Talking Derby

The women of Dead River Derby compete in a bout.

Story by Jim Pennell • Photos courtesy of Shine Studio/Andres Abdo

Since 2012, the Dead River Derby in Marquette has been bringing its own style of derby fun and excitement to the area.

What is roller derby? That’s not an easy question to answer. It can’t be compared to another sport because it’s unlike any other sport. It’s a race without a finish line and a game without a goal. It’s also the only sport where players adopt both a different personality and name, known as a “Derby Persona” when they step, or rather roll, onto the playing field. The rules of derby cannot be easily explained either.

“It’s a full contact sport with full protective gear; helmet, mouthguard and elbow, wrist and knee pads,” explained Phee Nix, who has been skating with the team for the last three years. “We use old school quad skates with four wheels.”

The game is played with five skaters from each team on the track. Four of them are blockers and one is a jammer. The track is an oval with a starting line where the blockers, who play offense and defense at the same time, start. The jammers have a star helmet cover to identify them and they start behind the blockers. Their goal is to get through the blockers as quickly as possible and lap the pack. They score one point for every opponent’s hip they pass.

Each 30-minute half is broken down into jams, which can be a maximum of two minutes.

“You can see a four-point jam or you can see a 30-point jam, depending on how long it goes and how well the jammer does,” Phee Nix said.

The first jammer to get through the pack is called the lead jammer. Both jammers can score points during the same jam, but only the lead jammer can call off the jam to keep the opponent from scoring more points. There’s a lot of rules about how players can make contact with each other. They can hit with the whole side of their bodies from shoulder to top of the knee, but can’t hit anyone in the back.

“It used to be wild and crazy where you could throw elbows and get into fights but it’s nothing like that anymore,” Phee Nix said. “If you do get called for a penalty you’re put in the penalty box for 30 seconds.”

If all those rules make the game sound confusing, it’s because it is. There are times during a derby bout when all the skaters are bunched together and nothing really seems to be happening. Blockers lock arms and do a sort of dance. Jammers approach the pack and are pushed back. The great thing about derby is you don’t have to fully understand what’s going on to enjoy the excitement. A jammer will suddenly break through and speed around to meet the clump of other skaters again. A blocker will make a nice clean hit and send a skater flying out of bounds. It helps to keep in mind that these are women on roller skates. Unlike football linesmen who can dig their cleats into the earth to stop an opponent, these skilled athletes are maneuvering and blocking on wheels rolling on concrete. Jammers at times will literally run to build up speed—not an easy thing to do while wearing roller skates.

There are six referees during bouts and it’s almost as much fun to watch them as it is the skaters on the track. They, too, have derby personas, which are printed on the backs of their uniforms. Referees can be women or men, who can use either traditional skates or rollerblades. The refs move around gracefully while the women fight it out on the track. Imagine a hockey game with figure skaters as referees. The sole job for two of the refs is to keep score by skating around the track center, pointing at the jammers,  which shows how difficult it can be to tell who’s doing what during a bout.

It should be pointed out that this is flat-track roller derby, not bank track, which is what most people are familiar with through films like Whip It and Roller Ball. Flat track is every bit as competitive as bank track, but has some differences.

“There is still bank track out there in bigger cities, but flat track makes it accessible to everybody,” said Phee Nix. “From the Keweenaw to Kingsford to us, we need a place to play and it’s easy to convert an existing ice arena to a flat track rather than have to build a bank track just for bouts. And I would have to say the attitudes are different between the two tracks. A lot of people have this misconception that derby girls are badasses and tough and mean. We’re not. You’ll see us on the track yelling at each other or getting frustrated, but afterwards we go to the after party and hug each other. We’re all really good friends. That’s the awesome thing about flat-track derby. It is such good camaraderie.”

All of the Dead River Derby skaters, coaches and referees are volunteers. The money from ticket sales and fund-raising events is used to pay dues and rent the facility. Women get involved with derby for a number of reasons. Some are looking for the social interaction, some want the exercise and excitement and some just love to skate. Pepper Pilliwinks has been with the team since its founding. It was the skating that drew her to it.

“I’ve always loved skating ever since I was a little kid,” Pilliwinks said. “When I was was a teenager I got away from it but always wanted to go back. I didn’t care for roller blades when they came out so when I was about 36, I went out and bought my first pair of roller skates in 25 years. Three years later they started a derby team in Marquette and I thought ‘Oh my gosh, that’s what I need to do!’ We had quite a few people at first, about 25 or 30 of what we call “fresh meat” or brand new skaters, but not all of them lasted, of course.”

When Marquette created its team, there were two other teams in the U.P.—the Kingsford Krush and the Escanaba Rolling Hellcats. A handful of their skaters helped Marquette get started, teaching players some of the basic skills.

“Another girl who had quite a bit of derby experience moved to Marquette from Canada and she also helped us in the summer of 2012,” Pilliwinks said. “We just learned as we went, by watching videos, reading about it and learning the rules. It’s now something great that we built from nothing.”

The skaters refer to the Dead River Derby as a league because it’s comprised of two different teams.

“We have two different teams that have different goals,” Pilliwinks said. “We have our travel team, the Rolling Riptide, which is our competitive team that trains hard and is in it to win it. Then we have our home team, the Superior Sirens, whose goal is to just have fun and play derby.”

The Dead River Derby regular season has ended for the year and now is the time for recruiting “fresh meat” and referees. The DRD is always looking for interested people and will help new people  learn the sport in a safe way that suits them.

“There are over 40 skills you have to pass before we allow people to scrimmage. It’s a long process,” Pilliwinks said. “Some girls it takes three or four months, some girls it takes three or four years. We work with everybody that’s willing to show up and put the time in. Minimum age is 18, but there’s no age limit.

“Our team is unique in that we have eight women on our team that are 40 or over. There are times when we play teams that are a lot younger than us and they go in to it thinking they’re going to have an advantage, but we practice on endurance more than other teams so sometimes by the second half we’re getting warmed up and they’re exhausted. It’s a fun sport, but it’s almost like a part-time job, not only the training but the committee work and planning,” Pilliwinks added.

“One of the things I love about it is I get to meet people everywhere through roller derby. I now have friends in Australia and England and every state you can imagine because of this game. It’s a very diverse group of people I never would have met if it hadn’t been for derby.”

If the physical side of derby doesn’t appeal to you but you like to skate, volunteering as a referee is an option. If you don’t skate, but still want to be part of the derby there are non-skating workers needed, too. If you’re a female over the age of 18 and you’re curious what it would be like to be the next Phee Nix or Pepper Pilliwinks or Whip-her-Willa or Whistlin’ Trixie or Alice in Yooperland or, my personal favorite and the most well-read of derby personas, Gnome Stompsky, check out the Dead River Derby website, lace ‘em up and start turning left!


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