Roller Derby is a rough-and-tumble sport played mostly by women, and it’s sweeping through Vermont. Skaters try to lap each other as they wheel around a flat rink. They wear funky costumes, adopt loopy names, and enjoy knocking each other down.
On a drizzly weekday evening, players for the Upper Valley Vixens, the state’s newest team, straggled into the Union Arena in Woodstock. They’re based in Enfield, N.H., but wanted to practice in Woodstock before their next bout in that arena. The first to arrive was Marnie Williamson, a slender, blonde 26-year-old maintenance worker and birdwatcher.
In the rink, she goes by "Chickadee Wallop."
Williamson took up this sport just as she was learning to roller skate. She likes taking out aggressions after work, even though she knows she might get hurt hitting and dodging combative skaters.
"Ah yes, it can be quite dangerous" she said before taking her practice laps. "Especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s why we always have to pass assessments before we go to the next level, before you’re even allowed to play in a bout, so yeah, it’s pretty smart, you have to know what you’re doing first."
To become certified by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, or WFTDA, the Vixens will have to work their way up a skill ladder. By next season they hope to be an apprentice league, then a fully sanctioned WFTDA member.
The only Vermont team that can claim that international status is The Green Mountain Derby Dames, based in Essex Junction. With the Montreal Roller Derby, the dames host the eastern playoffs September 28-30. Other derby leagues look up to the Dames, with their superior skills, rink savvy, and all around toughness. They set a high standard for the new teams to follow.
So how come one of the Dames-aka Felon of Troy-is lacing up in the Vixen locker room. What gives? Turncoat? Spy? Or mentor?
"I started out with the Vixens and I still come down here a lot to see him," she explained.
By "him" she meant Steve Henck, aka My Baby Daddy. He’s a referee and -apparently no conflict of interest here–Felon of Troy’s boyfriend. Her real name is Ellen Reader. She thinks Roller Derby is the perfect choice for rugged Vermont women from all social backgrounds and age groups.
"So strong women who want to do something physical and be able to kick some butt and get out on a track after a long day of work, and I think that’s a big draw for it," she said.
A college dean, a pre-school music teacher, and a micro-biologist changed into outfits unsuitable for their day jobs-fish net stockings, tight hot pants, helmets, and protective pads on their elbows and knees. The micro-biologist, Emily Stonehouse, is one of three team captains. She likes the mental as well as the physical challenge of the sport.
"The strategy and the way you think about where you position yourself on the track is something I’m only starting to touch the edge of," Stonehouse said.
As practice began, there was a lot of touching, and not just around the edges. First the players blurted out their aliases.
Then they circled madly, jostling for position as coach Kristi Clemens yelled out drills.
This is a team with hustle, but they have a lot of competition. Roller derby teams in central Vermont, the Champlain Valley, and the Northeast Kingdom are all trying to make their mark in a tough sport. Many are also all recruiting new members.
And you don’t even have to know how to skate. You just have to show up and look tough – at least, after you get in costume and change your name.