By Amy Wight Chapman
Telstar Middle School art teacher Melissa Prescott has an alter ego.
At roller derby bouts and practices in Portland with her home team, the R.I.P. Tides, on the road with her league’s travel team, the Port Authorities, or competing nationally with Team Maine Roller Derby, she’s Frida Rockit, formidable athlete and staunch advocate for her sport.
Prescott’s league, Maine Roller Derby, like other leagues around the state, is a member of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, the international governing body for the sport, which has member leagues across the country and around the world.
Teams skate on a flat, rather than banked, track, which is less expensive to build and maintain.
“With flat track, you can play on any concrete or gym floor surface,” said Prescott, who has been participating in roller derby since the fall of 2013.
Earlier that year, she took a group of middle school students to the roller rink at the River Valley Recreation Center in Mexico as part of Telstar’s Winter Fun Day.
She found she enjoyed roller skating, and became interested in using it as a fitness regimen. That spring, she joined a class called Derby Lite at the Happy Wheels Skate Center in Portland.
“Derby Lite uses the skills and drills of roller derby, but is non-contact,” she said.
The exercise program, which began in Chicago and is now offered in a dozen locations across the country, welcomes women of all ages, fitness levels, and abilities.
After a few months of building her skills through Derby Lite, Prescott decided to take things a step further. She tried out and won a spot in the Maine Roller Derby League, founded in Portland in 2006.
Roller derby revival
Roller derby was popular as a spectator sport in the mid-20th century, with bouts held at premier venues like Madison Square Garden.
The sport gradually became more theatrical in nature, and in the 1970s it was syndicated and bouts were staged, similar to WWE wrestling matches. By the middle of the decade, the popularity of roller derby had declined.
Several attempts to revive the sport did not succeed, until 2001, when the first all-female league to be run entirely by women was formed in Texas.
Within five years, there were more than 80 similarly run leagues in existence.
The leagues are run like businesses, with a tight organizational structure, said Prescott, who serves as vice chair of the Maine Roller Derby board of directors.
The 2006 A&E documentary-style reality series “Rollergirls,” about the Texas league, enhanced the sport’s renewed popularity.
The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, formed in 2004, now has over 350 full member leagues, as well as 71 apprentice leagues.
“It’s everywhere. I don’t think there’s a state in the country where you can’t find roller derby,” Prescott said.
In addition to Maine Roller Derby, there are six other women’s roller derby leagues in Maine, as well as two men’s leagues.
Members from all of the Maine women’s leagues make up Team Maine Roller Derby, which competes against teams of the best players from other states in high-level tournaments.
After the end of the 2015 WFTDA regular competition season last June, Team Maine Roller Derby held weekly practices at tracks around the state from July to December before heading to Florida to compete in the State Wars Roller Derby Tournament in Daytona Beach.
It was Team Maine’s second trip to State Wars. In 2014, they had lost all of their five bouts. At last month’s tournament, they won three out of five, to finish in eighth place overall.
In February, Team Maine Roller Derby heads to Hatfield, Penn. to compete against nine other teams in the Battle of the All-Stars State Tournament.
“An Act to Promote Roller Derby”
Despite the fact that roller derby is thriving in the state, a statute currently on the books in Maine means it is technically illegal to deliberately cause a collision on skates.
Complying with the statute would make it impossible for roller derby skaters to do the very things that define their sport—bumping and pushing one another as players known as “jammers” attempt to make their way through a pack of “blockers” and then to pass the opposing team’s jammers on the track.
Prescott said the law originated as part of the Roller Skating Safety Act of 1991, long before the current resurgence of roller derby, and was intended to protect the operators of roller rinks from liability.
The statute has never been enforced with regard to roller derby events. However, because Maine Roller Derby hopes to expand the sport by creating a junior league, and has recently embarked on a capital campaign to raise funds to purchase its own property for a rink, it is important to the organization to remove any legal barriers to the sport in Maine.
“An Act to Promote Roller Derby” was introduced to the 2016 Maine legislative session by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland. It seeks to end the prohibition on contact by providing an exception for games and practices that are part of officially sanctioned roller derby events.
Maine Roller Derby took the lead on the new legislation, but Prescott said they are working closely with the state’s other roller derby leagues as stakeholders.
When a public hearing on the bill is held in Augusta, she said, “we’ll go to the State House in roller skates to testify.”
An inclusive community
Prescott says the benefits of roller derby go far beyond entertainment, and revolve around the ideals of community, athleticism, and teamwork.
Unlike most competitive sports, roller derby draws participants of all ages. It’s common for women in their 40s to take it up for the first time, and some skaters continue into their 70s.
“Roller derby appeals to people who have played other sports in the past, but also to people who have never thought of themselves as athletes,” Prescott said.
“What it does for people’s body image is amazing. You see that your goal is not to shrink your body. You are eating well and working out for a purpose.”
The sport’s inclusivity extends to gender identification as well. The WFTDA’s website states that the organization “will actively work to promote a climate that is welcoming and inclusive of transgender, intersex, and gender expansive participants.”
“If you identify as a female, you can play, which is unlike any other sport in the world,” Prescott said.
She said Maine Roller Derby has over 70 members, including skaters, officials, and volunteers, all of whom support each other.
For example, the league recently rallied around a skater whose sister lost everything in a home fire.
“People get very connected to the roller derby community,” Prescott said.
Maine Roller Derby’s two home teams, the R.I.P. Tides and the Calamity Janes, will compete in a Winter Classic bout at Happy Wheels Skate Center in Portland on January 30.
For more information about the league, see their website, www.mainerollerderby.com or follow them on Facebook.