Providence Roller Derby – Warwick, RI
Providence, Rhode Island is a hard town.
The town was settled by Roger Williams in 1663, and soon became a place for religious dissenters. Providence grew slowly, as settlers had difficulties farming the land. Early citizens had differing local traditions and conflicted over land often, which kept many away from this small original US Colony. Providence also became one of the first cities to industrialize around the turn of the century, attracting many immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Sweden, England, Italy, Portugal, Cape Verde, and French Canada. These economic and demographic changes led to social strife as a series of race riots erupted in the 1820s.
Nowadays the city has undergone a recent renaissance, but a lot of the hard edges and social issues still remain. Despite being the nation’s smallest state (Rhode Island is approximately 1/3 the size of Los Angeles County), it has the second highest population density at over 1,000 inhabitants per square mile. Providence also has a staggering unemployment rank at 22%, which combined with living in such a tightly packed space can lead to quite the hard lifestyle. During our time in Providence, the city’s main square near City Hall Park (which also doubled as a large busing hub) was jammed to the brink with people, sweltering in the hot summer heat. We witnesses all of the signs of a hard living community, as hundreds waited for buses in the middle of the day. Many people were yelling at, and/or fighting with, each other as countless others slept in the small park area. The number of shirtless people exceeded what we had previously thought acceptable for the middle of the day in a large city, and it looked like a wrong move or word could provoke an aggressive action. With so many people living hard lives so close to one another, it seemed like any little thing was a good excuse for a tension-release moment.
The Providence Roller Derby, founded in 2004, was the first all-female, flat-track roller derby league in the New England area. They host a league in Providence boasting three teams (Mob Squad, Roller Rats, and Old Money Honeys) as well as two travel teams (Rhode Island Riveters and Killah Bees) that play against other roller derby teams throughout the New England and east coast area. The game we attended was a traveling match with the Rhode Island Riveters taking on the Long Island Roller Rebel’s All-Stars at Thayer Arena in nearby Warwick, RI.
Most of you probably at least know ABOUT roller derby and have probably seen the movie Whip It, but there’s a lot more going on that just a group of women on roller skates bumping into one another. The night’s game featured a flat track (instead of a banked track you know of from the 1970s), the most common track used in roller derby today.
The game is divided in two 30 minute halves, with 2 minute “jams” being the time when teams can score points. Play starts with teams of 5 skaters on the track, with 4 blockers from each team being in front of the 2 “jammers”. After the jam starts, the jammers attempt to skate through the pack of blockers, race around, and pass each opposing blocker again to score points. 1 point is scored for each opposing blocker passed by the jammer after she breaks through the pack for the first time.
Special consideration is given to the “lead jammer”, who is the first of the two jammers to make it through the blockers for the first time. She has the special power to end that jam whenever she sees fit by touching her hips, ending the scoring for that round even if the jam has lasted for less than two minutes. This bit of strategy has to be used wisely, with each jammer having their own strategy. Some try to score more points during a longer jam while others end the jam quickly after they’ve scored points to avoid any points being scored by the other team.
While jammers get all of the glory for scoring the points (and wearing a cool star on their helmet), what most of you know about roller derby comes from the blockers. It’s their job to not let the jammers through, and roller derby allows them to use a little bit of force in trying to not let that happen. And by “a little bit” of force, I actually mean “a whole lotta bit”, because some of these girls can really lay the smackdown. Now, you can’t use your hands, elbows, head, or feet while blocking, but you can definitely use your shoulder to try to steer other players either out of bounds or onto the track itself. Illegal hits can land you in the penalty box and give the other team a power play, but a great hit can give your jammer a clear path as well as elicit some raucous cheers from the crowd.
We were impressed by not only the tenacity and ferocity that the girls exhibited, but also the speed and agility with which some of the skaters exhibited. The momentum given by the roller skates combined with bad intentions made for some truly hard hits, while at other times jammers were able to elude a block with the gracefulness of a figure skater. The jams were quick-paced, but after a couple of them it was easy to understand the lay of the land and grasp all of the rules. The RI Riveters jumped out to an early lead, but after a string of successful jams the Long Island All-Stars came roaring back, thanks to a few jammer-less power plays for the Riveters which resulted in 15+ point jams for the All-Stars. The Riveters closed the gap late but eventually lost the bout 148-120, in a very exciting and hard-hitting game.
After the main event fans were treated to an exhibition match, as the Massachusetts Maelstrom men’s team took on a PRD pick-up team, Rocky Point Rollers. It’s only the second time men have faced women in roller derby, this time to attempt to drum up some support and interest for a new men’s league in New England. The score may have been lopsided, but the girls hung tough and fearlessly got in some big hits against the guys. It also may not have helped that some of the Rocky Point Rollers had just finished playing for the Riveters, but the effort was there nonetheless.
After the games we talked to Jaki AKA “Small Wonder”, a jammer for the Riveters who also helped facilitate our coverage of the event. “I had never really skated beyond 12-year old birthday parties before I joined the league. They teach you everything you need to know, and you spend a lot of time practicing so you can get the hang of it before the games,” she told us. She also plays for the “Old Money Honeys”, and loves everything that the Providence Roller Derby has offered her since joining the league. “I get to travel and play some other really great teams in other cities which is fun,” she said. “But the main thing is just being out here having fun with your friends. I came to Providence not really knowing anyone but came to a game and I was hooked. I joined the league and in no short time I now have a family of 40-50 people.”
With 727 roller derby leagues in the United States, there’s bound to be a league in an area near you. The game is both fun and exciting to watch, with fast speeds and big hits appealing to just about every sports fan. And the leagues are constantly looking for new skaters. And if you live in somewhere like Providence, RI, you just might have to let out a little aggression.