I’ve always fancied myself a bit of a tough, a delusion supported by nothing in particular. As I lace up my skates for roller-derby practice with the Jerzey Derby Brigade, I’m aware that my tenacity will come in handy. Other essentials: a good sense of balance and an ability to laugh at yourself. I possess one of these traits (gravity is not my friend) so I proceed with cautious optimism.
The Jerzey Derby Brigade, a team of about 50 audacious women of various backgrounds, ages and body types, has invited me to check out their skating skills (and mine) at Inline Morristown, the team’s home arena.
First, I am briefed on roller-derby basics: A game consists of two teams of 14 players, with five skating at a time for a two-minute “jam.” Each team consists of a jammer (the player who attempts to score), blockers (who pursue the opposing jammer while assisting their own) and a pivot (a blocker who may be converted to a jammer). Points are scored when a jammer laps members of the opposing team on the flat, oval track. Players can be penalized for illegal hits and foul out for too many violations.
I strap on my loaner gear—helmet, kneepads, elbow pads—and scope out my fellow skaters, women with cheeky derby names like Michelle O’BamYa, Sandra Day O’Clobber and Freudian Slap. There’s a playfulness all around me. I’m thinking of calling myself the Little Mermaim.
The team members are quick with a smile and bubbling with enthusiasm for the sport and each other. “I love it because it’s introduced me to incredible women from all walks of life,” says Erin Hodgson, aka Madelene Alfight, a law student who lives in Morristown. “Plus, it tricks me into working out.”
Adds Cindy Blanco, aka Cinderblock, an interior decorator from West Caldwell: “I’m older, and I’ve never felt comrades in my life until now. These are very supportive and weird women.”
Indeed, as I join in the practice, my newfound teammates/friends compliment my skating, offer advice and grab my arm to steady me when I unintentionally roll away from the pack.
The practice is split into two groups, veterans and newbies—the latter known as fresh meat. Under Women’s Flat Track Derby Association rules, new players must pass several skill tests before they see any playing time. Additionally, each member must pass an annual 50-question exam about the rules.
On this night, Coach Maria, aka Bitchy Sambora, a six-year team veteran, is teaching three skills: the T stop, the crossover and the plow stop. I excel at the crossover, which requires the skater to swing one leg in front of the other to increase speed around curves. I’m a little shaky at the T stop—you create a T with your feet to put on the brakes—and I’m clueless when it comes to the plow stop, which requires all the weight on the inner edges of the skates. I fall down several times.
Across the rink, the veterans are practicing jumps. Skaters must be adept at jumping laterally and horizontally to avoid fallen bodies.
Observing the fresh meat, Bitchy Sambora has noted my ability to get up quickly after a fall, a talent I’ve honed since childhood. During games, players have only three seconds to get off the floor before being penalized. “Oh, we’re definitely recruiting you,” says Sambora.
By the end of the practice, my limbs and teeth are still in their rightful places, and though my muscles are a little shaky, I’m eager to hit the track again, and soon.
The derby season runs March through November, with a break in the summer. The Brigade’s remaining home bouts are September 17, October 15 and November 12 at Inline Morristown. Tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com.