The first time I went to a field hockey game I was in high school. My best friend at the time was playing her first game and I wanted to be supportive. I understood field hockey to be like regular hockey, just on land and not on ice so I’m not sure why I was so shocked when I saw the girls competing getting aggressive with each other. I remember seeing my friend get body checked to the ground and I leaned over to the woman next to me and asked in disbelief, “are they allowed to do that?” They certainly are. Field hockey has been my only experience with watching women get physically aggressive with one another in sports until I watched the Traverse City Roller Derby Girls in action.
What the hell is roller derby? Not your typical sport, that’s for sure. I talked to Nicole Farkas, aka Ninja Nurse about the local roller derby team and she filled me in on the game and the community that the women have built with each other through the sport.
Traverse City Roller Derby formed in January 2010 by a small group. One of the founding members still skates with TCRD today. Although Nicole wasn’t one of the founding members, she joined in October of that year. She was drawn to roller derby because she played sports in high school and has always enjoyed competitive sports, although this isn’t the case for most of the derby girls on the team
“Many of the people who play derby have never played sports.”
That was the case for Angela Stricker, aka Bellatrix Lestrangle. Angela is a Montessori lower elementary teacher and got started with TCRD through a few of her students’ parents.
“I never really played sports as a kid. I was always the bookworm. I never did physical or aggressive things, so at first it was a way for me to be physical and dues are less expensive than a gym membership and when you don’t show up to the gym no one notices. When you don’t show up at practice people ask, ‘hey where are you?’ It was kind of an accountability thing. It was cutting edge.”
Roller derby is an accessible and inclusive way for women to get involved in a sport that is unique and stress relieving. A match between two teams is called a bout, not a game. Bouts are played on a flat, oval track with five girls from each team playing at a time. Four girls from a team will be blockers, and one will be a jammer. The two jammers start behind the two packs of blockers. A bout is won when a team’s jammer passes through opposing team blockers and makes a lap around the trach successfully the most times. The physical aggression that roller derby is renowned for comes from jammers trying to shove and shoulder their way past blockers, and blockers using their physical strength to, well, block.
The TCRD girls are an inclusive group, and there is no right age or physical characteristic that makes one woman more qualified to play than another.
“Right now our (team’s) age ranges from about 20 to 45. We’ve had women that are in their 50’s play. It’s every body type, whether you’re short or tall or thick or thin. There’s a place and a position for everybody.”
Competing is a big part of the TCRD team, but the girls have also built a community out of the friendships they have made through being teammates. Many of the girls will get together outside of roller derby to exercise together, whether it’s yoga or a boot camp. There are also designated training days where the team will get together and practice a couple times a week. There is also a palpable camaraderie that can be felt as I watched the girls prepare for a bout against the Ann Arbor Roller Derby. TCRD girls helped each other stretch and playfully joked around with each other while waiting for their bout to start.
The bout is exciting in itself. Home bouts are held at the Grand Traverse County Civic Center and as the bout time came closer and closer, the audience started to grow and the smell of concession stand food started to surround my senses (I’m a sucker for coke slushies and nachos). A live band also played during the bout and it’s truly a high energy event to witness. This isn’t a bad way to spend a Saturday evening.
The bout was easy to get drawn into because the rules are so simple and because it’s novel to see women getting hands on aggressive with each other. So many times we see men in hockey throw each other around and think nothing of it, so why is it so strange to see women do it? I don’t know, but I was into it and thoroughly entertained.
“I feel aggressive playing,” Nicole said. “Some ladies are naturally more aggressive than others but that’s kind of what I like about it. There’s not a lot of places where you can really just be aggressive as a woman and have it be socially acceptable.”
Despite some aggression being allowed and expected, there are boundaries.
“No elbows. No forearms. No illegal blocks. You can lay a really good hit on somebody, but it’s gotta be your hip, your shoulder, your body. Within those bounds you can be as aggressive as you want.”
TCRD is always open to having new members join and you don’t even have to know how to skate, they’ll teach you. The best way to join is to contact the HR director through the TCRD website or Facebook page, or through a new skater orientation which is coming up.
“A few times a year we’ll do a new skater orientation. We’re looking at doing one in the fall, so now would be a great time for people who are interested to come. I’m serious when I started I could not skate.”
Whether you’re looking to join, or interested in watching a bout, check out the TCRD girls. They put on a great show and it’s a fun way to get out and support yet another cool event happening in our community.