It's approaching 7 o'clock on a Monday night when the DJ interrupts the disco and pop music tumbling out of massive speakers to tell the practice skaters at Arkansas Skatium to start clearing the floor.
As youngsters clamber to the waiting arms of their parents, a phalanx of women roll out to a marked oval in the center of the surface. Clad head-to-toe in protective gear, they are a motley collection, here for the regular practice of the Rock Town Roller Derby league.
By sheer coincidence, Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby, One More Time" squeals from the speakers.
There are no faux schoolgirl uniforms in sight but the sentiment is fitting; these ladies have come to do just that and laugh about it later.
"It's not a violent sport but it's an aggressive sport, you're supposed to be aggressive," said Rachelle Jones, aka Copperhead Rogue, with a wide smile. "It's not 'Girls aren't supposed to hit people.' It's 'No, you're gonna hit people.' That's the main part of it."
The love of contact may be the only constant for the league these days. Change has come to the squad and lots of it in 2018, including new name, team colors, home venue and the overall tone of the organization.
Rock Town's growing presence in Women's Flat Track Derby Association competition has raised all boats from fan interest and managing larger groups of prospective members to overall expectations.
There's still a playfulness that exists on the edges of tonight's warmup, but it's muted, a noticeable byproduct of the club's recent success.
"Roller derby's got that quirky group of people. You meet people you never would have met before," said Jessica Saum, aka Getcha Saum, league president. "There's always going to be that need and that want for the niche that roller derby fills."
"But at the same time, it's become much more athletic. We're a nonprofit. It's a business and we're having to run it like a business still holding onto that fishnets and tutus feeling without wearing the fishnets and tutu."
Saum pauses, momentarily wistful. Then it's back to business.
"I want it to grow as a sport. I'd like it to get more recognition," she said. "There's a price to pay for that."
The quandary of packaging rebel ethos in a professional wrapper -- or vice versa -- presents itself around every corner these days. Gone are the days when 10 rag-tag skaters could decide club business by a simple show of hands. Today, even something as basic as selecting the new name and colors is an exercise in procedural structure that still feels foreign.
"There were so many names suggestions. We narrowed it down to 30, and we had a rebranding committee take it down to five," Saum said. "With that we still had to have another runoff to get to Rock Town. Everybody voted. The whole league had a say in it. It took a lot of time.
"And then we had to do the colors and a logo. All of it. It really took probably nine months to birth this new baby of roller derby because it was a lot to decide and people had strong feelings about it, which they should. It's important to people."
KNOCKING ON THE DOOR
One impetus for all the change was the team's on-track success. In the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, leagues ranked one through 50 are considered the first-division elite, and 51 to 100 a step behind. The next 100 leagues are seen as comers, squads to watch out for in the churning antechamber of possible Next Big Things.
Rock Town's A squad, the Queens, broke into the 150 ranks last year, enjoying a 100-point jump in a single season.
Continuing this forward momentum means facing better leagues, and better leagues demand more time and resources. Traveling farther out of state for matches and upgrading its home arena from the Conway Convention Center to Arkansas Skatium are two examples, although the biggest change, and most complicated, has been aligning the club's collective mindset.
"We expect more out of our skaters. We expect more out of our league members," Saum said. "We lost a couple members because we are more competitive now, and I think that is hard for some people. I don't think there was any animosity with anyone leaving, it was just not the stuff they wanted to go with."
Roller derby in central Arkansas traces its lineage through several splinter leagues under different names from Searcy and Cabot to Conway and Little Rock. The various entities were gradually absorbed by Little Rock's Central Arkansas Roller Derby (CARD) and Cabot's GRITS (Girls Rolling in the South).
Even with this consolidation, numbers were tight, so the two groups started practicing together while maintaining their own identities via the GRITS Brawlers and the CARD Queens.
In fall 2016, the squads decided to merge, but most people couldn't tell -- both entities maintained their earlier names and, in a lot of cases, skater loyalties.
"It was terribly confusing," Saum said. "It was terrible for marketing purposes and it still kind of kept that divisiveness between 'This is who we are, this is who they are.' Even though some people were playing on both teams, there was still that hard separation."
In 2017, the GRITS name was eliminated in favor of CARD -- which had held the affiliation with the Women's Flat Track Derby Association. The Queens and Brawlers names were retained, becoming the equivalent of the varsity and JV squads, respectively.
And work was begun to rebrand into something entirely new, to once and for all bring everyone under a unified banner. Thus was Rock Town Roller Derby unveiled late last summer. It debuted in competition this spring.
Benefits of the rebranding were immediate -- partnerships with area breweries to provide beer sales at home matches, better-coordinated community service work, attracting the best local skater talent. All of which, Saum said, was critical for the league to get in stride with derby's rising popularity.
"This sport is still growing," Saum said. "It's exploded in the last 10 years. At the same time, it doesn't make sense for us or for the sport to have all these smaller teams everywhere. It's a lot of work to start up a league, and with us being established, we provide an opportunity for multiple teams to play and multiple levels of play.
"The opportunity that we have is we have a competitive A team [Queens] as well as the Brawlers as our developmental team and then a Fresh Meat [beginner] program that's really helped us grow. The ideal is to have a highly competitive A team, a highly competitive B team like some of these bigger teams do, and then a C team that becomes your developmental."
Saum said it will take time for the new organization to accelerate to its potential, competitive or otherwise, but Rock Town has already reached one milestone this season, beating rival Northwest Arkansas Roller Derby for the first time in the Queens' history.
Next year, the league is targeting a top-100 national ranking, which would qualify the squad for post-season competition. Currently, Rock Town ranks around 183 out of more than 300 Women's Flat Track Derby Association leagues.
"We really want to get in that top 100," Saum said. "We know we're going to have to really play a schedule to get there. We're going to have to go to tournaments, and we're going to have to play hard teams and maybe lose a game along the way. We've just got to play some of those strength-factor games."
Arkansas Skatium offers them a home-court advantage. "We are playing where we practice, which is not something we've been able to do before." she said. "In the past, we'd practice different places, then have to adjust to a different floor for games. So that is going to be huge."
Interview over, Saum buckles her helmet as skaters gather for opening announcements. The wide circle they form is three-deep in some places, all eyes locked on their leader. It's a good thing to see them in a place they can finally call home.
"We are a central Arkansas team," Saum says before rolling away. "Conway was very good to us, but we always wanted to bring this back to Rock Town."
Queens co-captain Wendy Pascoe, aka Terrin Skirtz (top), leads a pack of Rock Town skaters through a blocking drill. While roller derby is a contact sport, successful teams balance brute strength with teamwork, strategy and speed.
Members of the Rock Town Roller Derby league huddle for a pre-practice pep talk. In 2018, the growing club has taken on a new name, colors and home venue, Arkansas Skatium in Little Rock.
Jessica Saum, aka Getcha Saum, president of Rock Town Roller Derby, talks to the squad before a recent practice.
ActiveStyle on 07/16/2018
Print Headline: On a roll: With a new name, colors and home base, the Rock Town Roller Derby league is one to watch