“The first thing we teach you is how to fall,” Erin Clair says as the women strap on wrist guards, pull on a couple of knee pads, lace their skates up tight, quickly clip on a helmet and start practice with a couple of warm up laps before doing a series of modified exercises.
Erin is the coach and a member of the Russellville Roller Girls. You can catch the women who make up the team practicing on an old tennis court twice a week at Merritt Park in Dardanelle. “We put music on and it’s the hardest workout there is. There is no denying that,” Erin says. “The first six months to a year, everything hurts until your body adjusts to it. It’s going to up your fitness level in someway no matter what shape or size you are. But it’s going to do it in a way that’s fun and you forget the stress of the rest of your life during that time.”
It’s often categorized as violent but don’t judge too quickly. It’s an international sport that empowers women to be resilient in a society that often times leaves them feeling trampled and beaten down metaphorically and sometimes literally.
Erin says that roller derby is all-inclusive, there isn’t a set body type needed to play.
“If you’re an itty-bitty person, there is a place for you,” Erin says. “If you have a big ole booty, there is a place for you. You use the type of body you have and there is a position for you to use that body in a certain way. That is a beautiful aspect of the sport.”
For Erin, roller derby is more than just knocking down competitors. It’s about empowering women, giving them the confidence to take control of obstacles they might face in their daily life. “They’re in control of what is happening to them, they are in control of who is hitting them and they get up and they hit that person right back,” Erin says. “They learn how to fall down and they learn how to get up immediately. We celebrate how they fall and we celebrate when they get back up. Being a woman in society, it’s a sense like you’re being crushed and being beaten up and being sad about it. In derby there is a sense of immense power, of being in control and being hit and then hitting back.”
Erin went on to say that the skills and attitude the women learn on the track could be applied to their daily life. “When a woman starts playing derby you see this sense of power that she suddenly has within that situation of her life, being in control, and it transforms her not only on the track but also outside of her life,” Erin says. “That’s the essence of Roller Derby. And that’s why I coach and do it. It’s not really about the competition even though I think it is the coolest sport ever.”
Roller derby is definitely a contact sport and mostly played by women. It also has a few strict rules. The game is played by two teams of five women roller-skating on an oval shaped track. Each player is constantly moving counter-clockwise around the track. The game consists of a series of short two-minute mash ups called jams for two half hour rounds. Each team has a jammer and four blockers. The jammer scores a point for every blocker of the opposing team she laps. The blockers work together to keep the opposing jammer from passing them, but also help their jammer get through. So in effect each team is playing offense and defense simultaneously.
“It’s like moving chess on wheels,” Erin says. “When you watch it, it looks like a mess of mass of people. But they have a system. They will be linking arms, throwing each other around trying to maneuver.”
The game begins with both teams lined-up across the track. At the whistle, both jammers break from the pack, and the first to pass through the opposing team’s blockers is the lead jammer. Although, no points are awarded until the second lap.
In roller derby, players can only hit using their hips and shoulders and can only hit from the mid thigh to the shoulder. “If they do an illegal move they have to go take a penalty and sit out,” Erin says.
“Let’s say the blocker does something illegal like trips somebody; they will have to sit out for 30 seconds. That puts their team out of a blocker and at a disadvantage. So this is why you don’t want to do things like elbow someone.”
The Russellville Roller Girls follow Women’s Flat Track Derby Association requirements when it comes to game rules and joining the team. The only requirement to join is to be at least 18 years of age. But after following the handful of rules, just about anything goes. “Within those rules it can get intense. You can do cool things like take your jammer, pick her up and throw her over people to get her through. We practice that. We do a thing called an apex jump where you throw the jammer over the corner of the track. She can go over that line as long as she’s in the air, but she can’t get over with her skates.”
Erin added that roller derby requires a lot of focus, especially in keeping balance. “While you’re playing derby you can’t think of anything else,” Erin says. “If you do someone is going to knock you down. So that’s a good thing because you forget about the stresses of the rest of your day, and that’s going to up your endorphins and make you happy.”
For those that are new to the game, derby can seem a little daunting. Especially if you haven’t been in skates in years. “We don’t put you in the jamming lines until you are ready. You only get hurt when you can’t control your skates,” Erin says.
Finding time and a proper place to practice in town has made competing a low priority for the Russellville Roller Girls. “Our team is different than say the more hardcore teams in Fayetteville or Little Rock,” Erin says. “First of all, we don’t have a competition track. We play on an old tennis court. You can’t actually compete on it as far as the Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby Association rules go. It’s too dangerous, even though we scrimmage on it every single week. Why we play and why we do it every week is for what it does for women. Which is why I’ve continued to make it happen year after year even if it’s just me and another girl some weeks.”
The team has looked for alternative spaces with a smooth floor to practice, but there are limited places available that are also affordable for the team. “We tried for a year and half to find an alternative space but it got to be door after door was slammed,” Erin says. “So we were like, well this is free. But it sucks in the summer. It sucks in the winter. It sucks when it rains and there are potholes. But it means we have to train twice as hard because the space is rough so when we do our laps we are working harder than other teams.”
Competing also means time away from home to travel, which isn’t in the cards for all of the team members. “Most of us are mothers and we can’t go and leave our kids and travel across the country,” Erin says. “There are certain women on our team that competing would be really great for them. There are times when we will switch out. There will be a team in Oklahoma and say we are going to do an exchange and we will send some of our members there and they will go play for them, but that’s not necessarily a goal.”
For the Russellville Roller Girls it’s more about passion for the sport and having an outrageous amount of fun with teammates. “It’s more about getting together, empowering other women and we laugh so hard that we almost puke,” Erin says. “Like last night we were taking some pictures and we were like ‘let’s put our legs up’ and I ended up with a skate up my butt. You can’t help but laugh so hard.”
Roller derby allows women to let their hair down and be whatever they feel like without judgment. “We are just like big kids because you get out there and even though we are mostly mothers, you act like you don’t act in the rest of your life because you need to. You let all of that go and no matter how professional you have to be in the rest of your life, it doesn’t matter. This is why you have a separate derby name. It can be as ridiculous as you want. I mean, I never swear around my kids but you can be whatever you want out there and let it all hang out. You can be as asinine as you need to be. You can laugh, have fun and act a complete fool.”
Erin added that roller derby becomes another form of love within the community and because of that the girls become family, a sisterhood. “They become your sisters. When you’re playing you have to protect each other. You work very much as a team. Whatever happens to them you have to take care of them. You know what’s going on in their personal lives, too. And it’s all different classes. I’m a professor and there’s also waitresses, some are unemployed, there are all different levels of people, and they are going to have all types of life struggles when they come in. One girl was homeless and we found her a place to live. And you can just see on people’s faces what they are struggling with and what they’re not. We take care of each other.”
Anyone interested in roller derby can check out the Facebook page “Russellville Roller Girls” or email Erin at firstname.lastname@example.org . Or you can simply show up for practice on Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m.