Roller Girl Rampage: The Sisterhood of Skates

Category:  Features
Wednesday, November 16th, 2011 at 8:00 AM
Roller Girl Rampage: The Sisterhood of Skates by Jay Stevens

Evan's Skateland West Roller Skating Rink is a low-slung, bunker-like building on West Lake Road. When you walk in, it's dim, and the roof is surprisingly low. Everywhere is carpet. On the floor, even on the partitions that divide off the rink. On one side are the lockers, painted yellow, blue, and orange, and the skate rental desk, with shelves full of ancient roller skates. On the other is the snack bar, three steps up to another carpeted area with blue and orange booths and a slush puppy machine that stirs blue raspberry and lime ice. On the wall are handmade signs: “Adult Retro Nite, Wednesdays 7:00 – 10:00, $5.00”. It's dusty and washed-out, like an old pair of jeans dug out of a forgotten closet.

I'm here to watch roller derby practice. I'm here for the Eerie Roller Girls.

Right now there are probably two dozen women on skates in the center of the rink. On free skate nights there are flashing Christmas lights and a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. But tonight the house lights are on, and I can clearly the women sitting on the floor chatting and stretching.

They're all wearing their required equipment: four-wheeled skates, helmet, knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards. Mouth guards are required, too – an Eerie Roller Girl without one lost a tooth early on – but mostly they're clutched in hand. Some women wear skirts and stockings, others wear shorts, some tights. Knee-high socks are prevalent, which are usually striped, although one pair reads “L–O–V–E” down the calf. Skulls predominate: skull stickers on helmets, a bright red T-shirt with a large skull logo.

Practice will be intense tonight: a bout is coming up in a dozen days or so, a costume-themed event called the “Derby Brawl Zombie” brawl in honor of Halloween, which is near. The Eerie Roller Girls are hosting the Babes of Wrath from Chautauqua, the first time they're bouting a team from another area on their home rink. That's because, established only in September of last year, Erie's league is barely a year old.

“We had another league started up,” says Eerie Roller Girls president, Katrina Putnam, “it was just based off an idea, a principle – and then we started up heavy. Five or six of us involved in research and networking and stuff like that.”

Putnam's roller derby name is “Hemorrhoidal Rage.” Noting my reaction she says, “you can call me 'Roid Rage,” and a wry grin tilts across her face. She's got square glasses and a blonde bob cut and a wickedly dry sense of humor that constantly keeps me guessing whether she's joking or not. We're sitting in a snack bar booth with Autumn Jells (a.k.a. “Autumnal Equinox”), the league's public relations officer. Neither are practicing. Putnam has a groin pull, Jells is on the “nine month DL” – she's pregnant, a health condition the Steelers, say, never have to worry about.

“We had minimal derby experience,” continues Putnam. “I had the pleasure of skating with Burning River, like five years ago for two months.”

Did anyone else have experience? “Nope. We just rolled with it.” Putnam grins. Ba-dum-DUM!

*  *  *  *

The rules of roller derby are fairly simple. Each team fields five skaters on the rink at a time. Four of the players form the “pack,” consisting of a “pivot” and three “blockers.” The fifth is the “jammer,” the skater who scores points by passing the opposing pack member. For each blocker and pivot she passes, she earns a point. The blockers, well, block. They try to keep the opposing jammer from passing them, and they try to help their own jammer through the pack.

The bout consists of two 30-minute periods, broken down into “jams” – periods in which the skaters skate and points are scored. Play stops at the end of each jam, and the players can rotate in and out at that time, not unlike hockey. Jammers rotate the most frequently – they skate the hardest and have to keep their feet light, not leaden, to slip through the back.

To begin a jam, the two packs start skating around the derby ring together. After they've gone a certrain distance, the jammers start. The first one through the pack becomes the “lead jammer,” the only skater to have the power of calling off a jam. After going through the pack, the jammers race around the ring to lap the pack – it's on this second pass through the pack that points are scored.

At any time, the lead jammer can call off the pack and end the jam. She'll do this if the other jammer passes her, or if she breaks out of the pack ahead of the other jammer – who, presumably, has passed fewer of her teammates, if she's behind.

Contact is legal, but limited. You can hit someone with your shoulder, hips, or ass from mid-thigh to chest. You cannot hit an opposing player in the back, or hit with your arm or elbow. Penalties are assessed for breaking these and other rules, and law-breakers, as they are in hockey, are sent to a kind of penalty box – called the “sin bin” – while their teammates play on.

Play is fast and sometimes very graceful – especially if you have a deft skater who weaves through the pack like a dance. But there is  a lot of contact, and women go sprawling on every jam, usually falling forwards and trusting their pads.

*  *  *  *

Two dozen women on a Monday night is pretty impressive. In fact, the Eerie Roller Girls have enough members and have practiced enough to have played a half-dozen bouts this year. How did they find the skaters?

“Facebook, Internet forums, a lot of word of mouth,” says Jells. She's taller and slimmer than Putnam and full of restless energy, which expresses itself with an abundance of likes and you knows peppered throughout her speech. “Honestly, myself, I even joined because of word of mouth. I was shocked, astounded when I heard there was a derby league that started up in Erie. I was, like, what? Are you kidding me?”

It turns out a lot of women are familiar with roller derby. They've seen the ads and articles and television shows and the movie Whip It! And what they see, they like. And they not only like it, they want to be a part of it. And when they see, posted on Facebook or hear from a friend at work, that's there's a roller! derby! team! in Erie!, it's not long before you have enough skaters to form a team and bout a half-dozen times, even in the league's first season when no one knows what they're doing.

It's almost as if they've been waiting their whole lives to hear about derby, and then play. In fact, that's a sentiment you hear from a lot of roller derby girls. “I knew from the first moment I saw it.” “I had to join.” “It was like I was born for roller derby.” What is it about derby that's so compelling?

“It's the sport for the socially awkward,” says Putnam. “Women who sometimes have self-confidence issues, or who are just trying to find a place with other women to get together, develop friendships, good sportsmanship.” In fact, many of the women have never participated in a sport before.

“It's the only women's thing where women feel empowered,” continues Putnam, “because it's the only women's sport the whole public gets behind.”

“It's a full contact sport,” interjects Jells. “We're not pussy-footing around in the rink. When we hit each other, we hit each other. It's empowering to have that contact.”

The Eerie Roller Girls hail from all walks of life. There's a dog groomer. A couple of professors. A photographer. They also range greatly in age, from 22 to 59. You don't even have to know how to skate; the Eerie Roller Girls will teach you. In fact, if there is one type of woman that plays Derby in Erie, it's mothers. Most of the derby girls have children – as many as 75 percent, estimates Jells. That includes Putnam – 'Roid Rage. She's a stay-at-home mom.

“Derby is all about being able to feel like you can be yourself,” says Putnam. “Women get pigeon-holed into being soft and delicate and not being able to channel their beast within. When you think roller derby, you think 'tough women,' and I think that's a draw.”

*  *  *  *

Roller derby got started in the 1930s as a spin-off of a traveling marathon roller skating troupe put together by a promoter named Leo Selzer. During the grueling days-long races between male-female pairs of skaters, Selzer mixed in short five-minute sprint races for cash prizes called “jams.” The jostling and pushing during these races was so popular with the crowds that Selzer designed a sport around it, splitting his skaters into teams and giving out points to designated skaters – jammers – for each opposing skater they lapped on a banked track. Essentially, he wrote the rules for roller derby. It worked; millions came out to see Selzer's traveling exhibition.

That was the pattern for derby for the next 70 years: half-sport, half-scripted theater produced and promoted by men for popular consumption. It wasn't until 2000 in Austin, Texas, that a bunch of women got together and created today's incarnation of roller derby. They paid for their own equipment and track time and taught themselves how to play the sport.

After a couple of years and a couple of versions of leagues, derby started catching on in earnest. Leagues popped across the country: grassroots leagues, too, started and run by women who heard about Austin's derby and wanted in. By 2004, there were enough of these leagues to form the Women's Flat Track Derby Association – or WFTDA – organized to keep the spirit of the revival going, and to protect it, too, from drifting away from its women-centric, democratic origins. Originally 30 leagues, WFTDA now has over 124 member leagues and 76 apprentice leagues, including leagues in England and Canada. The sport continues to grow.

Derby is back. But it's different. For starters, most leagues skate on a flat track instead of the banked tracks of yesteryear. That means all a roller derby league needs is a flat, smooth surface large enough to hold the skating area. That also means there are no railings to flop over. But at the same time, the phony brawls and fake hits are a thing of the past. It's all real now.

But the most important difference is that it's all women-run and operated. A true grassroots effort. In the past, roller derby leagues were assembled by men as a money-making operations, betting that the spectacle of women in tight shorts hitting other women, all on skates, would be a box-office draw. Now  to join WFTDA, your all-women's league has to be majority-owned and -managed by the skaters themselves and “governed by democratic principles and practices.”

Empowered. Inclusive. A sisterhood on skates.

*  *  *  *

Bout night arrives. The size and energy of the crowd hits me as soon as I step into the rink, which, during practice was nearly empty apart from the skaters. Not tonight: there are at least two hundred here, arranged on chairs behind the partition, even several dozen folding chairs on the floor itself. There's a clear space on the floor between the folding chairs and the derby ring – the “suicide seating,” where spectators have a chance of getting a derby girl in their laps.

Over there is a girl in a pink-striped shirt, black poodle skirt, and spider-web tights wearing a helmet and pink-trimmed roller skates: likely a future derby girl. There's camouflage hats and vests, a Harley Davidson leather jacket, and tattoos. Non-skating Eerie Roller Girls sell T-shirts with the league logo – a roller skate with bat wings flying by the silhouettes of the Bicentennial Tower and the flagship Niagara in the background.

The PA blares to life, I grab some floor in the suicide section as an announcer introduces each of the skaters as they circle slowly around the rink waving to the crowd, and high fiving the opposing team, the Babes of Wrath. The Eerie Roller Girls wear red with knee-high red socks, the Babes of Wrath purple, with striped green-and-black socks. After the intro comes the national anthem, and finally the bout is on. A professional makeup artist came and painted the derby girls’ faces ashen-gray or a necrotic blue, some with apparent bone or teeth seeping through flesh, others bone-white adorned with flowers like something from the Dio de los Muertos. The work is high-quality, and I can't help notice that the faces now match the skull stickers and patches the women usually wear.

The women line up, blockers out front, the ref blows his whistles, the skate, the second whistle comes – and it's all a blur. It's 'Roid Rage first, and she dives into the pack and emerges and powers around – where's the other jammer? – and back through again. Whistles blow, the pack slows, the jammers switch out, and it begins again. It happens so fast. With the deafening announcer’s narrating rapid-fire and the blocks and hip checks and falling bodies, I'm not sure what exactly is going on. I look up: it's 20 to 1, Eerie Roller Girls.

It takes awhile, but slowly I begin to understand where to look and what to watch, how to track the jammer and see how her blocking teammates clear a lane for her in the pack. It's then, I see the athleticism, the deft moves of Mad Flasher as she gets low over her skates and seems to burst around the turns, but so smoothly. Or how Ginger Vixxen – an extremely shy red-headed and towering presence of a woman who teammates nickname “the snowplow” – steps delicately, almost as if on tiptoe, into the pack, using her size to clear away opponents as if they were inconsequential. Or how 'Roid Rage powers off the line, Sidney-Crosby-style, and is able to slice to the inside of the Babes blockers on the turns and explode through gaps.

I'm caught up. This is good. This is more than good. This may be one of the most exciting sports I've seen. Maybe it's that I'm so close. Maybe it's because I've never seen anything like this – ten badass women in armor grappling with each while skating furiously in a circle.

And then it's the half. The Eerie Roller Girls have a sizeable lead, and I'm thinking they're going to roll away with this (ba-dum-DUM!), but after the half it's a new bout. It seems that Eerie Roller Girl jammers are spending a lot of time in the sin bin – the derby penalty box – which allows the Babes of Wrath jammers to score as many points as they possibly can without fear of anyone catching them or matching them point-for-point. The Babes are catching up fast, cutting what was once a forty-point lead to a dozen.

Midway through the second half, 'Roid Rage is at the line. When the whistle blows, she sprints out in front of the Babes jammer and fights her way through the pack: she's lead jammer. But just when it looks like 'Roid Rage can extend the lead and stop the bleeding, she's passed on the far turn by the Babes jammer. Visibly tired – faced flushed, breathing hard – 'Roid Rage waves her hands as if she's flagging down a car. It's the signal to stop the jam. The ref blows the whistle and 'Roid Rage calls a timeout.

Eerie Roller Girls lead, 117 to 100, and fading. There's not much time left. It's gut-check time for the home squad.

Ginger Vixxen is the next jammer. She jumps out ahead at the whistle and nears the pack just as it swings into its first turn. She takes an outside line – a more difficult line because it's longer – and I see her elbow swat aside a Babes blocker and she's through, lead jammer. She comes around again, the other jammer still caught in the pack, and again plows her way through. The other jammer is out, though, so Vixxen calls off the jam. Four points for the Eerie Roller Girls. 121 to 100.

Mad Flasher is next. She's much shorter than Ginger Vixxen, but she's a natural, long-time skater and bumps evenly with the Babes jammer – who is called for a penalty and sent to the Sin Bin. Flasher has the pack to herself and scores ten before the opposing jammer is freed and the jam is called off. 131 to 100.

'Roid Rage is back, in a little pain, perhaps, still breathing hard. At the whistle, though, she's back to business and gets very quickly off the line and jets first to the pack and – wshhh! – just like that she slices inside of the pack and through for the lead jammer – and, again, the Babes jammer is sent to the sin bin. 'Roid Rage takes advantage. The crowd is into it, going crazy, and the announcer is shouting – he's into it, too – and she laps the pack again, no problem, same crazy, smooth slice to the inside, and back, again. Ten points!

And the announcer: “'Roooooooid Ra-a-a-age! She will eat your children!”

And just as he shouts this out, 'Roid Rage skates past the Sin Bin, where the Babes jammer skates out. 'Roid Rage lowers her shoulder and drops her.

“AhhhhhhherOH!” shouts the announcer. The crowd explodes. 'Roid Rage grins, and calls off the jam. 141 to 103. And that's pretty much the bout.

The Eerie Roller Girls aren't yet a part of WFTDA, or even an apprentice league. In order to do that, they'd need a letter of recommendation from an established league that's been a part of the organization for at least three years. After that, there's an audit by WFTDA into the team's books and charter to make sure that the league fits in with the organizational philosophy. But the key to becoming part of WFTDA is that the league is invested in the sport. That it won't go away.

Attention WFTDA: roller derby in Erie is here to stay.

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