A few weeks ago I went to Kalama Park in Kihei to see the Maui Roller Girls. It was public skating day at the rink. The sun was setting while pop music played in the background. I curled my fingers around the chainlink fence as I watched about two-dozen derby girls wearing black shorts or skirts, fishnets and green tank tops deftly skated around a handful of children. I found myself surprisingly excited to hear the sound of roller skates on concrete.
After a few minutes a commanding voice came over the loudspeaker. “Please be careful,” the disembodied voice announced to the girls. “There are children here.” Over the course of the next 30 minutes, the voice telling the girls to “slow down” or “skate with the rest of the people” became more frequent and, to the girls, more exasperating.
Roller Derby is new to Maui, but not to Hawai‘i. In the 1960’s the old Civic Auditorium on Oahu was often packed with fans during televised bouts. A recent resurgence has hit the islands with zeal, creating two teams on Oahu and one on Maui. Though the Maui Roller Girls are ready to contend with the other island teams, they still have no place to practice.
“That is really the problem,” Kelly “Killah Kelly” Galvez, who formed Maui Roller Girls, told me. “With us only being able to skate here on the open skate nights, we’re not gonna be able to train and our skills won’t get any better. We can’t run a real practice. Until we find a permanent venue or even if we find a confined, flat slab of nice concrete that is safe and well lit, that is open for public use, we really won’t be doing much of anything.”
But for a variety of reasons—some of them depending on who you ask—the county won’t allow Maui Roller Girls use of the Kalama Park skating rink, except during the 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. public skating time on Wednesdays. Galvez, who says the area would benefit from the good crowd the Roller Girls would bring, can’t understand the county’s refusal.
“It’s an organized women’s sport,” she said. “It’s a family friendly event. The practices and bouts are clean and open to the public to watch. It really could only help them.”
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Kelly Galvez moved to Maui from Sacramento, California in October 2007. There she skated with the Sac City Roller Girls.
“I really missed derby and after training with the Oahu derby girls I knew it was a great time to bring it to Maui,” she said. “Girls I had talked to got really excited and because it was new to Maui, I just felt it would be a good idea.”
Galvez set about organizing a team. One of those who joined was Susan Ponoton, who recently moved to Maui from New York and heard about the Maui Roller Girls on the radio.
“I’ve never even roller-skated but it sounded like something fun to learn, something totally new,” Ponoton said. “They also sounded like the kind of girls I would want to hang out with. They really are amazing. I felt welcomed 100 percent. It’s like a new family. I love it.”
Eventually Galvez contacted the county, asking about arranging practice time at the Kalama Skating Rink, the only rink on the island. Officials told her to contact Rick Ortiz, who manages the rink and handles scheduling. Ortiz told Galvez that Sunday evenings were possible, but that he first needed to check with the Maui Inline Hockey Association’s Board of Directors.
As will be seen, the arrangement between the hockey association and the county Parks and Recreation Department over who actually controls access to the rink is curious and confusing. The association leases the rink from the county. But for reasons that never really became clear, they seem to be calling the shots as to who gets to use the rink during the vast majority of the week when they’re not playing hockey.
A few months went by with no word from Ortiz. So Galvez called him back. That’s when Ortiz said the hockey association board of directors had denied the Maui Roller Girls practice time because of “liability issues and scheduling.”
This surprised Galvez, who explained that all the girls on the team would be covered by USA Roller Sports—the national governing body for all competitive roller sports in the U.S.—for practice as well as special events and that it would be chartered to the rink. Ortiz insisted that the Maui Inline Hockey Association’s insurance would not cover roller derby. He explained that the girls had to be on the rink’s insurance if they wanted to practice roller derby, and that wasn’t going to happen.
(Insurance concerns don’t seem to affect the Kalama Skate Park, where kids fly through the air on skate boards just 50 feet from the Kalama roller rink).
In any case, I called Floyd Miyozono, the county’s Chief of Recreation, to get his take on why the girls couldn’t get practice time. Miyozono said he was not aware of any decision to deny rink access to the Maui Roller Girls and said he’d follow up with Ortiz.
Then I asked if the county needed to be in the loop as to decisions Ortiz was making regarding rink access. “Yes, definitely,” Miyozono said. “I don’t think he [Ortiz] should be making these decisions, especially when he makes his own schedule and is also making it difficult for others.”
The next day, after conferring with Ortiz, Miyozono called me back with a new explanation.
“According to Rick, the girls were not willing to come up with any insurance to also cover the Inline Hockey Association,” he said (emphasis added). “Rick Ortiz did speak with the insurance carrier and they had strongly recommended that, in this particular case, if they wanted to use it they would need to come up with some kind of insurance policy. He mentioned to me that they were not willing to come up with an insurance policy. But just with the idea that they were not willing to come up with an insurance policy kinda was a deal breaker for them.”
In light of Galvez’ insistence that she’d offered to get the girls insured, this made no sense. So I called Ortiz back.
“The issue around it is liability insurance,” Ortiz told me. He said he knew that the girls had individual insurance, which was similar to what the hockey players have, but that there was also liability insurance for the rink, which the girls did not have.
The rink’s liability insurance covers hockey but not roller derby?
Yes, Ortiz said: “We pay an enormous amount of money each year to have that insurance.”
So why can’t the girls just pay this “enormous amount” so they can get on the rink, too?
“I asked the exact same question to my insurance company and the insurance for the rink to find out if another policy could be had on that rink,” Ortiz said. “The county does license this rink to us for use so I need to find out from the county as well what is involved with that.”
But Ortiz brought up another reason. He said that all of the nights at the rink were already reserved for hockey—“most importantly, youth hockey”?4;as well as public use. That meant there was no time for any roller derby. He added that he’d suggested some other slabs of concrete to Galvez for the girls to practice on.
“There isn’t one person making this decision,” Ortiz told me. “It’s the board of directors for the Inline Hockey Association, the liability insurance and rink availability time that this decision was based on.”
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Other rinks in the nation don’t seem so resistant to giving women’s roller derby teams practice time. According to Cort Whalig, who owns the Cristiana Skating Center in Newark, New Jersey and is the son of past president of USA Roller Sports, said derby teams that skate in his rink have insurance that covers them as well as the rink owner. He also provides a general waiver that all derby girls and hockey players sign which handles liability.
“I really saw the potential that roller derby brought to the rink,” he said. “It brings crowds here that I wouldn’t reach otherwise. The girls have really been an asset.”
This is because, as Galvez explained, roller derby has changed a lot since the 1950’s and 60’s.
“People always think that derby is clotheslines, elbows, fights, throwing people over rails, and that it’s staged like wrestling,” Galvez said. “People think it’s fake or ask us if we fight and that’s not how it is at all. We follow a strict set of rules. There are over 300 leagues now in the U.S. that are going by the WFTDA [Women’s Flat Track Derby Association] rules. I mean, there are renegade leagues that don’t play by any rules, but we follow the WFTDA and we want to be nationally recognized.
“We do depend on our refs to call certain things but we also depend on the code of honor with the girls not to fight and not to throw elbows,” she continued. “That’s how we train, too—I mean, if we could. We would use plates under the arms or a sock on both of your hands to keep the arms in because the minute you throw your arm out, it’s considered an elbow and then you’re penalized.”
Roller Derby actually dates back to the Great Depression. With dance marathons sweeping the nation, Chicago promoter Leo Seltzer decided that a skating demonstration would be the next craze. He was right—on Aug. 13, 1935, twenty thousand people filled the Chicago Coliseum to watch 25 teams skate in the Transcontinental Roller Derby. Seltzer later took his show on the road, performing for crowds of thousands.
Two years later, after watching two skaters get into a scuffle during a speed skating match, sportswriter Damon Runyon changed the sport into what we are more familiar with today. What had begun as an endurance race involving several teams changed into a sport where two teams of five circled the rink, gaining points by passing members of the opposing team.
Because certain physicality was now allowed, skaters began jostling each other with a passion. Although players exaggerated these moves to draw ever-bigger crowds, violent behavior eventually became part of roller derby’s trademark.
By the 1970’s, roller derby was a roughneck theatrical exhibition on wheels. Anyone who’s seen the classic 1972 film Kansas City Bomber with Raquel Welch knows the rowdy action in the rink and melodrama was part of the game.
Then roller derby went away for a few decades. But it returned in 2001 with all-female teams driven by a new professionalism that wanted to see roller derby accepted as a serious sport.
Of course, today’s roller derby still has much of the old attitude and remains an aggressive sport. Most women who play derby are tough; they proudly sport their bruises and display a certain “punk” attitude that gives them an edge. The best have nicknames sporting double entendres: Slammy Faye, Sheeza Brickhouse, Shenita Stretcher, allowing them a bit of the old school drama.
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For the Maui Roller Girls, on the other hand, their time is taken up with new school drama. On Wednesday, April 23, as the women began to practice during the Kalama rink’s public skating time, Ortiz and a few hockey association board members approached Galvez and asked to talk.
During a sit-down meeting on a park bench just outside the rink, Ortiz told Galvez that the association has an exclusive contract with the county: the lease says half the rink’s time goes to hockey and the other half is for public use. He said adding another sport to this agreement would breach their contract. And he went back to his original story, saying their insurance wouldn’t cover another sport for the rink.
He did offer one bit of helpful advice: he and the association could help the Maui Roller Girls cut their own deal with the county so that they could get their own rink built somewhere else on the island. Then there would be two skating rinks on the island that would be closed for most of the day.
For her part, Galvez isn’t sure what she and Maui Roller Girls are going to do.
“We have some options that we’re looking into,” she said. “There is a possible warehouse we can rent but that costs money we don’t have. We are just trying to stay focused and move forward. I mean, I’m not even sure if we want to work with the park with all the drama that’s happened but we’re definitely not giving up. That’s not the kind of women we are.” MTW