Duluth.com the Magazine: Rollin’ with the Dames

During the week, they are nurses, directors, graphic artists, teachers, and moms. But come the weekend, when they don their skates and their helmets, members of the Harbor City Roller Dames are some of the toughest girls in town.

The Harbor City Roller Dames are the Twin Ports and Northern Minnesota’s original women’s flat track roller derby league. Skater owned, the Dames provide what they call “athletic entertainment,” and give much of the proceeds from their bouts, and their time, back to the community. Team members are quick to point out this is a serious athletic event and not the theatrical, often obnoxiously bloody jamming that went on in the 80s.

“We are moving away from the fishnet tights and we have uniforms, and we are moving away from the idea that this is about beating each other up,” says Keely (Norwegian Squirrel) Johnson, who is called a “Most Valuable Player” by her teammates. “These are real athletes who have spent a lot of practice time getting a strategy and skill down. Once people come watch it, they get it.”

Indeed, Wikipedia describes modern-day derby as a “grassroots, early 21st century revival spearheaded by women restoring an emphasis on athleticism.”

“I can see a time when the leagues will move away from our derby names as well,” Johnson says. The sisters of derby rarely, if ever, call each other by their real names, instead choosing monikers such as Harlot Fever, Janet Smackson, Sarah Whalin’ and Devil Mama.

“Sometime I actually forget someone’s real name,” Johnson adds. “It’s really funny when we are traveling and go to restaurants and we’re all yelling these crazy names across the table.”

Some of those names, she admits, can be a little on the raunchy side.

Harbor City Roller Dame, Heidi (Rogue) Lord, who, by day, is the manager of orchestral operations and special events for the Duluth Symphony Orchestra, interjects by reciting a shortlist of some of the raunchiest and funniest she’s heard. If you’re curious, there are a remarkable 40,000 skater names registered on the International Rollergirls’ Master Roster (twoevils.org/rollergirls/).

Lord notes there are no age barriers to the sport, citing derby names indicative of this, such as Granny No Panties and Vintage Vixon. The sport is open to anyone over 19, who is willing to work hard enough to pass a basic skills test. While the dames are obviously having fun out there, they recognize they are also running a business. The team has a general manager, treasurer, and committees formed to handle aspects such as bout production, charitable donations, event promotions and finances. But, according to Sammee (Shadow Cat) Niesche, there is very little profit at the end of the day, after expenses.

“It’s expensive to hold these events,” she said. “We have to rent a venue, promote the event and so forth.” Much of the expense falls solely on the skaters, who foot the bill for their own travel, food and accommodations when they attend bouts, while also paying a $30 a month membership fee and purchasing their own uniforms.

“We would love to have a major sponsor and partner with them,” Michelle (Maulie McNaughty) Connaughty says. “We are bringing really great entertainment to the DECC and Wessman Arena, and that costs money. We are giving back to the community wherever we can. We’re getting exposure and I can see a business benefiting from partnering with us.”

Through volunteer opportunities and bout proceeds, the Dames have given thousands of dollars back to the community. Team members have worked to benefit organizations such as Animal Allies, Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault, The Emily Program, Safe Haven Shelter, Habitat for Humanity, Special Olympics, Damiano Center Kids’ Cafe, Center Against Sexual and Domestic Abuse, First Witness Child Abuse Resource Center, and the Lakes and Pines Girl Scouts Outreach to Girls at Risk Program.

And sometimes it’s all done at the cost of broken bones, bruised ribs and welts that would make a man cry. “I’m bruised pretty much all of the time,” says Johnson. “But we do have a fan club of young girls, and that kind of makes it worthwhile. We get to be role models for young women and that means a lot to us.”

Harbor City Roller Dames’ wheels first started spinning in January of 2007. Bringing the fastest growing sport in the nation to the Twin Ports wasn’t easy. The team came up against a number of obstacles, but passion drove them forward. In October of 2009, the league became skater-owned and hit the track for its first official competitive season.

The Dames have hosted bouts at World of Wheels Skate Center, Wessman Arena and the DECC, inviting leagues from around the Midwest and Canada to skate by the Lake. They have also traveled to compete against neighboring leagues in Wisconsin, North Dakota, Iowa, and Canada. The team earned acceptance into the Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby Association (WFTDA) in June of 2013 and has hosted WFTDA-sponsored tournaments.

The league is open to all women (again, ages 19 and up)—no matter their size, shape, or present skating ability. You must identify as female to skate with the Dames, but any person over 18 is welcome to join the referee and nonskating official staff.

According to Connaughty, who is the team’s recruitment co-chair, it takes a while to learn the rules and the strategy, but once skaters get onboard with those, the game is fun, great exercise, and a terrific way to bond with other women.

“It can be confusing at first,” she admits. “Obviously there is more to it than just skating, but that’s what the rest of the team is here for, to help people learn.”

The Harbor City Roller Dames will host its next bout on Saturday, May 21 at Wessman Arena in Superior. Doors open at 5:00 pm. The team also holds periodic open skates for new skaters at World of Wheels Skate Center, 1218 Oakes Avenue, Superior, WI.

Written by Holly Kelsey-Henry. Originally Published in Duluth.com the Magazine May 2016 issue. Get yours on newsstands today.