I had the opportunity a few days ago to chat with Jenny Hansen, the public relations chair for the Ann Arbor Derby Dimes, our hometown roller derby league. She contacted me to let me know that their last bout of the season would be coming up on October 18, at Buhr Park, when the Border City Brawlers and the Windsor A-Salt would be coming over from Canada to take on our Brawlstars and Vigilantes. Well, once we got to talking, and I learned that Hansen skated for the Ypsilanti Vigilantes (under the name Susan B Slamthony), it occurred to me that we should probably just do a formal interview… So, without further ado, here’s our discussion on everything from the Depression era origins of full-contact roller skating to the feminist underpinnings of the modern derby movement.
MARK: Before we get into stuff, I was hoping that you might be able to give me a little background on roller derby. Do you know much about its origins as a sport? Would I be right to assume that it first started becoming popular sometime around World War II?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: You’re correct. A few years before WWII, roller skating races, which had been going on for a while, became full-contact. And that was essentially the beginning of roller derby. Then, after WWII, they started televising the matches. That’s what a lot of people remember – watching co-ed teams flying around banked tracks on black and white TVs. It was one part sport, one part show – much like professional wrestling is now. In the early 2000s, the game evolved to about what we consider “modern” roller derby to be today, which is a women’s only sport that primarily takes place on a flat track. (A few derby leagues still skate on banked tracks, but they’re rare.) In the last few years, men’s derby leagues have begun to spring up as well.
MARK: I wasn’t aware that early roller derby was co-ed. Did men and women play different roles on their teams? And at what point did men exit the sport?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: My understanding is that, when it was co-ed, men and women played on the same teams, and there weren’t different roles assigned by sex. Somewhere in the evolution, though, I believe they’d have a jam of all men, followed by a jam of all women. But I’ve also seen versions where men and women shared the track. I’m not sure when the men exited, but, when the 2000s revival happened, it was explicitly a women’s sport. Even now, we refer to ourselves as “roller derby,” and men’s roller derby as ”men’s roller derby.” So it’s become female by default. Men are definitely getting back in the game now, though, especially in the last two years. There are a couple of men’s leagues in Michigan, and you can find several co-ed scrimmages every year in the area.
MARK: You mention men’s jams, and women’s jams. What, for the uninitiated, is a jam?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: Each derby game (also known as a “bout”) is broken into two 30-minute halves. But we don’t skate constantly for 30 minutes at a time. Each period is broken up into multiple jams. Jams can last up to two minutes long, but they can be called off earlier as a strategic move by the jammers (the skaters who score the points for their team). Once a jam starts, additional players can’t enter the track. So basically, before a jam starts, each team fields 4 blockers and 1 jammer on the track. The Jammers can score points for their team by passing the hips of the opposing skaters. Blockers have two goals- prevent the other team’s jammer from getting past them, and help their jammer pass the skaters from the other team.
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: Next season, we’ll be celebrating our fifth year. The Dimes will hit a Nickel! Before the Dimes started skating here, though, the nearest leagues would have been in the Detroit area. The Detroit Derby Girls have been around since 2005. Before that, as far as I know, there wasn’t a league in Michigan. There was a derby league in the 1970s in Chicago, but nothing up here, at least that I know of.
[photo right: Brawlstars vs. Lansing Derby Vixens (photo credit Mega Hurts): Fracture Mechanic engages with Lansing blockers. They try to make her fall down, but that's just not something she does.]
MARK: OK, I’ve been trying to do a bit of research, and it looks as though, by early 1936, Leo Seltzer, the man credited with inventing the sport, had “Transcontinental Roller Derby” teams competing in Chicago, Miami, Louisville, and Detroit. From the sounds of it, they were essentially endurance races, in which two-person, co-ed teams would go head-to-head against each other over the course of days, logging up to 3,000 miles a team, or the number of miles you’d need to travel across the continent, from New York to Los Angeles… hence the “Transcontinental.”
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: Wow, you’re beating me with your derby history! I knew that, in the early years, they were doing that in big markets, but I was unaware that Detroit had a team.
MARK: And, later, there was apparently a team called the Detroit Devils. This would have been after the sport kind of morphed into something akin to professional wrestling, though. If you have a moment, I’d appreciate it if you’d watch this video of the Detroit Devils taking on the Los Angeles Thunderbirds and tell me what you make of it. According to the YouTube comments, it’s from 1964.
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: First off – man that announcer! He sounds like an old-timey baseball announcer. “HOLY NONCHALANT ELBOW!” And clotheslining! And punching! I used to ref for derby and all I can do is mentally call penalties to myself as I watch this. Yikes. Play like this in modern derby would have you expelled from the bout and potentially from future bouts as well.
This is the image that I know a lot of people have in their minds about modern derby, and that kind of makes me sad. We’re rough and tumble. We knock each other down and fight as hard as we can, but we aren’t a blood sport. We’re athletes who want to outplay each other, not just be better at surviving, beating or cheating. Our sport takes strength, agility, and the ability to recover, not just the ability to skate through a concussion.
I also have no idea how this score is working. It seems like they’re getting points when the jammers are on the track alone, or when the jammers are skating through the middle of the pack. And, while I see lots of moves against the jammers, I’m not seeing the blockers engaging each other, which is very strange for modern derby.
MARK: You talk about their moves like you don’t think that this was all scripted. Is your sense that this may have been somewhat real, and that the truly scripted stuff came later?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: Ugh, I hope this was scripted, or you’d have had a lot of broken cheek bones. My teammates have broken legs, noses, wrists and ribs playing modern derby… I can’t imagine how many injuries these shenanigans would have caused if they weren’t scripted.
MARK: What do you think accounts for these shifts in how we’ve seen the sport played over the past several decades?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: I think there are both social and economic reasons. First off, derby before 2000 was something that promoters developed – it was a sport run by people looking to sell tickets, not by athletes who were just looking to compete. Having women on the teams was cool, and it was a real crowd-pleaser to see pretty ladies in little outfits. Modern derby, in contrast, is usually skater-owned and operated. Since it’s the athletes pushing it, we aren’t having the silly “villains.” We aren’t engineering spectacles in order to fill seats. And I think some of it is because we want to be taken more seriously. We’re all volunteers. We all have jobs and lives outside of roller derby. But we are devoting 4 to 10 hours a week to practice on our skates, plus the time it takes to keep in physical shape off skates (cross training), and the time and effort it takes to make the league work. With that much dedication, you want to be taken seriously. As a sport, we’re becoming more organized as well. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), of which we are a member, is a sort of an organizing body and resource house for derby. And it wasn’t created until 2004. So, while we had lots of people interested in derby before that, we were still getting our feet wet up until about 2009.
MARK: Before we leave this earlier period altogether, I’ve got another video of the Detroit Devils. This one, I’m guessing, is from the mid 70s.
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: Welp. That definitely reminded me of watching WWE. There were some moments on skates when I saw glimmers of derby, but it seemed to be mostly about grandstanding and hitting people’s faces. There wasn’t that much skating! Heck, the last half was just about the manager hitting faces, not the derby players.
Ever heard of the movie Kansas City Bomber? My dad bought it for me after I started playing derby. I tried to tell him that it’s nothing like what we do, but I think he’ll need to see us play in person before he believes me.
MARK: I know that you’re probably always battling this stereotype, so I don’t want to keep talking about the past era, but I do find it fascinating that there’s kind of a thread connecting you to these women who skated before, albeit it for much different reasons, in much different times.
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: I read an interview with one of the “oldtimers”, and she spoke about feeling like modern derby wasn’t much of a sport compared to her old way of playing derby, and that she didn’t respect modern derby players much. I definitely give them credit – if they hadn’t played derby and made it popular, no one would have remembered it, and we wouldn’t have derby now. And, back then, it was a different story when it came to women and athletics. There was no Title 9 – women hadn’t been encouraged into sports the way women my age have been. So, while our sports look really different (at least to an insider like me), I give them so much credit for paving the way for us, and showing people that women could compete against each other, and men, and be just as tough as anyone else.
MARK: Have you ever spoken with any oldtimers personally… women who used to skate back in the early days of the sport?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: One of our trainers, back when I first started with the Dimes, had been a derby girl for years, going way back. Man, could she skate! I also once shared a cab with a guy whose mom had been a derby skater in the 70s.
MARK: Any interesting stories?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: Just a lot of advice and warnings – never get up from a fall without making sure that no one is behind you, or you’ll end up with a roller skate in an uncomfortable location.
MARK: So, how many local teams do we have now in southeast Michigan?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: Tons! Like I said, we’re members of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. Those are the leagues with alot of organization and focus on the sport. There are five full WFTDA leagues in Michigan; the Dimes, Detroit Derby Girls, Lansing Derby Vixens, Grand Raggidy Roller Girls and Killamazoo Derby Darlins. In addition to that, there are about 25 other teams in Michigan. There’s also a handful of Junior Derby leagues, and one or two men’s leagues.
MARK: I’ve seen a few Derby Dimes bouts, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Ypsilanti Vigilantes. When did you launch? And what was the impetus behind it? Was there just so much interest from skaters that another local team needed to be added under the Derby Dimes umbrella?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: The Vigis are a newer team – but not really. When we first started our league in 2010, we had just enough people for a travel team, the Brawlstars. In 2011, we had more skaters in our league, and were able to create two teams – the Huron River Rollers and the Tree Town Thrashers. We continued that way for a while. When we had our home games, the Rollers would play the Thrashers, and the Brawlsters would play a visiting league. We decided in 2013 to recreate the model, which is what many derby leagues were doing. We maintained our Brawlstars as our A level travel team, created a B level travel team (the Arbor Bruising Company) and created the Vigis as our home team. Since the requirements for the home team are lower (less practice time required before they’re able to bout), the Vigilantes have the largest membership of the three teams, with about double the number of skaters as the other two teams.
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: Good question. There’s a joke in the derby community that roller derby is nothing like Whip It… and that derby is exactly like Whip It. If you’ve never heard of derby before, Whip It can at least open that door for you. In that regard, I think the movie did a good job of publicizing the sport, which is still young, and often in a niche market. But, Whip It showed a very stylized picture of derby – a bank track, skating while blood drips down your face (ewww, can we say biohazard), shoving with the hands, punching, etc. That doesn’t happen in modern derby. Like I said, we skate on a flat track, we have a thick set of rules (74 pages!), and, while we might compete heartily, we are all supportive of each other off the track. Whip It touched on the themes of skater-sisterhood and the support we give to each other, as well as empowering women through athleticism and finding strength you never knew you had. There was plenty that wasn’t idea, though – the stories of skaters trying to sabotage each other to get ahead, the focus on a single skater instead of a team, the lack of diversity in body shapes on the track; but i don’t think the film hurt the sport.
MARK: Speaking of body types, I’d heard through the grapevine that some of our better local skaters weren’t encouraged to participate as extras because the didn’t fit the Hollywood mold, which kind of runs counter to the message of empowerment, right?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: I don’t know much about it. Whip It was filmed before I got into the derby scene, and before the Dimes were formed, so all I know is hearsay and rumor. I can say that, from watching the film, there’s a lack of diversity when it comes to body type, at least compared to the skaters I’ve encountered. One of the things I hear from my teammates is that they love the way that derby is for everyone, regardless of body type. Big girls, little girls, tall, short, whatever. Derby has a place for everyone, and every body type can give you a different sort of advantage. I’ve always had wide hips, and a correspondingly wide posterior, and for a while I didn’t like that about my body. Now, I look at girls with narrow hips and think, “Poor thing, she can’t take up much space on the track with a booty like that.”
[pictured above: Arbor Bruising Company vs. Lansing Derby Vixens (photo by Mega Hurts): Susan B. Slamthony holds back the opposing jammer, assisted by teammates Upzette and Midnite Vulture while a Lansing blocker bridges and Jadzia Smax tries to break through the Lansing wall up front.]
MARK: So, how’s the league structured? If you do well, is there some kind of national tournament?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: All three of our teams invite other teams in the region to come skate with us, or we go to them. Even the Vigilantes, our Home Team, is willing to travel a few hours to skate. The two travel teams have been known to travel to other locations in the midwest – Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio. We also participate in the Mitten Kittens tournaments with other leagues from across the state. As our Brawlstars continue to succeed on the track, we are hopeful that they’ll be invited to skate at some of the bigger tournaments in the coming years. There’s a national tournament for roller derby, the WFTDA Championships, which are going to be held soon in Nashville (October 31 – November 2nd). We’re still some distance from being able to skate on that stage but, “Woo, it would be nice to get there some day.”
MARK: Would I be right to assume that you weren’t born with the name Susan B Slamthony?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: Right, although it would have been cool if my parents had named me that. Lots of the women and men in the derby community take on “stage” names. It goes back to those 1970s roller derby teams and their showmanship. Some people say that derby names are part of what keeps our sport from being taken seriously. What network is going to air Suzy Hotrod going toe-to-toe with Olivia Shootin’ John, right? Well, Sports Illustrated was willing to make Hotrod one of their featured athletes a few years ago in their body issue, so why wouldn’t ESPN start showing us just because we use fun, often punny names? Most skaters pick their name because it means something important to them – like how I picked my name in honor of a personal hero of mine. Some skaters pick something that describes them or their personality, or some just come up with hilarious puns.
MARK: Coming up with a good pun… I could see that being a lot of pressure.
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: It took me months to come up with my name. My dad even came up with a great one – Auntie Social. It was perfect – I like to talk to people, I’m a social worker and my sister had a baby just as I was getting ready to take on the name. Too bad someone in Pennsylvania already uses that name. Such is the curse of derby.
MARK: What happens to a derby girl if it’s found out that she knowingly ripped off a name? Is there some kind of ceremony where you remove the wheels from her skates, and rip the number from her uniform?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: In the past, we had a website (twoevils.com) that kept track of all derby girls from around the world. You submitted your name and you waited to be “validated”. You might be told that Riot Girl was too close to Riot GRRRL so you’d need to change your name. Your league would encourage that, and our league had a policy of only accepting names that had been validated by the website. Now derby has gotten so big that most people generally follow the guideline that you don’t use a name that’s being used by anyone you might possibly play someday (so while you shouldn’t take the name of another local skater, taking the name of a skater in California isn’t so big of a deal). I don’t know what will happen going forward. I spent a lot of time googling all the different derby names that I was interested in before I felt safe to say that no one else was Susan B. Slamthony, though.
MARK: Who, in your opinion, has the best name in the league?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: That’s a tough choice. Like choosing between beer and pizza. I’d have to say Jadzia Smax, because I wish I’d come up with a good Star Trek reference for a derby name. I also do love that our league has both a Lezzie Arnez and a Lucille Baller.
MARK: Let’s talk injuries. I suspect everyone’s prepared for the possibility that something bad might happen, as broken bones come with the territory, but I’m curious as to how people deal with it when it actually happens. I imagine it’s pretty devastating for folks, given the expenses associated, lost work, etc. Is that the main reason that people end up leaving the sport?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: You’re right – this can be bad. I’ve seen three or four people break their tibia/fibia during derby bouts or practices. Lots of skaters have to take time off to heal from major injuries, or from more minor ones that just don’t seem to heal well. We do lose some people permanently that way too. They can feel that their body just isn’t healing well enough to skate again, or they don’t want to put themselves and their families through the cost of another injury.
But we only lose a small percentage of our skaters to acute injuries (like breaks or ACL tears). Probably double that we lose to chronic injuries – an ankle that was broken, and just doesn’t feel great on the track two years later, or old injuries that hurt for days after a game. The majority of the time, we lose skaters because of life! Derby takes a lot of time, a lot of commitment and isn’t cheap. Unless you love it with all your heart, it’s hard to commit that much to it. And as life happens and priorities change, people leave derby to go on to new adventures.
MARK: Is insurance pretty prevalent?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: We’re re required to carry skater insurance, but it’s a second payer system that waits until you’ve put in a certain amount already before it kicks in. The cost can be tough, and we, as a league, do what we can to take care of each other. We’ll put money into GoFundMe campaigns to help cover costs, or we’ll show up at your house to mow the lawn or walk the dog. We’re constantly sharing job postings and helping folks make employment connections. Our league even has a “sisterhood fund” for when skaters absolutely can’t pay their dues.
MARK: Would you be in a gang if not for derby?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: If by gang you mean feminist collective plotting to overthrow the patriarchy and establish an egalitarian society, totally. But, no, I’m not very aggressive by nature. Derby is the first full contact sport I’ve played.
The first bout I ever watched, I remember thinking the women were so cool and so tough and I could never be like them. Then I started reffing for the Dimes and, a few months later, after watching other people who didn’t know how to skate at the beginning either, I began to think “If she can do it, I can do it.”
I know some derby players say that they love getting to go to practice after a long day and get out all that aggression by hitting people as hard as they can. I actually love to go to practice because derby takes 100% of my focus. I can leave all the frustrations of work and life behind and be entirely focused on what I’m doing–what’s the strategy we’re implementing, making sure my body is positioned perfectly for what I’m trying to accomplish and working hard.
MARK: So, what’s your record so far this season?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: The Vigilantes are 4-2 this season. Wait, derby is the only sport I play… 4 -2 means we’ve won four, and lost two, right?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: Then we’re 4-2. The Bruisers are 4-5. And the Brawlstars are 5-5. The Brawlstars are also currently ranked 104th in the USA. Not bad!
MARK: You mentioned earlier that the local league is skater-owned. Is that not the case elsewhere? Are other leagues started up by entrepreneurs who just hire the girls for their teams?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: Most derby leagues these days are skater owned and operated. There are a few out there that are owned by a third party – a promoter or a business. They usually form their own leagues that just bout each other. We really do promote ourselves as “skater owned” because of that history of being owned by someone else – someone who had the potential to trade the skaters to another team or retire you because you’re not selling tickets like you used to. We also take pride as Dimes that we’re self-coached. We’ve hired outside coaches in the past, and we’ll continue to bring in guest coaches, but we’ve found the model that works best for us is to train each other, and teach each other as a unit.
MARK: Are there teams out there that have a reputation for being too rough?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: There are some. I mentioned earlier that we play by the WFTDA’s rule set. There are other leagues out there that play by other rule sets, including one called Renegade Roller Derby. It looks a lot more like those videos of old-timey derby – flying tackles, punching, dragging people to the ground. One of our skaters said once that she’d be interested in having us try out their rules. I told that that she could just start an on-skates Fight Club and have the same effect. Most derby leagues won’t play with other leagues that use renegade rules. Even if they say they’ll use WFTDA rules, there’s a chance they’ll forget the 74 pages of rules we follow, and go crazy on the track instead. Frankly, I find it embarrassing to even watch renegade derby.
That said, there are a few leagues who have reputations for not understanding the rules clearly enough and just liking to hit people without regard for the sport. Our league has simply agreed not to schedule any games against those leagues. Wedecline invitations from them.
But, there are lots of leagues with reputations of hitting HARD! That doesn’t make them “too rough,” it just means that you know you’re going to go home with lots of bruises.
MARK: Is there any push within the sport to move it one way or the other? Are there people out there, for instance, who want to see the professional wrestling side of things come back in a big way, nationwide? Or, on the other side, are there pushing for you all to lose the puns and make a push to become an olympic sport?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: Almost everyone is pushing harder to make it a legitimate sport – one that could be in the Olympics some day. There are a few that prefer the renegade track – if only because games are more action packed, and less time is spent on officials calling penalties and reviewing plays. I think that’s why you’ll see some very different personalities on the track in our league now than you would have seen three years ago. Our skaters used to wear face paint, tutus, and other silly costumes. Now we wear uniforms and we’re much more focused on how we play during the game than on how we look in the pictures.
MARK: Are there real rivalries?
SUSAN B SLAMTHONY: Friendly ones, heck yes. Our Brawlstars just skated against the Lansing Derby Vixens. Last time we played them at their rink, we lost by one point. You could feel the electricity between the teams this year (our girls pulled out the win in the last few jams). But we also saw hugs after the skaters finished as well as at the afterparty. Last month the Vigilantes lost to the Mitten Mavens, but I spent the after-party sharing beers and stories with their players. The upside of being such a small community is that even when we come from different teams, we have more in common than we have differences. It is not unusual for skaters from other leagues to visit one another’s practices and share tips with each other. Within our league, there are friendly rivalries that happen all the time, but at the end of the day, we’re all family.