The Method to My Madness: Not as Easy as It Looks

For the last few months I’ve been writing about my research of women’s roller derby, but I haven’t said much about my process. Like roller derby, it’s not as easy as it looks. I’ve relied mainly on two books, Postmodern Interviewing by Jaber F. Gubrium and James A. Holstein, and Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes by Robert M. Emerson, Rachel I. Fritz and Linda L. Shaw. No matter what I may say below, I hold the authors of these books in the highest esteem and credit them for the quality of my research. With that disclaimer out of the way, I’ll share my observations about the research process.

My research process included interviews and ethnography. Interviewing, as I saw it, was more than question and answer, and the authors of Postmodern Interviewing agreed with me. They encouraged the interviewer (me) to be an active participant and “empirically document the meaning-making process” (p. 78). Taking their advice, I learned as much as I could about roller derby so that I could have a somewhat intelligent conversation with my interview subjects. Intelligence is, of course, relative when you are learning what to me was a foreign language, but I did my best. Actually, I found blatant ignorance to be more productive than savviness. In derby circles, it was expected that newcomers would need to start from scratch, and I got the derby experience from the ground up.

Chapter 7 of the book recommended that the interviewer open up with her own stories and show vulnerability. I admitted to every one of my interviewees that I was afraid of getting hurt, hoping to get some sort of commiseration. What I didn’t realize at the time was that derby means toughness; if you’re afraid of getting hurt, you keep it to yourself. Remember The Red Badge of Courage? That’s how derby girls see injuries. Gubrium and Holstein say it’s the interviewer’s job to listen, and that’s what I did. I overheard one pre-practice conversation where three members of the team compared healing injuries, trying to “one-up” each other. “I asked my doctor if dizziness was a sign of concussion,” one laughed. “You think I should skate with this bruise?” another joked, exhibiting an eggplant-like formation on her leg. I wondered if I would have to self-inflict a wound to be admitted to their confidence.

The ethnographic part of my research demanded that I commingle with my research subjects as more than a passive observer. Thus, Training Wheels. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes is the treatise on documenting the ethnographic experience. Most of their examples deal with obscure African tribes or inner city ghettos. Would my immersion into the training program of a suburban roller derby league benefit from the lessons of this book? Yes. Roller derby is a subculture, with mores and structures and pecking orders. If you don’t believe me, check out any of the myriad of scholarly ethnographic studies on the subject. The book recommended on page 134 observation of proper terms of address within the community: derby names. It later taught observation of social structure. I sat in on a team meeting in which a senior skater read the riot act to rookies for their lack of respect to coaches and veteran members of the team. And they say I’m not an ethnographer!

The book sets forth the process of how to write notes and when to write them. As for how, full sentences were out. I’m not a stenographer, nor am I a video recorder. I could only jot impressions and key words and hope they jogged a memory later. In my post-menopausal state, this wasn’t always a sure thing. When it came to my skating lessons, contemporaneous recording was out of the question. I made notes as soon as I could afterward, usually when I got home. Fortunately, the experience was so vivid and memorable that I had no problem remembering the details.

So that was my process, in a (large) nutshell. I took advice and methods from other sources, but I felt compelled to credit Postmodern Interviewing and Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. Two long, scholarly (not to mention, expensive) books about what I thought was essentially talking to people and taking notes. It turns out it isn’t as easy as it looks. My thanks to the authors.

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The Research Keeps on Rolling

I’ve done a lot of research on roller derby per se, but I asked myself, what if you want to exercise on wheels without getting pushed off the track? So I dug a little more and found Derby Lite. This is just what it sounds like, derby-type skating without the rough stuff. This is not a roller derby league; they don’t scrimmage or play in bouts. Derby Lite was formed for women who want to get the workout that derby girls get without the bruises. According to their website, “We fall – but usually on purpose; and get right back up again, because we learn the correct way to fall, so we don’t get hurt.”

This sounded great to me, and I said, where do I sign up? That’s the bad news: they don’t have a location near me. They are sprinkled around the country, so if you’re interested you should check their website. I emailed the director for more info; I will keep you posted.

Another soft derby option is One World Roller Derby, the brainchild of “The Hot Flash” in Seattle. She set out to make roller derby more approachable to women of all ages. As Hot Flash said in a recent email, “I’m on a mission to mainstream the sport.” This suggested to me that their derby is not quite as light as Derby Lite, but easier on the body than all-out, rock ‘em sock ‘em roller derby. I emailed Hot Flash for more details, such as whether her organization makes roller derby an option for older women. I will let you know when she responds.

That’s all I have for now. Hopefully I will hear back from DL and The Hot Flash soon.

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Following the Trail….

In my effort to follow the trail of breadcrumbs in the academic resources I started with “An Anthropological Study of Roller Derby: Performance of Gender and Rites of Passage Amongst the London Rockin’ Rollers”   by Diana Monserrat, Jan. 22, 2014. I reviewed this article in my blog post, “It’s More Than Academic.”  This paper focuses on the “Fresh Meat” program in the league in which the author inserted herself for an ethnographic study of roller derby. The Fresh Meat program exists in one form or another in most roller derby leagues. The author identifies it as a rite of passage. She argues that this ritual also serves as a “tool for restructuring social relations for the initiate.” She identifies three stages: separation (tryouts), transition (training) and incorporation (passing tests and joining the team).

Monserrat cites “The Female Significant in All-Women’s Amateur Roller Derby,” by Jennifer Carlson. This was also an ethnographic study. The author joined an anonymous team, attending practices and team meetings. She also utilized survey data. Her main line of inquiry was the way in which roller girls negotiate femininity. The author discussed the mixture of violence and exaggerated sexuality in makeup, dress and derby persona. She likened roller derby to the punk subculture in the way in which the roller girls used exaggerated feminine signifiers to act out against the archetypal female. Monserrat cites this article with reference to the creation of the derby persona by way of derby names that involve wordplay and are often raunchy in nature.

Carlson cites “Living the Paradox: Female Athletes Negotiate Femininity and Muscularity,” by Vikki Krane, Precilla Y.L. Choi, Shannon M. Baird, Christine M. Aimar & Kerrie Kauer. This study does not involve roller derby per se. It looks at female athletes and their perceptions about their own bodies and femininity (or lack thereof). They conducted research with female athletes in a university setting by way of interviews and questionnaires. They studied the dichotomy between the social feminine role and the perception of the female athlete’s femininity. They offered the question, “how do female athletes negotiate and reconcile the social expectations of femininity with their muscularity and athleticism?” They conclude that female athletes adopt two identities: “athlete and girl.” Carlson cites this article to demonstrate the views of a group of scholars that argue that “female participation in sports has resulted in the simultaneous expansion and subversion of emphasized femininity.”

Taken as a whole, the three articles discuss the interplay between women in sports and the traditional female role. I was especially interested in the way the conclusions of the third study compared with those of the second. Krane, et al. described competing roles that female athletes were forced to play in order to negotiate their femininity. Carlson describes how derby girls have resolved that conflict by integrating the exaggerated feminine within their sport psyche. Monserrat takes it a step further, demonstrating that the punk influences described by Carlson have developed into a social group with rituals and customs that associate the member to the group.

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California Derby Girl

On April 2, 2014 I conducted an interview with Dee Capaskater using Google Doc (or Google Drive). I chose this medium because I wanted the interview to be interactive without being limited to 140 characters. Google Doc also has the advantage of leaving you with a document that can be printed out when finished, relieving me of the chore of taking notes during the interview. I was able to read over Dee’s answers and formulate follow up questions. From her end, she could read my questions and ask for clarification if necessary.

Dee is a 47 year old derby girl from California. I found her through a Facebook page for roller derby skaters over 40, which she administers. Over 3500 men and women skaters belong to this group; Dee estimated that around 2000 of those skaters are women. Dee began roller derby in Oregon in 2006 at the age of 40. She had been skating since 1974, so this was not a new activity for her. She said that in the early days there wasn’t as much emphasis on proper gear. She has suffered a few soft tissue injuries but nothing that sidelined her for long. She has skated in leagues in Portland and Salem, Oregon and in Chicago. Dee is proud of her age and never felt at a disadvantage because of it, even when playing against younger women. She said, “When I tell them how old I am, they are shocked.” That’s always a nice feeling!

Dee is not skating with a team at the present. Because there are no leagues near where she lives now, she is in the process of forming a league and getting back to team skating as soon as she can. When asked what advice she would give someone beginning over 40, she said, “Don’t compare yourself to others. Your progress will always be different from the lady next to you if she is 22 years old or 62 years old. This is your journey and no one else’s.”

I feel this was a successful interview. I used active and reflective techniques from Postmodern Interviewing.  I used my experiences learning to skate and my fears about injuries to elicit responses from her about her own experiences. The Google Doc format was a good medium for this type of interview. However, I do feel that in person interviews are generally preferable. There is no substitute for eye contact, facial expression and body language. While I believe that Dee was being honest with me, there may have been areas where she held back because she was trying to portray a positive picture.

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No Limits: The Cycrone! & DeVoida Mercy

On March 30, 2014 I interviewed The Cycrone! as part of my roller derby research. This took place at the Philly Roller Girls Cheeseskate bout against the Strong Island Derby Revolution. The Cycrone! was not skating that day, since the bout matched two rookie squads.  She was busy  putting on the event, and therefore had limited time to talk. I asked specific questions to get basic information that I needed. I set up a dialogue to the extent possible in the short time we had. That is, when she mentioned something I thought needed clarification or supplementing I would go back to that when she stopped talking. I tried not to interrupt her flow. Unfortunately, because of the limited time I could not make this interview as “active” as I had intended.

I learned that The Cycrone! is 51 years old, which is within the age group that I am studying. She has been skating with the Philly Roller Girls for six years. I asked about injuries, and she told me that she broke her shoulder in the first week. She went back to skating as soon as her recovery (and doctor) permitted.  She broke her ankle in 2010 and her wrist in 2012. She will be retiring from skating in July of this year, not because of her age or injuries, but because she is moving to Connecticut. She told me that, if not for the move, she would continue to compete with the team indefinitely. I asked her about finding a league to skate with in Connecticut. She has looked into this but decided that the leagues available there are not up to the level she is used to; she does not want to start over.

I would like to have engaged in a more extended dialogue and elicited more information, but The Cycrone! had to return to working the gate. She passed me off to Devoida Mercy, who would be watching the bout with me. Overall, I would say my interview with The Cycrone! was a disappointment. I wanted to ask her about her place in the social hierarchy of the team, how the younger girls viewed and treated her. I would have been the “active interviewer,” a technique discussed in Chapter 4 of Postmodern Interviewing.


I had some time to chat with DeVoida Mercy before the bout began. She started with the Philly Roller Girls five years ago at the age of 40. She had been athletic all her life – she was a figure roller skater at 19 – but she still finds that she has to work harder to keep up with the younger skaters. She is passionate about roller derby and league, volunteering for administrative and supervisory positions. She admitted that roller derby consumes a lot of time, but she would happily give more if she could. She views the women on the team as her family.

Mercy candidly talked about injuries. Several members of the team have CPR and first aid training. The league requires someone with such training to be present at every practice. Ironically, most injuries occur during practice or team scrimmages. Mercy herself suffered fractured ribs, a nicked artery in her leg, and a broken nose and concussion, all during practices. After each of these injuries she was back on the track within a few weeks.

Mercy spoke with special pride about coaching the junior league. In this league, girls ages seven through seventeen learn the basics of roller derby, from skating and proper falling to the rules of the sport. They engage in scrimmages and junior bouts with what she calls “light contact.” The junior league has been a very successful program and a useful tool for recruiting new members for the adult league.

My interview with DeVoida Mercy provided a lot of information. Mercy talked freely about her experiences and required minimal coaxing to keep going. When I felt I had gotten as much as I could in one area I needed only to open a new topic to start the information flowing. There was very little “question and answer;” the interview was definitely active and reflexive. This was a very successful interview.

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It’s More Than Academic

In the course of my research I found a lot of articles on the internet about roller derby. The most surprising were the scholarly studies and dissertations. I used one of those scholarly papers in my posts about the history of roller skating (Girls on Wheels) and women’s roller derby (Full Circle: A Brief History). I want to talk now about a dissertation I found titled, “An Anthropological Study of Roller Derby: Performance of Gender and Rites of Passage Amongst the London Rockin’ Rollers” by Diana Monserrat. I found this paper interesting because the author conducted an ethnographic study; she inserted herself into the roller derby league to study it from the inside, much the way I did (on a smaller scale) with the South Jersey Derby Girls.

The paper deals with the “Fresh Meat” program, a training program conducted by the London Rockin’ Rollers. The author went through the twelve week program and became a member of the team, a “Roller Girl,” complete with derby name (Diana Might). Her research methodology was much as described in the book, Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes by Emerson, Fretz & Shaw. Through a combination of participation and interviews she compiled subject narratives and personal observations to support her dissertation hypothesis. She concluded that The “Fresh Meat” training program represented a “rite of passage” that reinforces the bond of roller girl to her team and derby community. She used prior research on the subject of such rituals to identify three stages: separation (tryouts), transition (training) and incorporation (passing of minimum skills test and making the team).

How does this paper relate to my research? In my study of South Jersey Derby Girls, I conducted a similar ethnographic study. I began with my observation of practice, wherein I made careful and detailed fieldnotes. I interviewed various members of the team, using active methods taught in Postmodern Interviewing by Gubrium & Holstien. This was not too successful at that first practice because the women were busy skating. When I began Training Wheels (sounds kind of whimpy compared to “Fresh Meat,” doesn’t it?) I found it easier to engage my trainer and fellow trainees in conversation. I also learned firsthand what the training skaters go through. There was no tryout, and therefore no “separation,” so that part of the ritual was absent. The training with SJDG has no set duration and the “transition” is therefore less rigid than that of the LRR, however I think it serves the same purpose. Although I only went through two training sessions, by the time the second one was over I felt more acclimated to both the women and the activity of skating.

The last stage – incorporation – is something I will probably never accomplish. However, two of the elements Monserrat describes that I believe are part of the SJDG routine are sacrifice and selection of the derby name. Sacrifice for roller derby can be money (dues, equipment, travel expenses), time or body. The last can be the biggest. Skaters I spoke to suffered fractured shoulders, ankles, wrists and ribs, which can mean time away from work and family.

The selection of the derby name is the prize, the symbol that skater has attained the respect of her teammates. The derby persona becomes the skater’s identity within the group; in many cases it was the only name I was given. When I first met my fellow trainees I asked for their derby names. Darcy told me that she didn’t have one yet; it had to be earned. Indeed, they are the only skaters I interviewed without derby names. So, since I have faith in them and know that one day they will both skate on the team, I will make suggestions. For Darcy: “Dark Seed”. For Angel: “Angel of Death.” I checked the International Register of Derby Names. Darcy’s is not taken. Angel, sorry, you’ll have to be more clever than I am.

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My Spirited Guide

On Sunday I went to my first real, live roller derby bout. The Philly Roller Girls Cheeseskate squad battled the Strong Island Derby Revolution from New York. Devoida Mercy (or Mercy, for short), a veteran member of the PRG, acted as my interpreter for the day.

The bout took place at the Millennium Skate Center in Camden, New Jersey. I arrived an hour before the start time. The parking lot was packed, and I had to dash from the edge of the lot through the rain to get to the entrance. Inside, the atmosphere felt more like a cheerleading competition than a hard-hitting sports bout. Tables of cupcakes, tee shirts and assorted souvenirs raised money to support PRG, reminding all that this was a community-based league. Children worked off energy (supplied by the awesome cupcakes) while their mothers waited for the action to begin – some watching, some skating. The spectators either staked a claim to wall space outside or set up portable chairs on the inside edge of the rink. Most of them carried cowbells to cheer on their favorite team.

I met Mercy before the bout and she led me inside to watch the action from right in front of the announcer’s booth. I could not have asked for a more enthusiastic companion. She told me quite candidly that roller derby was her life. At 45 she was one of the older skaters, but she had no plans to retire any time soon. Her job as a corporate trainer involves traveling and keeps her busy, but she still manages to schedule her vacations and time off around her derby schedule. She recently tried out for the national team that will be playing for the Women’s World Cup in Dallas this December. Although she didn’t make the final cut, she came close enough to be proud of her effort, and was thrilled to be on the track next to nationally ranked skaters.

Before the first whistle blew Mercy pointed out the EMT’s. WFTDA rules state that medical personnel must be present at every bout. The two EMT’s on hand today were regulars and were familiar with the kind of injuries common to roller derby. Next she pointed to the men in the pale pink shirts. They volunteered to keep track of stats and penalties, and do other miscellaneous officiating. The refs, also volunteers, wore zebra shirts, helmets and skates. They located themselves inside and outside the oval track, which was outlined on the floor with tape.

The teams lined up, the whistle blew and the first jam began. Mercy pointed out the skater with the star on her helmet; she was a jammer. The jammers (one on each team) started behind the pack. The first one to break through the pack was the “lead” jammer. One of the interior refs kept track of her with one arm pointing at her and the other arm straight up in the air (“L,” for lead). Lead jammer is a coveted position. She skated around the track and came up behind the pack, with the other jammer on her heel. The lead jammer muscles her way through the pack and past as many of the opposing teams skaters as possible, scoring a point for each skater she passes. The blockers on the other team try to stop her, while the blockers on her own team try to stop the blockers from the other team from stopping her. The other jammer can score the same way, but the lead jammer can call off the jam once she is through the pack to prevent the other team’s jammer from scoring any points. To call off the jam, the jammer must bring both wrists down and hit her hips. We saw one jammer do this several times before the whistle finally blew. If she is tentative and doesn’t bring her wrists all the way down (or if the ref doesn’t see her), the jam continues until it is called off or two minutes expires. Another lead jammer tried to call off the jam after she was called for a penalty so, once again, the jam went on. Confused yet?

Bodies flew as skaters were pushed or knocked off the track. Once off the track (out of bounds), a skater must reenter at the back of the pack, or at least behind the skater who knocked her out. Failure to do this properly will land her in the penalty box. We saw several skaters pulled out of play and sent to the box for this and varied other infractions (Mercy admitted that even she couldn’t always keep up with the penalties called). Penalties last for thirty seconds. Seven penalties is the limit; after that the skater is out.

At one point the other team’s jammer was sent to the box, and Mercy called this a “power jam,” meaning that the jammer still on the track could keep going around and scoring points without having to worry about the other team scoring points (which meant she had no reason to call off the jam).

At another point the skaters got spaced out on the track, and Mercy told me that this was no longer a pack. Why does this matter? Because a skater who is not a part of the pack cannot legally block. The skaters must be within twenty feet of each other to be part of a pack. If a blocker hits when she is not in a legal pack, off to the penalty box she goes. Staying together is good, spreading apart is bad.

Twenty minutes and numerous two-minute jams later halftime came. Mercy had a prior commitment had to leave. I returned to my car with a better understanding of the rules of roller derby and the committed ladies who play. With practice three nights a week, travel to away games as far as New York or Baltimore, fundraising, community service and injuries, roller derby is more than a pastime. It’s a calling.

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