This St. Louisan skates on international Jewish roller derby team

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Ellen Futterman, Editor-in-Chief

By day, 31-year-old Autumn Dennis works as director of communications and online hospitality at Central Reform Congregation. But outside of work, Dennis, who identifies as non-binary and completed their conversion to Judaism in October 2021, is known in the world of roller derby as Sin, or Chai Y’all, depending on which team Dennis is playing.

Dennis plays for Arch Rival Roller Derby, a St. Louis league which in 2020 was ranked fifth among more than 400 worldwide members in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), roller derby’s international governing body. 

In November, Dennis learned that Jewish Roller Derby was looking to draft more players. Jewish Roller Derby, created in 2018, is an international roller derby team made up of 30 women/non-binary Jewish skaters who travel and compete nationally. For the tryout, Dennis was instructed to get video recorded at a scrimmage as well as executing a few basic roller derby skills. They didn’t think they had much of a chance at making the team, but they knew they had to try.

“I didn’t know if I was good enough. I had never skated at that level,” said Dennis, a self-described introvert who seems to exude positivity and energy. “I didn’t know if my body was ready for it after all the surgeries I had (more on that later). But I also know you only live once so why not go for it? I tried out not on a total whim, but it felt like a longshot. Then they reached out to me and said, ‘We would love to have you.’ ”

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Dennis, aka Chai Y’all, will meet their new Jewish teammates (Challah Back Girl, Mazel Tough?) next month when the team competes at the Y’Allstars Southern Skate Showdown in Thibodaux, La., one of a handful of tournaments the Jewish team will compete in this year. Jewish Roller Derby will face other state- and nation-based teams in the tournament Feb. 24-26.

Dennis explained that they first got into roller skating — what they call quad skating — as a youngster growing up in Nashville, Tenn.

“I was not athletic at all as a kid,” said Dennis. “My sister was a softball star, but I loved roller skating and rollerblading. Most Friday nights I was at the roller rink or skating around the neighborhood. When my sister would have softball, I would be on quad skates skating circles around the softball park.”

When Dennis was 18, their father suggested they try out for Nashville’s roller derby league. “To find out that there was a sport for people like me on skates. It changed my life,” said Dennis, who skated with Nashville Roller Derby for two-and-a-half years before moving to St. Louis in 2017 and joining Arch Rival. 

The rules of roller derby are fairly straightforward. Five members from each team take the oval track at one time, where they skate counterclockwise. 

Four of those players are blockers, and the remaining player is the point scorer, known as the jammer, which is the position Dennis plays. 

Blockers simultaneously try to stop the opposing jammer while making way for their own. Each pair of hips the jammer passes earns a point. Matches are an hour broken up into 30-minutes halves.

It’s a fast-paced, aggressive contact sport, but there are many rules to keep gameplay clean and the skaters relatively safe. Still, says Dennis, in roller derby, it’s not a matter of if you’ll get hurt, but when. And how?

In addition to a broken nose and separating both shoulders in the same season, Dennis has undergone two major surgeries in the past five years, both related to roller derby. The first, roughly five years ago, came after they tore their ACL, playing with Nashville Roller Derby.

Then in May, they had surgery to repair chronic exertional compartment syndrome, an exercise-induced muscle and nerve condition that causes pain, swelling and sometimes disability in the affected muscles.

“I had that for several years without it being diagnosed,” Dennis said. “My legs wouldn’t give out, but I couldn’t point and flex my foot anymore because my nerves were so compressed. I walked around flat-footed, and in incredible pain. 

“There were complications with the surgery, so I was basically immobile for three weeks, but I was able to return to skating in July. I was off skating for six months with my ACL.”

Despite their injuries, Dennis says roller derby gives them so much more than it takes. 

“When I first moved to St. Louis, I came to Arch Rival and immediately had like 100 new best friends,” said Dennis, who practices with the team one or two nights a week. “The derby community is so tight-knit and welcoming across the world. They are family. I didn’t feel this huge gap of loneliness because they immediately took me in.”

Dennis looks forward to a similar camaraderie when they play with Jewish Roller Derby. They explained that since most teams are non-profit, players are expected to pay for their transportation to tournaments, accommodations and meals, as well as the cost of their gear. Dennis estimates travel to the Louisiana tournament will cost about $500.

Regardless, they say playing with Jewish Roller Derby is a huge honor. 

“The opportunity to skate with Jewish Roller Derby means so much to me,” Dennis said. “In the broader culture, there’s unfortunately still antisemitic tropes and stereotypes that get circled around. Lots of people still don’t understand that Judaism doesn’t just include religious practices, but also shared cultural practices and peoplehood. 

“I think there’s something to be said for our existence as a team. Being strong, athletic and loudly Jewish is a conduit to learn more about our people and its diversity. To be able to represent our people with pride on a national stage, to show the diversity of what it means to be Jewish, is an honor that I don’t take lightly.”