Derby Queens

Decked out in a black-and-white striped referee shirt, roller skates, a bold streak of lipstick and a whistle, Jenn Hall moves with authority and grace around the roller derby track.

On the track, the 42-year-old from Belfast is better known as Glitterella. It’s the derby name she chose when she picked up the sport four years ago. It suits the avowed makeup aficionado and community theater actress to a T. Hall sparkles as she keeps a watchful eye on the knot of women barrelling around the track during the bout, as onlookers cheer and jeer from the sidelines. Roller derby is a fast-paced, fun activity and she loves every minute of it.

“Every time I put on my skates I feel like I’m on air,” she said. “When you see me on my skates, I’m my happiest.”

But if you’d asked her four years ago, it’s a safe bet that she wouldn’t have imagined roller derby in her future. She had come to a hard place in her life, with a bad relationship behind her and question marks ahead. She was unhappy in her skin, too, weighing 200 or so pounds more than she wanted to weigh. Hall, who works at the Belfast Co-op, took stock of her life and decided that some changes were necessary. She embarked on a weight loss and health journey, which eventually led her to the Maine’s robust roller derby community. Today, Hall credits the friends she’s made there with helping her through the ups and downs along the way.

“The whole league is my family. Those are my sisters,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “They’ve helped me get up. We’ve gone through heck and back but they are my family. They’re just amazing. So positive and energetic, and they will help you through anything.”

Derby beginnings

Roller derby is a uniquely American contact sport with origins that date back to roller skating speed and endurance marathons of the 1920s and 1930s. One of those, called the Transcontinental Roller Derby, simulated a 3,000 mile cross-country race between New York and Los Angeles during which two person male-female teams would circle a wooden, oval banked track for 11 1/2 hours a day for as long as a month. The event was popular, attracting daily crowds which numbered in the thousands.

As the sport’s popularity grew, it evolved. By the 1940s, roller derby had become a competitive, professional contact sport played by two teams of five members each who skated in the same direction around a track. Each team had its “jammer,” who would attempt to score points by fighting through the opposite team’s blockers. The blockers job was to hold them back or even knock them down.

Like many sports, derby provided its followers with high energy, rough and tumble entertainment. Bouts were broadcast over the radio and then, beginning in 1948, over the new medium of television. Those broadcasts drove the new sport’s popularity and increased spectator turnout for live matches. In June 1949, a crowd of 55,000 came to watch roller derby at Madison Square Garden in New York City over the course of a five-day event. Derby had made it to the big leagues.

Even at the new sport’s beginning, women were just as involved as men. This was unusual in a time when women otherwise had few opportunities to play contact sports. And derby attracted women fans and television viewers as well.

The popularity of roller derby persisted over several decades, as new leagues were formed and teams were created in some major cities around the country, although none were based in Maine. But, by 1973, promoters citing high overhead and gas shortages because of the 1970s oil crisis put the brakes on the main roller derby league. Several attempts to revive roller derby as a professional sport were made over the next 30 years. But its modern revival as an all-female amateur sport began in Texas in the early 2000s.

Today, according to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, there are 420 full member leagues and 49 apprentice leagues in the United States and beyond. Full member leagues in Maine include Maine Roller Derby in Portland and the Rock Coast Rollers in Rockland. Bangor-based Central Maine Derby is an apprentice league. And although they’re not affiliated with the derby association, Aroostook Roller Derby in Presque Isle and the Androscoggin Fallen Angels in Lewiston are leagues that round out the derby scene in the Pine Tree State.

From its beginnings as a race on wheels, through its mid-life as a theatrical contact sport akin to professional wrestling, derby has become a grassroots organization where all, regardless of athletic ability, are welcomed. In this new iteration of roller derby, competition on the track seems less important than the community that has grown among its members. Today in Maine, roller derby has become a place of belonging for people who may not have previously found their niche. Personalized derby names, unique costumes and fantastic makeup notwithstanding, counterculture and mainstream people alike have found something in roller derby that feels a lot like family. 

‘All around super healthy’

Just what is so special about roller derby? Heather Steeves of Portland has some answers. Steeves, whose derby name is Hard Dash, had some specific goals in mind when she decided to start Rock Coast Rollers in 2011.

“I was in a sedentary job and growing bored and a bit lonely,” Steeves, who moved after college to work as a journalist in Rockland, said. “I was a young person in the midcoast without a lot of community of peers. I started Rock Coast in an effort to build a healthy place for women.”

It worked beyond her wildest expectations. Other midcoast women also were interested in trying roller derby, and the league caught on. Derby did indeed provide a great aerobic and strength workout, she found, but it was more than that too.

“It incorporates the health of the whole human,” Steeves said. “I think that these days we can become isolated. Just getting out and making friends and meeting those people for healthy team-focused reasons of cooperation and fun makes us all healthier humans.”

And happier humans. The once lonely, once bored reporter discovered new friends and new challenges alike in roller derby. She’s a jammer, the player that scores points, and needs to be strong enough to push through the pack to score points and so has become more focused on health and cross-training.

“I think about what I eat and I think about how I move my body. I weight train to become stronger for my sport,” she said. “I think people think you just put on roller skates and hit people, but the sport is exhausting. It requires you to sprint. It uses every muscle. I sprint around the track as fast as I can and push a wall of people for maybe 20 feet. It requires a lot of cross-training and dedication. It’s made me a healthy human.”

She’s also found that derby has honed other skills in addition to the physical ones, and helped her grow as a person.

“I learned how to communicate with my peers better. I learned how to lead and how to follow,” she said. “I learned how to deal in times of stress and how to keep others calm. Roller derby’s always offering new challenges. I found my 50 best friends pretty immediately, and now I have a world-wide community I can reach out to anytime. I am never lonely.”

And that community is not exclusive. If people remember seeing the old days of derby on television, they may have an image in their minds of roller derby players as tough or mean girls. But that’s not the reality, Steeves said.

“The roller derby community is inclusive. We encourage people of all genders. In my league, we offer spots to people who are female, female identified, non-binary, obviously of any background. We have a lot of queer skaters,” she said. “We love everyone.”

For Vanessa Thomann, a Lincolnville mom who has skated with Rock Coast Rollers since 2013 with the derby name of CrazieNESS, roller derby has helped her find a tribe of strong women she can count on when the chips are down. They were there when she broke her ankle during a scrimmage, when her youngest child was born and when there was a family medical emergency. They didn’t ask first — they just jumped in to help.

“We all really champion each other, which is wonderful,” she said. “I never had a pack before, of people, or especially of women, who have supported me on my life journey. Derby is there for you.”

Heather Van Dyne of Holden began roller derby in 2011 and helped to found Central Maine Derby in 2013. She works in the auto industry and her derby name is Shelby Fastback, after the classic 1960s muscle car. And she didn’t have an athletic background before she tried roller derby.

“It was billed as whatever your background, we will teach you,” she said. “I loved it. It almost becomes addicting.”

Now, when new people come to tryouts, she lets them know it won’t just be another humdrum hobby or a way to while away a weekday night.

“We tell them that you will learn to skate. You will learn to play. But you’re gaining 40 to 50 sisters,” she said. “For some of these people, the community aspect is just as important, and honestly just as healthy, as the physical benefits. It’s all around super healthy.”

Change for the better

For some, derby is also a catalyst for important change. Jenn Hall remembers always being “the big girl” growing up. She didn’t like the feeling but didn’t let it hold her back from life. She was a theater kid in junior high and high school, and a cheerleader, too. She even got the award for having the most school spirit when she graduated from Belfast Area High School in 1995. Still, having a body that was larger than she wanted affected her.

“I never felt good in my skin, ever since I was a kid,” she said. “I would do a certain amount of dieting and when I started losing it was like, ‘oh great, now I can have a cheat day.’ I had more cheat days than I had good days.”

About four years ago, she started going to the gym, where she worked out and lifted weights.

“I was getting to the spot where I was like, you know what, I’m not going to be like this anymore. I need to be a little more healthy, because I’m not happy,” she said.

Then one day, one of her friends who had joined the Rock Coast Rollers league invited Hall to watch a bout. Afterwards, one of the other derby girls encouraged her to join.

She was skeptical at first. “She thought I would be great for roller derby,” Hall remembered. “This is when I was well over 300 and something odd pounds.” But she was also tempted. She remembered having loved to roller skate as a child. And the flamboyance derby allowed was appealing. “I love dressing up. I love makeup, I love hair, I love the glitz and the glam,” she said.

And more than anything, she was more than ready to make a change.

“So I went to the tryouts.”

It was a proverbial bumpy start for Hall, who had not brought sneakers, so was forced to do the running drills barefoot. She had not run in years. And once on skates, she fell and hit her (helmeted) head and had a panic attack. But she didn’t want to give up.

“I waited until I got enough confidence and enough gumption to actually get up on my skates. Chain Lynx [another skater] was with me. She was there, holding on to me, saying, you can do this. And so I got my legs underneath me and thought, OK, this is good. It was amazing, actually. Oh my God, this is fun for me.”

Miraculously (to her), Hall made the first cut and was invited to train with the team—a stage in the process the derby calls “fresh meat.”

“I was like, are you kidding me. You’re going to train someone that is this big, and a total klutz, to be on skates?” she remembers thinking.

During training, Hall felt her body changing. More important to her, though, was the way she felt her confidence grow. She went to every single practice and worked as hard as she could, learning the skills and passing the tests along the way. She did not pass the test that would allow her to be a skater, but she didn’t want to leave this new community and found other ways to participate. She was an assistant coach, and a training helper, and then became an official. She lost 100 pounds by doing derby, working out and paying attention to her diet, but felt she had extra weight to shake and decided to pursue weight loss surgery. After that, she lost almost another 100 pounds. Altogether, she says, it was the equivalent of losing “about two people.”

“It felt amazing,” she said.

Hall attributes a lot of the success of her journey to the support of her derby teammates, as well as the challenge of the sport itself.

“They saw something in me,” she said. “That gave me a lot of confidence. I had my battles, because I couldn’t fit into the right gear. And it made me want to work harder. I think roller derby helped me a lot to become a confident person within myself.”

Vanessa Thomann thinks so too.

“She’s quite a wonderful individual,” Thomann said of Hall. “Watching her whole derby transformation and life transformation, health and love transformation has been just amazing. It really truly is amazing. I think seeing a group of strong, talented women making these huge leaps and bounds together has helped push her to get better and take care of herself. When she first started, she would push herself but was also very sad with herself, that she couldn’t do what she wanted to do. I think what Glitterella’s done is so cool to see. She has such confidence in her own skin. She’s so funny and proud of who she is. I think what she’s done is quite amazing.”

Hall agreed.

“I’m proud of what I’ve done. I’d never change anything,” she said. “I can truly say that I’m happy, and I never thought I could.”

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