On a recent Sunday, outside a large warehouse in the Columbia Park neighborhood, two dozen athletes stood near the steps of a loading dock. Dressed in brightly-colored tank tops, mesh-panel leggings and lots of tattoos, they chatted with each other before being called inside. They lined up to get paper numerals attached to their tops, and numbers marked on their right arms. Each signed a waiver, strapped on a helmet, elbow and knee pads, and pulled on a pair of quad skates.
The event was the annual tryout for places on the North Star Roller Derby (NSRD) teams, whose headquarters is in Northeast Minneapolis. The skating hopefuls were competing for the chance to be on one of four home teams (the Banger Sisters, Delta Delta Di, Kilmore Girls and Violent Femmes) and to be skating officials. Tryouts for the two traveling teams (the Supernovas and the Northern Lights) take place in the fall, once people are in the league. All applicants had filled out questionnaires which asked about skating and other athletic experience, why they want to join the North Star Roller Derby, and asked for a self-description in ten words or less.
Sunday’s tryouts were split into a morning and afternoon session, accommodating about 50 would-be teammates. Most of the skaters had attended a recruiting clinic, a kind of boot camp for beginners or skaters who want to brush up on their skills. Clinics are held from March through May. More than a dozen team captains, staff members and judges observed as the skaters sprinted, slalomed, reversed and skated in tight groups around an oval painted on the concrete floor. When stopping as a group (lining up the heels of the skates at a 90-degree angle), the sound is like a car tire screeching.
The judges watch for skaters’ ability to skate in tight groups, on one knee, crouching low and standing high. They also like stability and control around other skaters. Unlike the ramped tracks of years gone by, almost all derbies today are played on flat concrete. Since 2008, the NSRD has been a member of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), an international organization that governs the rules and structure of modern roller derby. This gave the league the opportunity to be ranked nationally and gain entrance to regional and national tournaments. NSRD is ranked internationally at #60, giving them access to national and international tourneys.
Team members give themselves “derby names,” among them Gigi Whiz, Red Hot Toddy, Red Panda, Alabama Slamma and Blue Barracuda. League member Toddy described what the teams were looking for: “Skating skills, yes, but everyone has something they’re good at, regardless of age or body type. We think the most important thing is the ability to work harder and show a commitment to the tasks.” She added that being on the traveling teams involves car-pooling, doubling up in rooms, and long hours away from home. “We just got back from Guelph, Ontario, and will travel to Oklahoma City and Chicago. These are really family-friendly events.”
Home court is at the Lee and Rose Warner Coliseum at the state fairgrounds. Bouts (not games or matches) played by the home teams bring in an average of 800 to 1,000 spectators. The season can vary in the number of bouts, and usually runs from October to March. The players are assisted by a pool of 40 volunteers. There is also a recreational team, the Satellites, who skate non-competitively. Toddy says the league finances itself by monthly dues from members, and bout ticket sales.
Toddy said that at the end of the Sunday tryouts, 37 people were selected for Bootcamp 1 this summer, a mix of skaters and officials. They must complete 50 percent of the practices, continue to work on their skills, and will be assessed again at the end of the camp. Those who show improvement will move on to Bootcamp 2, where they start to learn more about derby and the rules, and get a lot more scrimmage time. The 50 percent attendance requirement remains, along with a volunteer-hour component. She added, “Skaters who complete both of those will be eligible for the draft in the fall, where home teams will pick up skaters who are the best fit athletically and personality-wise for their team. Not all skaters are drafted, and with a large potential draft pool, it will be competitive this year.”
Below: Skaters tried out for the North Star Roller Derby, skating with team members, and skating in formation. (Photos by Mark Peterson)