I have to be honest—before going to the bout, my only knowledge of roller derby came from the 2009 film “Whip It.”
I remember watching the film and seeing elbow punches to the face and nose bleeds. So, when I walked into the Olympic Skating Center in Enola in July, part of me expected to see some bloodshed.
Well, that’s not roller derby at all. At least, not anymore.
Yes, of course, there was some shoving, but each move is practiced, like tackling in football. There are strict rules in roller derby, from what parts of the body are able to be hit or “checked,” down to how to fall properly.
I went into the bout knowing almost nothing about the sport, but by intermission, thanks to Danielle “De’Molish’Her” Moore, vice president of the Harrisburg Area Roller Derby or HARD team, I was less of a novice.
The game, or the “bout,” is broken down into two 30-minute periods. During each of these periods, there are smaller episodes called “jams.” During the jams, there is an average of five players from each team on the oval track. Only one person from each team has the ability to score—the “jammer,” who wears a big star on her helmet.
The other four players on the team are the blockers. The objective of the blockers is to make sure the other team’s jammer doesn’t pass them. If the jammer does pass the blockers, they score one point for each opposing player they pass.
On the rink, it was all focus and grave faces. But, during a time-out or intermission, you’d see players dancing or laughing with one another. There was even one player, “Razor De Rockefeller,” who pulled out her guitar and started playing a Misfits song.
“I don’t think it’s an angry sport at all,” said Khara Williams or “Rocky Galboa,” president of HARD. “I think that that’s a pretty common misconception about it. You see women playing a full-contact sport against one another and you assume that they’re trying to hurt one another, but it’s not like that at all.”
Williams first heard about roller derby back in the 1980s. She had no clue the sport was still around until she found out her friend was part of a team in Japan. Before, she thought roller derby was just “wrestling on skates,” so when a Facebook ad for HARD popped up on her feed, she was hesitant.
“It took me three months to finally sign up,” she said. “I thought I was signing up for wrestling on skates. It’s very different now.”
Even though this modern version of roller derby has been around since the early 2000s, the women of HARD and other derby players still face stereotypes about who does and doesn’t play derby.
“A lot of people assume it’s a lot of angry lesbians,” Moore said with a laugh. “And I fit into that stereotype kind of. I mean, I’m not angry, but you know what I mean. We really do support the LGBTQ community, but I don’t want people to not come because they think we’re all a bunch of angry lesbians.”
People often questioned Williams’ decision to start playing derby. She is known as being a “gentle soul,” and playing derby to them seemed like the opposite of what a gentle soul should be doing.
“I don’t wanna hurt anybody, but I do enjoy the sport,” she said. “I enjoy the athleticism, I enjoy the challenge because it is a challenge. I also enjoy the sisterhood that goes along with it.”
In a little over a year, “fresh meat” Sorina Ly said HARD has become her family. Before going to her first recruitment night in August 2018, Ly hadn’t been on skates since she was 7 years old. It was the encouragement of her teammates that kept her getting back up every time she fell.
“It was so obvious that I was a disaster, but they were so kind and nice,” she said. “I think that it’s such a small community, and we’re all in it for each other. It’s so wonderful to see everyone empowering each other and looking out for one another.”
It’s undeniable how close this team is. Aside from spending two to three nights a week together practicing, they often go out for drinks as a team, volunteer or go to the gym together. They have become so close that, in the rink, some players can identify their teammates by the height of their shoulders, the way they move around the track, or by their skates.
Everyone I talked to said HARD has become a part of their family. Many players have developed new friendships, but two players have improved a relationship that was already in place.
Since joining HARD, spouses Arissa “Mad Thigh Moody” Brown and Stephanie “Grace HopHer” Leitch said that roller derby has brought some friendly and healthy competition to their marriage.
“We push each other in ways that we hadn’t necessarily pushed each other before,” Brown said.
Even though they challenge and push each other on the track, according to Leitch, the game has also brought them closer.
“I think having my spouse out on the track has been a really close bonding activity,” she said. “I mean, you’re literally out there fighting for each other.”
For HARD, being on the team is about more than just winning. A percentage of the proceeds from each bout goes to a local charity of their choosing. Some of the previous charities include Hounds of Prison Education, animal shelters and more. The team also volunteers at local food banks and animals rescues and participates in a quarterly clean up.
“You want to empower your community, you want to make your community better,” Williams said.“It is about awareness, but I think most of us just enjoy working in the places that we live and making it better.”
Along with empowering their community, HARD works to empower women.
“When most people think of women they think of us as the weaker sex,” Williams said. “I think that if these people jumped on the track with some roller derby players they’d… reassess.”
For more information on the Harrisburg Area Roller Derby and their upcoming bouts visit www.harrisburgarearollerderby.com.