Madison Roller Derby, founded in 2004, returned for several hours of cheers, beers, and multi-colored costumes on Saturday night. Around 500 people turned out to watch the skaters whip around the flat track at the Keva Sports Center in Middleton, many of them attending their first match. The Unholy Rollers faced off against the Vaudeville Vixens, with player names heavily relying upon puns.
Emily Mills, a ten-year member of the derby who goes by the team name Hammer Abby, gave a quick rundown of the sport. “It’s sort of like, we like to say it’s like NASCAR and hockey kind of rolled into one because we’re going in the one direction like NASCAR would, and there’s a lot of hitting. But essentially you’ve got ten people on the track at any given time, five people from each team.” As we spoke, competitors from each team rolled in counterclockwise loops around the converted basketball rink, while officials laid down blue and red tape to mark the track perimeters.
“And on each team you’ve got one person who’s called the jammer, they score points,” she continued. “The other four are called blockers and they go head to head with the other four blockers and jammer. You score points by lapping members of the opposing team. The one jammer can do that, none of the blockers can. We go for two minutes or until one of the jammers calls off the jam…like a down in football. It goes for two halves—two thirty-minute halves—and so at the end whoever has the most points wins.”
History-wise, Madison Roller Derby boasts an impressive legacy. Whistles blew and fans clambered into the bleachers as Mills elaborated on how this scene came to be. “We started in 2004, and we were the fifth league in the world to form when modern roller derby came to be. It started in Austin, Texas around 2000-2001. And it just so happened that one of the founding members with the Austin league was sisters with a woman who lived in Madison who went by the name Crackerjack, who was like ‘You don’t get to have all the fun, we’re gonna start a league in Madison too.’ So Madison got in like on the ground floor.”
Then March 2020 rolled around, and Madison Roller Derby came to a screeching halt. Pausing practice and competitions for three years did a number on the league, and even led to closures of other, smaller teams.
“There’s shoestring budgets everywhere, and a lot of places lost their practice spaces just as venues became more expensive, gentrification, and everything else happened,” Mills said. “In Madison we’re really, really fortunate to have had a really big league. We had, I think, the second largest number of volunteers of any league in the world going into the pandemic. So just crazy fortunate to have a lot of people who support the league.” The night exemplified it: kids and older folks spilled out onto the floor as the bleachers became stuffed with people. Meanwhile, team cheerleaders ran around with funky capes, lightsabers, and hats to whip the crowd into a frenzy.
“Lots of people have had to move on or had their life change during the pandemic, so we have fewer people now,” Mills added. We have brought in new skaters in the meantime, and that’s definitely helped to sort of rebuild,” she said. A few minutes later, the announcers asked the new players to raise their hands. Around five did so.
“But there’s been a struggle because we couldn’t skate for a long time, and then we had to be really careful about skating and we had some pretty strict rules around not catching Covid,” Mills said. “So we’ve been piecing it back together and a lot of our skaters and non-skating volunteers have been working really, really hard to create a safe return to derby, sort of a practice plan that allows people to kind of ease back in and get back into shape and remember what this is all about.”
Not only that, but a long-boiling trend finally caught Dane County: the closure of roller skating rinks. Allie Gator, the executive director of Madison Roller Derby, spoke to me about this growing problem. “If you look at the trajectory of roller rinks in the United States over the last 50+ years, they have been systematically closed. And that is something that has definitely affected communities of culture more than us, really, as a roller derby league that is primarily very privileged and white.”
Fast Forward Skate Center—the current practice venue for the team—is set for demolition in March. Not only will the team lose their home turf, but Dane County will lose its last roller rink as well.
“Unfortunately, Fast Forward Skate Center is in an area that has been planned for redevelopment for a while. So, we’ve had it on our radar that this was a possibility, and unfortunately, it’s come. So the location has been sold to a developer,” Allie Gator explained. “So we are planning to practice there through February, but pretty much after March we are gonna be homeless for our practices. We are looking for a space to be able to practice, we are looking for other options for practice and bouting. Ideally we would love to have a space of our own that we could use for all of that instead of having to share it with other sports and having other space constraints.” She gestured to the indoor soccer field and other basketball courts scattered around the sports center. “So we’re open to working with other nonprofits and other community organizations to try to make that happen.”
As the crowd spilled across the bleachers and floor, clutching pretzels and pizza, cheese curds and beer, a renewed hope emerged. Old fans and new ran around the arena as Allie Gator called plays from the announcers corner, with the Unholy Rollers emerging victorious with 206 points to 163. And despite the trips and penalties and brutal falls against the hardwood floor caused by players like One Hit Wanda and Smack and Cheese, competitors climbed back up, brushed themselves off, and continued their fight long into the night.