammer during play. The blockers try to restrict the opposing jammer’s movement while clearing a path for their jammer.

Dana Foster, Hot Flash #52, tries to break through the blockade during the jam, on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022. The jammers wear a star on their helmet. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

“Jamming is really intimidating because you’re the one that everybody’s watching. You’re the point scorer. And I don’t love that pressure,” Tart said. “As a blocker, I get to like be in a support role … But sometimes it’s fun. When you’re doing good, and you’re on a high, being the jammer feels great.”

Jammers compete to break through the pack of defenders. The first jammer through becomes the lead jammer, who can end the jam early by tapping their hips repeatedly. Jammers score one point for every opposing blocker they pass.

“Better skaters have their brains working all the time on a track. I think mine goes black, and I curl my body forward and hope that I make it through,” she said. “I have to be better and quicker on my feet in order to get through a wall with blockers because I’m not able to drive forward pushing.”

Madison Chicoine, or Artemis Foul #32, tries to break through the blockers, on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

The blockers form a tripod with two blockers facing backwards, and the point blocker, called the brace, facing the action. Tart demonstrated the technique in a cozy corner of Press Coffee (the current owners, Lisa Edwards and Katie Ford, are former OCCRD members).

“What’s really difficult is when a jammer comes in hot and flies around the track, and the tripod hasn’t formed. And if the tripod’s not together, that’s when a jammer can just skate on through,” she explained. “I’ve had my fair share of just colliding and falling down. But then you get up and you try it again.”

While roller derby has a violent reputation, skater safety is top priority, she said. Skaters can’t hit with their hands or elbows and can’t hit the backs of their opponents. The players shoulder other skaters’ sides and fronts. Aside from bruises, Tart has only been injured once when a former 101 skater fell backwards and kicked their skate across her face.

“My jaw was misaligned for a good week,” she said. “I’ve never broken anything, so, like, knock on wood. But yeah, that was not very fun to take a skate to the face.”

Tart of Darkness falls out of bounds during a jam, on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022. If a jammer goes out of bounds, they have to back up behind the defensive line. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

The flat-track revival

Roller derby’s popularity has waxed and waned throughout the decades. When Seltzer’s son Jerry became head of the International Roller Derby League in 1959, he began broadcasting bouts on television. By the ’70s, derby skated the line of sports entertainment, with regular fist fights and brawls, heroes and villains. And since women were included at the sport’s inception, roller derby struggled for mainstream respect.

Despite a few revival attempts in the ’80s and ’90s, derby wouldn’t resurge until 2001, now with a third-wave feminist rebranding. Bad Girl Good Woman Productions (BGGW) formed a league in Austin, Texas, and unlike the co-ed teams from the Seltzer years, it was woman-only. The Texas teams pulled elements from local drag, punk rock and skater pin-up cultures, gliding around the track with dramatic makeup, fishnets, tutus, skater pseudonyms and so on.

“Derby has been changing over the last 20 years,” Tart said. “It’s much different than what it looked like in the ’70s.”

The track also changed. Instead of a banked track, which few teams could afford to build and maintain, teams opted for versatile and accessible flat tracks, which can be set up almost anywhere.

Quinn Dreasler, or Animal #501, practices falling on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022. Falling is the first skill newcomers learn. To fall properly, skaters fall forward on their knees, and try to avoid landing with their wrists. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Roller derby’s prevailing governing body is the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), which was founded in 2004. There are currently 444 WFTDA leagues across six continents, including Iowa City’s Old Capitol City Rollers, the Cedar Rapids Rollergirls, the Quad City Rollers, the Dubuque Bomb Squad, the Des Moines Roller Derby (formerly Team United Roller Derby, or TURD) and Ames’ Sunk River Riot.

In the past two decades, the theatrical elements have faded. Some derby skaters chose to skate under their real names, instead of pseudonyms, and the bold costumes have been replaced by traditional uniforms.

“That’s not to say that we don’t love some of our theatrics. We do, I love it. But it’s a shift into, like, we want to be recognized as a real sport,” Tart said. “But some of that culture still carries through. We all wear denim vests. That’s kind of our signature for our team.”

Artemis Foul decorates her helmet with stickers, on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

At their first game in two and half years, the team dressed up for the Halloween Monster’s Brawl against the Quad City Rollers. The theme was punks versus preps, and OCCRD skaters donned temporary tattoo sleeves and ripped-up tights. The bout was even for the first half, but OCCRD won in the second half with a 50-point spread.

“It was phenomenal,” she said. “It was packed. So many people attended.”

Currently, many leagues are revisiting gender divisions. Should roller derby teams accept male skaters and become co-ed once again? In 2015 Iowa City’s team changed its name from Old Capitol City Roller Girls to Old Capitol City Roller Derby, an effort in inclusivity. The team has an open-gender policy and encourages anyone to join. The only real prerequisites are being at least 18 years old and have a willingness to skate.

While states across the country, including Iowa, have banned transgender athletes from competing in women’s sports, WFTDA hasn’t. The association allows trans women, intersex women and gender expansive folks to skate with a WFTDA charter team “if women’s flat track roller derby is the version and composition of roller derby with which they most closely identify,” though previously it had hormone and surgery requirements.

“It’s really been awesome to see pushes for trans inclusivity, and especially at the beginning of 2010 when there’s this big push of the Black Lives Matter movement and figuring out like, what are the stances on that? How can we be more vocal about what we believe in and have our teams reflect those ideals?” Tart said. “Our team is a progressive space.”

Flash watches the team run drills on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Derby bootcamp

At Scanlon Gym, the 101 skaters practice falling forward onto their kneepads, trying to avoid using their arms and wrists. Most of the roller recruits already knew how to skate in a circle, so teams ran through other drills, including derby stance (skating with bent knees and chest upwards); plow stops (bringing your feet outwards then sharply inwards); T-stops (dragging one foot behind the other perpendicularly); one-foot balance and crossovers.

The group practices knee taps, which help skaters get comfortable with falling forward, on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

This is my first time on roller skates. While I’ve ice skated a few times before — and not particularly well then — roller skating feels different. I’m still in the wibbly-wobbly, baby giraffe phase. Even standing still is a chore. I stopped counting how many times I’ve fallen, and Tart assures me that they never cut anyone from the team. They’ll take anyone at any skill level.

At day three of bootcamp in the Iowa National Guard Recruiting building, I’m still sore from Sunday’s practice and tired from Election Night. I attempt transferring my weight side-to-side to move forward. I can’t stop though, so falling is my default option. I’m frustrated at myself for not immediately mastering a new skill, but the veterans and other 101 skaters are helpful and non-judgmental.

The roller derby team warms up for the third bootcamp session on on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022. – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Colleen Schmitt, an ELA (English Language Acquisition) teacher at Kirkwood Community College, fell a few times during Sunday’s practice, but now, she could transition from forwards to backwards skating mostly upright.

“They did such a great job teaching us new skills, and welcoming, and letting you take things at your own pace,” she said. “And I enjoy learning. It’s hard to be new at somethings, but in this environment, it’s also fun to be new at something.”

Dana Foster, Hot Flash #52 (left), and Colleen Schmitt (right) practice T-stops, on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Schmitt was recruited by her friend, Hot Flash #52, or Dana Foster, a science and health teacher at Scattergood Friends School. In the summer, she played ultimate frisbee with a group of guys, but she wanted a team sport for the wintertime. Practice ends with the 101 skaters watching the veterans prepare for their upcoming bouts.

“That was fascinating. It was fun. It was inspiring to watch — people just working really hard and giving it their all,” Schmitt said. “I’m not sure I’m in this for brawling, but that seemed strategic and fun, and like something I might want to try, at some point.”

After practice, the skaters bring their gear outside and play a closing game, Chicken in a Hen House, on the grass, on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Tart is also a teacher: formerly a high school math teacher and now an elementary school substitute teacher. As with teaching and derby, she prefers being the support role, helping classroom teachers or jammers without being the point person.

She’s originally from Michigan, but moved out to Oregon for a few years, living on the Columbia River with snow-capped mountains in her backyard. She skated with a team there but decided to move to Iowa.

“When I moved out of Oregon, all my friends were making fun of me,” she said. “They were like, ‘Why are you moving to Iowa?’ I threw a corn-themed going-away party. ‘Cause like, why not?”

Her only requirement was moving to a city with a roller derby team.

“Derby, it’s my life. They’re my teammates, but they’re my best friends,” Tart said. “I’m excited ’cause I just got seven new best friends on Wednesday. They might not know it yet, but there’s gonna be my new friends.”


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