Recently, I attended a Brewcity Bruisers’ bout. I admit that I didn’t know much about the game, other than what I had read about online and seen in the film "Whip It." But it didn’t matter.
The spirit and energy mixed with uber-confident skating was enough for me to enjoy every minute of both bouts – and to figure out more about how the game is played.
Roller derby is played by more than 1,200 teams world wide, many of which are outside the United States.
The Brewcity Bruisers are a member of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association and have been around since 2005. The organization is made up of four home teams: Crazy 8s, Rushin’ Rollettes, Shevil Knevils and Maiden Milwaukee.
At events, two bouts (games) are played so all four teams compete every time. There are five events in the season.
On Saturday, May 10 the Brewcity Bruisers will play the final bouts for the home season. Maiden Milwaukee and the Crazy Eights will skate it out for first and second place; the Shevil Knevils and the Rushin’ Roulettes will compete for third and fourth.
The event takes place at 7 p.m. at the U.S. Cellular Arena. Tickets cost $15 in advance or $18 at the door. Kids (6-12) and seniors (55 and older) are $12 or $15.
Recently, I had the chance to chat with Rebecca Berkshire – whose derby name is "Becky The Butcher."
Berkshire has been on the team since the beginning, but knew almost nothing about the sport when she started playing.
"It was all new to me at the time. I had never skated or played sports," says Berkshire. "But someone approached me and said, ‘Hey, you look like you should play roller derby’ and I was like, ‘Is there a ball?’"
Berkshire attended the first practice, held at Incredi-Roll in West Allis, with a new pair of roller-skates and gear. The other women were new to the sport, too.
"We were all getting into roller derby for the first time. It’s not like baseball or soccer – a sport that people grew up playing," says Berkshire. "It was a crossroads moment in my life. I said, ‘I’m going to do this.’"
Today, Berkshire serves as the league president and as a coach and player on the Shevil Knevils. She is also a member of the All Stars Team, the Bruisers’ strongest skaters who represent the league regionally.
The Brewcity Bruisers played publicly for the first time in an expo at Summerfest shortly after the league formed. The team later started having regular bouts at the Franklin Sports Complex and moved to the U.S. Cellular Arena in Downtown Milwaukee a few years ago.
The Cell has allowed the team to grow – most bouts were sold out in the Franklin space which had a capacity of 2,000 – but it’s also been an adjustment.
"It’s like being a big fish in a small pond versus the small fish in a big pond," says Berkshire.
Attendance at bouts has increased over the years as more people have learned of the sport and the teams.
"I’d still like to see more butts in seats," says Berkshire.
Berkshire says the aforementioned 2009 film, "Whip It," increased awareness of the sport, too.
"The movie did a lot of good things for roller derby," says Berkshire. "It’s not my style of movie, but the roller derby community doesn’t look down on it."
Trying to increase the legitimacy of the sport is the the main focus of many women playing roller derby.
"The sport has changed and it’s really about the competition and the strength it brings out in the players," says Berkshire.
In the beginning, for some, the game was more about image. But that has changed.
"Some players were really into what they wore – their ‘boutfit’ – the fishnets and tutus and that kind of sh-t," says Berskhire.
Most of the women on the team, Berkshire says, don’t have tattoos – despite the stereotype.
"It’s not that playing derby makes you a bad ass, it’s the other way around. You’re a bad ass first. Having tattoos has nothing to do with that," says Berkshire.
Berskhire has suffered very few injuries over the past eight years – mostly "ass bruises and "rink rash." And although she considers herself lucky, she also says injuries are a part of the sport.
"When someone gets injured it shows their chops. It’s about recovering from an injury," she says. "Tenacity is the most important thing in roller derby," she says. "You get knocked down – both figuratively and literally – and you have to get back up."
Roller derby players come in a wide range of body types and sizes.
"A lot of people think you need to be big or small or fast but really it’s the willingness to keep going," says Berkshire. "You play to your strengths. And having strong legs and a strong core is important. That’s where all the power comes from."
The Bruisers have team members who range in age from their early 20s to those who are well into their 40s.
"Some players are more concerned with injury than others," she says. "It has nothing to do with age. It’s personality and attitude."
Plus, the Brewcity Bruisers recently started a rec league called the Brewcity Bootleggers and a Junior Derby league – aptly named the MicroBruisers – for girls under 18.
In 2010, a men’s roller derby team, Milwaukee Blitzdkrieg, was formed.
The Brewcity Bruisers’ home season will end after the bouts on May 10, but the sport rolls on all summer with the Midwest BrewHaha at the end of May, upcoming All Star bouts and more.
Berkshire will also work on training new recruits this summer.
"I will be doing derby until I can do derby no longer," she says. "I’m going to skate as long as my body lets me."
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.