Rules of roller derby
Games usually consist of two 30-minute periods with a 15-minute halftime. Within the play time are "jams" that are each up to two minutes long.
Teams typically play five players at a time. Four are blockers and one is the jammer, who is the point scorer.
Blockers play offense and defense simultaneously, trying to help their own jammer get through while stopping the other team's jammer.
The job of the jammer is to get through the pack and lap the opposing players as many times as she can, scoring a point for every player on the opposite team whose hips she passes.
The first jammer to get through earns lead jammer status, enabling her to end (or "call") the jam early.
The blockers on both teams are working hard to prevent the opposing jammers from breaking through.
Roller-skate wheels slam and scrape against the hard cement floor as the Punishers' jammer engages the pack. She's held back by three opposing blockers with their arms linked, but she doesn't give up.
She finds the break between them and their fourth blocker, and tries to get through. The other blockers have swung around to get in front of her again, but she pushes them back.
The opposing blockers move apart, and one falls to her knees. The jammer pushes through and breaks free, taking a victorious lap around the rink and racking up points for each blocker she passed.
It's time to do it again.
This isn't your mother's — or your grandmother's — roller derby. No scripted battles here. It's a legitimate contact sport that was once under consideration to be included in the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Roller derby's fantastical theatrics may be a thing of the past, but the off-the-wall derby monikers remain, for the most part.
It's a personal choice, according to Meghan "Maulie Walnuts" Beaulieu, president of the board of directors for the Bay State Brawlers, a Fitchburg/Leominster-based Central Massachusetts league affiliated with the Women's Flat-Track Derby Association.
"For some, it's that they find a whole different side of themselves when they start playing derby, and their civilian name doesn't feel like the same person. They're outgoing and aggressive, and a new name might fit better," said Beaulieu, a Harvard resident. "For others, it may be a fun relic from the days when derby was more of an entertainment venue than a sport, and it's a fun tradition to carry on."
For Beaulieu, it was a bit of both. Her moniker reflects her New Jersey roots through a pun on "Paulie Walnuts" Gualtieri, a character from "The Sopranos." Sometimes silly and goofy, people underestimated Paulie — and they shouldn't underestimate Beaulieu on the track, no matter how sweet she appears, she said.
The Bay State Brawlers league is made up of two teams: the ranked tryout team, the Punishers, and the training team, the Brawlin' Broads.
The Punishers practice three nights a week — the Brawlin' Broads practice two nights — and cross-train on their own time.
The league has about 65 members and growing, a sure sign of the increasing interest in a sport that almost died out in the 1980s and '90s. Brought back to life in the early 2000s, roller-derby leagues registered with the WFTDA now number 463 across six continents, and the Brawlers currently rank 117th overall. Neighboring league Boston Roller Derby ranks 36th.
Brawlers members come from all backgrounds and walks of life. Some have previous team experience; others had never done anything athletic in their life.
Beaulieu found her way to the Brawlers in 2016 thanks to a friend. She had just moved from big-city Boston to bedroom-town Harvard and was finding it hard to meet new friends in the area. Through derby, she found a welcoming community and an activity that has made her stronger and more confident on and off the track.
"I think the community and the friendships, that's my biggest draw," said Alyx "Boots" Flerchinger, 33, of Lowell, a jammer for the Punishers, who has been in roller derby for three years.
"It's sort of like a really fun gym membership," said Punishers co-captain Stephanie "Smash Melo" Melo, 35, of Clinton, who has been with the group for six years.
"It's like a gym membership, but your gym buddies hit you and tell you to get back up off the floor, and then you can hit them," said Ally "Kait" Mabardy, 28, of Hubbardston, noting that teammates hold each other accountable to come to practice. "It's a gym membership you have to show up for."
She said many people have the misconception that it's too violent, but she doesn't think so.
"For us, it's playing really hard with your team, doing the best you can, having a good time and having that camaraderie," Mabardy said.
"For me, it's to have a hobby and actually be consistent with something," said Keighley "Keels" Sherwin, 27, of Leominster. "Usually, people pick up knitting or sewing or other crafty things, and that's just not my jam."
Sherwin said she had always played sports growing up, but fell out of it in high school. As an adult, she welcomed the opportunity to get back into sports and learn something new. She said she had never even put on roller skates before joining derby five years ago.
Mabardy, on the other hand, said she "never really played sports before" she began roller derby seven years ago. In high school, she had always been afraid of trying to play a new sport. Now, she enjoys the competitiveness of roller derby and trying to push herself and measure her progress.
Melo said it can be hard at this age group to get into sports "unless you're really good at it," but what's great about roller derby is you can come in at any level of experience and learn.
Many members have education and coaching experience, like Mabardy, a teacher at Gardner High School. She said that instructional background also contributes to the supportive atmosphere that helps people to learn.
Despite its growing participation, derby remains "kind of like a secret community" to many, Sherwin said.
"We tell people about it and they're, like, 'Oh, it's a thing?'" she said.
"'It still exists?'" Flerchinger said, repeating a reaction she's heard over and over.
They welcome anyone who is interested to come and try it out.
"There's a place for everyone," Sherwin said. "You don't have to skate — anybody can contribute in any way they feel comfortable with."
Follow Alana Melanson on Twitter @AlanaMelanson.
The Brawlers' 2019 season is almost over, but there are still opportunities to see and support them.
The best chance for locals is Saturday, July 27, at their home base, the Wallace Civic Center, 1000 John Fitch Highway, Fitchburg.
At their last home double-header of the season, the Brawlin' Broads will take on Cape Cod Roller Derby's the Salty Dolls in a rivalry rematch, followed by the Punishers versus Boston Roller Derby's Boston B Party.
Doors open at 4:30 p.m., with the first whistle at 5:15.
Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for kids, students and military; discounts are available if purchased in advance online. Halftime includes games and fun for the whole family.
Most of their remaining games are further away, but the Brawlers will also be playing in another double-header Saturday, Aug. 10, at the The Carousel Skate Center, 4 David A. Drown Road, Fairhaven. The Punishers will take on the Mass Attack Roller Derby All-Stars, and the Brawlin' Boards will go up against the Bloody Bordens. Doors open 5:30 p.m.; first whistle at 6:20.
Not enough derby for you?
Boston Roller Derby, which plays regularly at Aleppo Shriners Auditorium in Wilmington, will hold a triple-header Saturday, Aug. 3, featuring its three travel teams versus teams from New Hampshire and Montreal.
Doors open at 2:30 p.m., with The Boston Common vs.
Monadnock Roller Derby at 3, Boston B Party vs. Twin State Derby at 5, and Boston Massacre vs. Montreal Roller Derby Sexpos at 7. Adult general admission is $12 in advance or $16 at the door; ages 6-17 $6 in advance or $8 at the door; under 6 free.
Crash course in roller derby
The Bay State Brawlers hold training camps four times each year to recruit and prepare new members. The most recent sessionin in process, but another program begins Sept. 11. The camps run 8-10 weeks, with classes Wednesday and Sunday nights and occasional Sunday mornings at Roll On America, 90 Duval Road, Lancaster, on the Leominster line.
Participants must be 18 or older and have health insurance. WFTDA-affiliated teams welcome participants who identify as transgender, intersex and gender-expansive.
No previous skating experience is required to enter the training camp — it starts with the very basics.
Meghan "Maulie Walnuts" Beaulieu, president of the board of directors for the Bay State Brawlers, said it starts with understanding the different components of the roller skates and how to take care of them, the required gear and why it's worn.
Participants are taught how to skate forward and backward, different ways to stop, how to have a strong derby stance, and to fall down safely.
"In the first weeks, you don't make contact with anyone else. It's all just skating skills and safety," Beaulieu said. "You're learning how to have total control over your body, so when we teach you how to lean someone out of position, how to check someone, how to hit, you're doing it in a safe and controlled way."
Those who find that the contact may not be for them can learn how to officiate games, she said. The league welcomes men to officiate.
"One of the things I love about our small league is that there really is a place for everyone," Beaulieu said.