Derby All-Around: Pioneer Valley Roller Derby puts the world’s fastest growing sport on the fast track to gender equality

by Amanda Drane

Originally published on September 14, 2013; re-printed here with permission from the author.

The valley has long been a place where notions of women, gender and sexuality have come into question, so it’s only fitting that its very own Pioneer Valley Roller Derby (PVRD) was the first league in the country to host both women’s and men’s teams. In the spirit of acceptance, athleticism and fun, Pioneer Valley players of all genders get together to take part in the $60 million global industry gaining speed in communities around the world.

When roller derby was first popularized during the Depression of the 1930’s, both women and men enjoyed the sport. In fact, a man named Leo Seltzer is credited for the introduction. Derby remained in demand during the early days of television, yet its popularity ebbed during the 1970’s as viewers complained the bouts appeared “scripted” and “staged.” Now, says PVRD founding co-owner Sarah “Pink Panzer” Lang, derby couldn’t be any more genuine.

“You don’t have to have tattoos or piercings to play roller derby. It’s not a crazy time sport, it’s a real sport . . . so you get a little bit of everything,” says Lang.

Even during bouts, PVRD teams show unity by wearing the same color tops and bottoms, but are otherwise free to wear whatever they choose. That sense of individuality is important to the league—it was created to be a safe space within the community. Though derby’s most recent resurgence, which began in the early 2000’s, has taken hold more quickly with women, Lang and partner Jacob “Bazooka Joe” Fahy started the league in 2006 to bring the sport they fell in love with to everyone in the valley.

That inclusion, however, has made it difficult for the league on a national level. The men’s team, dubbed ‘The Dirty Dozen,’ was accepted into the Men’s Roller Derby Association (MRDA)—an organization that PVRD helped found, yet stringent rules in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) prevent the women’s A-team, ‘Western Mass Destruction,’ from being ranked with other women’s teams on a national scale. WFTDA rules stipulate participating teams must be 51 percent or more owned by women. Fahy and Lang remain fifty-fifty partners and stand by the precedent that sets for their league.

Men’s leagues have sprouted worldwide in recent years, yet the majority of roller derby leagues remain available only to women. Fahy and Lang explain that, in the interest of keeping equality at the forefront and interest on-the-rise, it has not been in the league’s best interest to turn anyone away, regardless of gender.

“Why would we tell people they couldn’t play,” Lang says.

Though PVRD players are obviously serious about their sport in all of its full-contact glory, a spirit of welcoming acceptance permeates the league. In their private practice space in Florence, senior derby players take the time to ensure newcomers learn every aspect of the game, even if they have never skated before (and many haven’t).

Rebecca “Chewbecca” Groveman has been in the league for over three years. Groveman says before joining PVRD, she was shy and less outgoing. Derby has changed that entirely—she now has a large circle of close-knit friends, increased self-confidence and quads like a champ.

Groveman tore her ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) during a bout in July, yet continues to attend every practice and anxiously awaits her return to skates.

“I have never once regretted getting involved, even after I got hurt,” says Groveman.

In roller derby, pain is part of the game—bruises, bumps and sprains are commonplace, as with any contact sport. Derby is all about having fun, supporting each other and toughening up.

“If you don’t fall, you’re not trying hard enough,” says Groveman.

Life After Smith, On Track

Originally published September 11, 2013 on the Smith College Grécourt Gate News.

Perhaps it has something to do with Smith students’ feistiness, their willingness to take on challenge, turn toward conflict, get ahead of anyone slowing them down, and overcome obstacles.

Roller derby jammer Myra Lam ’11 rounds the
track during a recent game. Photograph
courtesy of Black Dog Pictures.
Or maybe they just like to skate around an oval track.

Whatever the reason, several Smith alumnae (and a visiting faculty member) have taken up the fast-growing sport of roller derby. Half a dozen Smith women compete with the local league, Pioneer Valley Roller Derby (PVRD), the premier flat track roller derby club in Western Mass., and nearly as many have past experience in local roller derby.

For those who haven’t noticed, flat track roller derby has seen a wheel-spinning growth since the sport evolved in 2001. Unlike the roller derby of the 20th century, which became overshadowed by theatrics and fixed outcomes, modern roller derby has grown into a widely respected competitive game, played internationally. The sport is dominated by women’s amateur teams, though it is quickly adding men’s, co-ed and junior teams, and is among consideration for inclusion in the Olympics. PVRD is a co-ed club with a budding junior program.

“Roller derby embodies a lot of the values I saw being cultivated on campus during my time at Smith,” says Teresa Huang ’10, whose team is slated for competition this weekend. “The importance of teamwork, perseverance, pushing through obstruction, leadership. The culture of the sport is very do-it-yourself, and has very woman-centric roots.”

Huang, who joined the league early last year, had never even skated before, nor had she any experience in contact sports, like rugby or ice hockey, that might have helped her efforts in muscling other competitors aside. But, as she says, practice pays off, and roller derby has taken on an important role in her life.

“We all play this sport because we love it and because of the community we’ve built around it,” she says.

Teresa Huang ’10
As the local Smith-heavy roller derby club approaches its final games of the season this weekend, Huang recently talked with her fellow Smith teammates—Aleks Kajstura ’05; Alex Deschamps ’05, who officiates roller derby; Myra Lam ’11; Sharla Alegria, visiting instructor in sociology; and Diane Williams, who completed her masters degree in exercise and sport studies in 2010—about the sport and their participation.

How did Smith College prepare you for roller derby and life on eight wheels?

Aleks Kajstura: Smith prepared me for PVRD by providing a supportive sports environment via the Smith hockey team. Having some hockey experience definitely helped with derby.

Diane Williams: One of the things I loved about being at Smith as a graduate student and coach was seeing the ways that the undergraduates on my teams seemed to really embrace opportunities to be themselves and follow their passions. This same spirit is present in PVRD, and is part of what I have long loved about derby culture. Everyone has different talents and powerful contributions to make, and in a supportive environment, we can work together to realize a goal much greater than each of us could accomplish individually. Also, we have a lot of fun playing together, working hard, being silly, and just being a team!

Alex Deschamps ’05 in a referee crew huddle.
Photograph courtesy of Bob Dunnell –
Alex Deschamps: The reality of officiating in derby is that the majority of referees are male. This past May, I was the head referee of an officiating crew at a tournament, in charge of a group of extremely skilled referees, and in addition to being the only woman, I was also shorter than all of them by at least a foot. Smith helped prepare me for this type of situation—learning how to speak my mind and stick with my convictions. The Smith community is all about intelligence and understanding differences—that plays a large role in officiating roller derby, especially when an angry coach wants you to overturn a call.

Myra Lam: There are a lot of similarities between roller derby and synchronized swimming, which I began at Smith: moving in tandem with teammates, for example, competing in front of a crowd, wearing lamé costumes, and unfortunately, getting accidentally kicked in the sternum.

How have you seen roller derby evolve over the time you have been involved with the sport?

Diane Williams (on right) fends off an opposing
competitor. Photograph courtesy of
Black Dog Pictures.
Diane Williams: Some changes reflect the sense that derby is becoming a more “legitimate” sport. Themed uniforms have largely disappeared, replaced by shiny, corporate, fancy, traditional uniforms. This is one of the ways that the sport has moved to be more mainstream. However, many teams still have their own space for individuality, in ways I find really important. The members of PVRD’s women’s A-team, Western Mass Destruction, wear a uniform top and anything we want on the bottom, as long as it is black. This way, the women on the team don’t have to play in a uniform that forces them into someone else’s notion of what they “should wear” as a “female athlete.” Women play in long, baggy shorts, in tight shorts, and in “skorts,” and they are still recognizable as a team. In traditional sports culture we have this obsession with teams being identical, as though that is the only element that would bring a team together. I love that our team wears what we want, but there is no doubt we are a team.

Sharla Alegria: We are not playing the same game now that we were four years ago. When I started playing derby it was all about skating fast, making big hits, and embodying a kind of tough, cool, DIY/punk aesthetic. Now speed is reserved for occasions when it makes strategic sense; hits are smart, which usually means small; some of the DIY, “bad girl” aesthetic is still there, but it’s sharing space with more athletic focus. This kind of derby is actually much harder to play. Derby players have to be better skaters—more agile, faster, better at stopping, and much smarter—and teams have to be much tighter. Many plays just don’t work without trust and communication.

What’s the strangest misconception about modern day flat track roller derby that you’ve heard?

Diane Williams: That it’s all fake!

Alex Deschamps: “So where does the ball come in?”

Sharla Alegria: “Aren’t you worried someone will just beat you up?”

Pioneer Valley Roller Derby’s 2013 season closer takes place Sunday, Sept. 15, at the Mullins Center, University of Massachusetts, starting at 3 p.m. Tickets ($10 general admission, $8 for students) are available online and at Turn It Up Records in Northampton, Food For Thought Books in Amherst, and at the Mullins Center box office.

Edge of Sports with Lady Hulk

Dave Zirin’s show, “Edge of Sports” on XM/Sirius Radio, featured Lady Hulk. The episode, number 164, can be found at his website ( and on iTunes (the intro music starts at 36:41 and the interview lasts about ten minutes).

Lady Hulk notes, "Dave is an interesting and cool dude, who I worked on a documentary about (Not Just a Game: Power, Politics, and American Sports) and he’s the reason I wrote the article for The Nation. I think this is the first time derby has been mentioned on his show and I’m really proud of that!"