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Film documents life of ‘derby girls’ in Milwaukee

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Among her kitchen co-workers, Rebecca Berkshire was known as “Becky the Butcher” — her somewhat comical nickname.

But now, Becky the Butcher is one of “Milwaukee’s Roller Girls,” knocking opposing team members out of the way on the roller derby track — and soon, on the silver screen.

Berkshire joined Milwaukee’s Brewcity Bruisers roller derby league 11 years ago — and needed a skater name.

“The name dates back to my line-cooking days,” says Berkshire, 36, a native of Milwaukee’s South Side. “We were trying to come up with our pro wrestling names one day and that was mine because of my time in the kitchen. It seemed a natural fit for roller derby.”

The derby concept is a simple one. Two teams of five “derby girls” skate around a flat oval track. One player is the “jammer,” signified by a star on her helmet, and it’s her job to race past members of the opposing team, earning a point for each opponent she passes. The remaining four players are “blockers” and it’s their job to secure the jammer’s safe passage while stopping the opposing team’s jammer — meaning the blockers play offense and defense simultaneously.

Physical contact is inevitable, which is what gives roller derby both its color and its reputation as a rough-and-tumble sport. Skaters get injured and the sport has concussion protocols much like those in football.

But the contact also is part of what has attracted women to the sport in such great numbers, Berkshire said.

“The new derby is a bunch of chicks who got together to play the sport on our own,” said Berkshire, who prefers being a blocker because of the strategies involved. “There are plenty of male contact sports, but not as many if you’re female. We got the chance to stake the claim first and this one is ours.”

Berkshire has been injured and currently suffers from a herniated disc in her back, a condition her doctor has said may soon end her roller derby career. She has served on team’s board of directors and currently coaches new skaters for six hours a week.

When she does hang up her skates, though, she won’t end her involvement with the sport or the Bruisers.

“These are my friends and family,” Berkshire said. “I can’t imagine a life without roller derby.”

Documenting the Bruisers

More people will get to know Becky the Butcher and other Bruisers thanks to Roller Life, a documentary about the team and life both on and off the track. The film has screened in Appleton, Green Bay and Milwaukee and will be shown in Madison on Dec. 17 at the Majestic Theatre.

Documentary director Michael Brown said roller derby is the world’s fastest growing sport. And, while there are some male teams, it’s a sport dominated by women.

derby girls
Becky the Butcher in “Roller Life.”

“These women are tough as nails, but they also are sweet and kind,” says Brown, a Milwaukee native and former radio producer for WKTI-FM who resides in Appleton and is pursuing filmmaking. “I can’t even roller skate and to be up on wheels and get hit like they do — I can’t even imagine!”

Brown spent 10 months following the Bruisers through a season at home, filming their practices at an undisclosed metro Milwaukee facility and meets at the UWM Panthers Arena.

He also focused his camera on eight of the women athletes, including Becky the Butcher. Roller Life contains details about the women’s off-track identities as professionals, mothers, wives and daughters.

Their diversity of backgrounds shatters any pre-conceived notions of what it takes to be a “derby girl,” he said.

“These women come from all walks of life and are doctors, lawyers, teachers and executives,” he added. “They’re real athletes and some are real beasts (on the track), but it’s a sport that attracts all body types.”

Empowerment and camaraderie

Derby involvement offers women empowerment and camaraderie, which has helped Bruisers deal with difficult personal issues, even to the point of helping some women leave abusive domestic situations.

Berkshire pointed to specific ways being a Bruiser strengthened her skills and abilities — both on and off the track.

“I definitely wouldn’t have had the confidence level and self-assurance to do the things I do without it,” said Berkshire, who recently left her position as director of operations for Mojofuco Restaurants to help the Pabst Brewing Company start a series of restaurants as part of its re-emerging brand.

“It gives you a nice network of people to be around and is very inclusive in all sorts of way,” she added. “Being an adult you lose out on those connections at a certain point. The system goes away and you have to find ways to make friends on your own.”

‘Very inclusive’ sport

The Bruisers are part of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association and abide by a policy of acceptance for women of all races, creeds, colors and sexual orientations. For Berkshire, who identifies as lesbian, the distinction is important when it comes to her participation.

“We have 80 skaters and an additional 40 support members among our four teams, and probably a quarter of us are lesbian,” she said. “WFTDA’s commitment to inclusion of anyone who identifies as female in the world’s fastest-growing sport to me is a beacon of hope.”

On the screen

Roller Life will screen in Madison at 7 p.m. Dec. 17 at the Majestic Theatre, 115 King St. Tickets are $13.50 in advance, $14 the day of show. For more, call 608-255-0901 or go online to majesticmadison.com.

Athletic roots and Olympic future

Roller derby’s roots can be traced to the mid-1880s and multi-day endurance races for cash prizes.

The term “derby” came into use in 1922 to describe just about any competitive activity done on roller skates.

Roller derby began moving toward its current style in the 1930s, when promoter Leo Seltzer and legendary sportswriter Damon Runyon helped define competitive protocols and turned the derby into a contact sport. Television boosted the sport starting in 1948, which then became more theatrical than athletic, much like professional wrestling.

It’s only been since the early 21st century that roller derby has returned to its more athletic roots. In fact, the sport is being considered as a new event for the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Worldwide, there are 1,250 amateur leagues like the one to which Milwaukee’s Brewcity Bruisers belong, with half of them in the United States. Players buy their own equipment and pay monthly dues.