“Pride and Prejudice” and roller skates ostensibly have nothing in common.
But ask Devoney Looser, an English professor at Arizona State University’s Barrett Honors College, and she’ll tell you a different story.
Looser moonlights as adviser of the Derby Devils, ASU’s co-ed roller derby team, under the moniker Stone Cold Jane Austen.
Though teaching classic literature by day and rocking roller skates and fishnets by night may seem inherently polarized, Looser says that being a skater has made her a better professor.
“Derby often puts me in the position of being a learner, trying to do new things that challenge me and are sometimes intimidating,” she says. “It helps me be more sensitive to that mindset, to encourage risk-taking, to work to bring students forward.”
Roller derby has come forward a long way in its own right. The sport started as early as the 1930s, with DIY community-based leagues centered on fake names and quirky costumes. The 21st-century revival of the amateur women’s sport kept the theatrical aspects, but transitioned from a silly spectacle to legitimate rules-bound play.
The team captain, Trueth Verou, says the main concept has been preserved: “quad roller skates, an emphasis on agility and grit, and a lot of attitude.”
“Roller derby isn’t professional wrestling on skates any longer,” says Looser. “The new derby is played on both banked tracks and flat tracks, and it has taken off like wildfire. Within a decade, the sport went from nothing to more than 1,000 amateur leagues across the world.”
The sport is played five-on-five on an oval track. A player from each team is designated as the jammer, responsible for scoring points. The other four players, the blockers, play offense and defense simultaneously, trying to help the jammer score by passing opposing players’ hips. The blockers also try to stop the opposing jammer from getting through the pack of players. Skaters can do nearly anything to stop a jammer, as long as they don’t elbow or punch.
Despite its international popularity, roller derby has yet to take off as an organized college sport.
ASU’s derby team started in 2013 when Maiden Asia, an ASU undergrad and skater from a local league, approached Looser about creating a derby booster organization at the university. Looser then evolved from a professor-skater to the organization’s first faculty adviser. Within the first year, the participating students wanted to establish a co-ed team. The Derby Devils then began its transition into a recognized club sport.
That led to the first-ever collegiate roller derby bout in 2014, between the Derby Devils and the University of Arizona Derby Cats. Although U of A defeated ASU, 341-115, Looser says making roller derby history was a victory in itself.
The Derby Devils played U of A again in 2015. This time, they celebrated a win at home to a sold-out crowd.
Among Looser’s favorite things about derby is its inclusiveness. Even though it incorporates a put-on persona, it is a sport that allows players to be themselves and truly express who they are. The Derby Devils accept all skill levels, body types and genders. All it requires is passion and practice.
Verou says he has always considered himself an introvert. His derby persona, Half-Hazard, allows him to come out of his shell.
“I never would have imagined that I would be the captain of a sports team,” he says. “My derby name, which I chose while I was learning how to skate…reflects my play style. I act tough on the field, but I’m actually pretty small and have to rely on my speed rather than strength, which puts me into some risky situations.”
Verou describes derby as a “new, alternative sport that accommodates a much larger pool of athletes than usual.”
“My favorite thing about the Derby Devils is that most of our players … would not have considered themselves athletic before considering joining roller derby,” he explains. “But since they started playing, I think they’ve challenged themselves and are much stronger because of it.”
The team now has 24 registered players of varying skill levels. Though the sport is still female-dominated, five of the Derby Devils are male. Verou says it’s like having dozens of brothers and sisters.
“Some are playing for local leagues and aspiring to be professional players, and others are just students learning how to skate and wanting to have fun,” says Verou. “We’ve all grown very close…I know that they would do anything for me and that they could expect the same from me.”
The Devils practice twice a week in one of ASU’s large indoor gymnasiums, where they’ve taped down a Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) regulation track. Because other universities are still building their teams, they often rely on local Phoenix leagues for competition.
“Luckily, there is a large roller derby culture in Phoenix and the community has been great,” says Verou.
Looser adds that Arizona Roller Derby has played an integral role in the growth of their team. AZRD is among the earliest established flat-track derby leagues and boasts more than 100 active skaters.
“They have skaters of all skill levels, from beginners–we call that ‘fresh meat’–to city-league players, to an amazing national travel team,” says Looser.
Verou says roller derby is unique in that it embraces beginners.
“I love seeing new skaters pick up the team mantle and really have fun on the track,” he says. “I have learned that having fun playing is equal to—more important even—than trying to rack up points.”
Looser agrees that having fun is among the most paramount principles of the game. In fact, she says it is the only exercise she’s ever found 100% fun.
“Roller derby fosters one of the most amazing, fun, and inclusive groups of people you could hope to find,” she says. “You’re all there on skates, pushing your own physical limits, and supporting and shoving each other. … There’s a lot of laughing.”
Verou says the team is working toward playing an out-of-state collegiate game. In the meantime, it continues to play against community teams.
“Roller derby is just picking up at the college level and there is an exciting future ahead of it,” he says. “In the next few years I would like to see more university teams established…to widen this amazing community and bring it more into the mainstream.”