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Still Rolling Strong: Entering 10th Year, State College Area Roller Derby a Source of Empowerment for Women of Varied Backgrounds

by on March 10, 2020 4:45 AM

They come together on roller skates; professors and students, bartenders and businesswomen, moms and daughters.

Some are taller, or faster, than others. Some have been doing this for years; others are just picking it up.

But one thing is for sure: They all are strong, and they are even stronger when they are together on the track.

That strength was on display during the State College Area Roller Derby’s annual season-opening event, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, in February at Penn Skates. The event pitted the club’s two home teams, the Mount Nittany Mayhem and the Pennsyltucky Punishers, against each other before a rowdy crowd of derby fans and friends.

The skaters were dressed to kill, with face paint and colorful accessories to match their helmets, knee and elbow pads, skates, and black and red uniforms. And they appeared out to kill with some intense hits that dropped some skaters to their knees as others tried to create a path to send a teammate around the track to score.

But whenever someone fell, there was an outstretched hand to pick her up, and it seems that is what the derby is all about. For 10 years, the SCAR has been helping women feel strong and build a sense of togetherness in Happy Valley, and it just keeps on rolling.

Alter-egos

For some skaters, stepping onto the derby track is like stepping into a new world. Some don a whole new persona. Skaters go by colorful, creative names like Blackout Betty, Flame Dame, Mad Splatter, and Zombabe. 

“It is an alter-ego, a different persona,” says Alycia DeMayo, who goes by Ginja Ninja (she has red hair) at the derby. “Some people change their names, some don’t. But it has to do with your personality.”

Four years ago, DeMayo was checking out the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre with her family when her son turned to her and said, “Mommy, I want to see you do that.” 

So she strapped on the skates and gave it a shot.

DeMayo says it has been good for both of her kids to see that women can be strong, athletic, and independent, “being that society puts a lot of focus on women being the nurturers and men being the strong ones, and that is not necessarily always the case.”

“I have two small kids, and before I did this they knew I was strong and they knew I was independent and I was the matriarch,” says DeMayo. “But now they say things like, ‘Oh, Daddy, give that jar to mommy, she can open it. She is strong, she plays roller derby.’ And that is pretty cool.”

Alycia DeMayo, aka Ginja Ninja. Photo by Darren Andrew Weimert | Town&Gown

Learning to roll

Rebecca Strzelec, known as Rebecca Phobia (“because everyone is supposed to be afraid of me”), who drives in from Hollidaysburg to be part of SCAR, says at first she had to learn to skate all over again. She hadn’t worn skates for 20 years.

“And that is not unusual; we have people skating today who never skated when they were kids,” says Strzelec.

Newcomers go through an introduction period called “Fresh Meat,” where they learn to feel comfortable on skates and learn the ins and outs of the game before they play with the team, she says.

“It is unlike a lot of adult sports where you have to have the skill built in as a child in order to compete,” says Strzelec. “That is not the case with roller derby.”

The fast-paced action on the track can be a little confusing when you don’t know the rules. Roller derby has some terms such as “jammer” and “blocker” that participants must learn. But the basics are pretty simple: Blockers help their team’s jammers score points by making it around the track as many times as possible, passing the opponent’s pack of blockers (who are trying to stop them while also blocking for their jammer). Jammers wear a star on their helmet to make them easy to identify.

For newcomers, the physicality might be the toughest thing to get used to, but it comes in time.

“The biggest difference is how people respond to hits. So when you are checked or hit by a player, the veterans will show little reaction to that happening, just like, ‘Oh, a gnat,’ and the debut skaters will fly,” says Strzelec. “And it is just because you haven’t quite learned where to put your weight over your wheels and how to counter-block. The roller skates are kind of like a democratic equilibrium; it doesn’t matter how big you are or how small you are or how fast you are, typically the roller skates put everyone on equal footing.”

Strzelec is a professor of visual arts at Penn State Altoona. With two young ones at home, she decided recently to retire from roller derby after playing for four years. But she still loves the sport, so she stays involved, colorfully serving as announcer for the team and explaining to the crowd what is happening on the track and what to look for as things progress.

This is part of the community at the derby, where skaters give back to the sport they love. They have some sponsors, but it is up to derby members to help set up and clean up after the match, sell memorabilia and 50/50 raffle tickets, and pay for their own uniforms. And they do it with smiles because this sport and this community means so much to them. Anyone can be involved.

“The thing I love about it is there are professors and scientists and bartenders and mothers and teachers and drivers and everyone, and none of it matters; you don’t have to have a pedigree to be in roller derby,” says Strzelec. “I love that, because you can practice and you can take out stress. It was the healthiest I had ever been. And you have instant friends. I had 40 instant friends; you don’t get that a lot as an adult, especially in a small town.”

And for the women out there participating, it can be empowering.

“Society teaches women that they are fragile and that we are supposed to look a certain way, that you are supposed to fit into certain kinds of clothing …. and there is no body type in roller derby,” says Strzelec.

“In fact, there are different types of athletic statures that work to advantages and disadvantages in this sport. You can have some very fast large girls and some very slow small girls; there is not a rule, and I love that. And more importantly, when your team is doing very well at roller derby, you are physically bracing each other, you are holding them up while you are blocking someone else, so it is kind of primal and communal. We are not going to let this team, this web, break down. I don’t think we see that very often in sport in total, and in female sports absolutely not.”

Susan Hawes, who goes by Black Eye Susan on the track, says it feels good to show her two daughters what she can do. Photo by Darren Andrew Weimert | Town&Gown

Derby family

“It is like my second family,” says Tina Letter, who is known on skates as Letter Havoc. She lives in State College, but is originally from outside of Philadelphia.

“This is my home away from home,” she says. “I am the only one from my family who lives out here in State College, so SCAR has been something that has helped me grow personally and professionally.”

Letter skates around the rink with power, grace, and confidence, and that has transferred to work. Letter is a health coach at Geisinger and says, “I see a lot of things I learned at derby and the confidence I learned on the track translate into my work life. I don’t have two separate personas. Derby is life and life can be derby sometimes.”

Letter plays for the club’s A-team, the Happy Valley Dolls, who host games at Penn Skates and travel up to four hours to compete in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, and the PA All-Stars. SCAR has a B-team, Plan B, that also travels.

“I have friends all over the world now because of roller derby,” Letter says. “It is an immediate connection; you go anywhere and there is roller derby. There is roller derby on all continents except Antarctica. I could go to Ireland and connect with someone I knew two years ago and come to a practice.”

Penn State student Sarah Hawks, aka Zombabe, played her last game with SCAR during the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre because she is graduating and moving to Maryland this spring. It was a bittersweet experience for the California native, who participated in junior roller derby in high school before heading east and finding a family at SCAR. She didn’t apply to any colleges without a league nearby.

“For the last five years, I have been playing my heart out. We have gone through so many wins and so many losses,” says Hawks. “It is very hard to find a full-contact sport for women. And it is even harder to find a sport that is so inclusive and so focused on feminism and really supports empowerment. … It is a really good way to let go of that aggression that builds up in life. There are so many people that come here that are mothers or they work at a desk all day, and they come here and let themselves get it out.”

For two years, Penn State student Allison Schwartz, aka GesundFight, has been training, getting ready to play in an actual roller derby game. She was excited when that day finally came.

“It is awesome. I have been looking forward to this for a very long time,” says Schwartz. “I made a goal a couple months ago that I was going to be in the massacre and here I am. So it is that feeling of finally reaching a goal.”

Black Eye Susan – Susan Hawes in real life – had her two daughters in the crowd cheering her on during the bout; she says it makes her feel good to show them what their mom can do.

“It is important that there are strong women who are athletic and are a force in society, who are not only strong on the track, but strong in who they are,” says Hawes. “I have two daughters, so it is really important to me to be an influence and be a strong, independent, athletic, confident woman, because that is what I want for them.”

For more information on playing or watching roller derby, visit scarderby.com.

 

Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.

 



Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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