Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Whole New Brawl Game

By TRACY STATON * Photographs by BRENT HUMPHREYS for American Airlines Magazine


A LINE SNAKES FROM DEEP in the parking lot at Playland Skate Center in Austin, Texas, to a tent near the entrance, where a woman in a miniskirt and cowboy boots sells tickets. When the glass doors open, music escapes — door-frame-rattling bass and clapping drums that fade under the singer’s Joey Ramone–style whine — and a handful of people palming Lone Star beers rustle out to check the crowd. They seem satisfied. It will be standing-room-only tonight. Inside, the atmosphere is part concert, part kegger, part boxing match, part inside joke. The band Clap!Clap! beats on bravely as oblivious spectators fill seats ringing the skate track. All eyes are on the curtains that shield one corner. After a few minutes, women in skates and helmets burst through the drapes, like football players tearing through a homecoming banner. The differences are that these athletes are wearing hot pants and minis, fishnets and pigtails, tattoos and attitudes, and the names on their backs wouldn’t be found in a phone book: Apocalyppz, Cheap Trixie, Lucille Brawl, Reyna Terror.

It’s Flat Track Roller Derby night, and two Texas Rollergirls teams, the Hotrod Honeys and the Hell Marys, will each try to break the other’s undefeated record.

Derby types warn newcomers to the sport that they’ll be confused by the action at first, but what they don’t say is that during the first bout, newbies will feel like they’ve walked into someone else’s family reunion. There’s so much in-the-know, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, haven’t-seen-you-in-forever-give- me-a-hug action that it’s no surprise when (1) everyone in the house is invited to the after-party, and (2) the serape-wearing announcer takes the mike (introducing himself as Julio E. Glasses — get it?) to say the night’s proceeds will go to a Texas Rollergirl whose husband has leukemia.

And that perfectly sums up, before the bout even begins, the curious animal that is roller derby: hard-core, punk-rock, out-for-blood- competitive family entertainment.

ASK PEOPLE AROUND AUSTIN about roller derby and you’ll get a few perplexed frowns, a few quick thumbs-ups, and a lot of unqualified opinions.

“I know it’s an entire subculture,” one woman says emphatically, as if subculture meant “people who should be locked up for their own protection.”

“Chicks on wheels, knockin’ each other around?” This from a man who follows it up with the inevitable, “Hot!”

Look up Texas Rollergirls on MySpace and you’ll find they have 14,230 friends, including the league’s teams (Hotrod Honeys, Hell Marys, Honky Tonk Heartbreakers, and Hustlers, all suited up in uniform, with hair styled and makeup on, striking their poses), DJs, bands, clubs, bars, a lot of women with crimson lipstick or fishnet stockings or cleavage or tattoos (or all four), a local women’s health clinic, and Lone Star beer.

On YouTube, there are hundreds of videos of “chicks on wheels, knockin’ each other around” — and there’s also footage from Hell on Wheels, a documentary about the rebirth of roller derby that’s now making the film-festival rounds after its premiere last March at South by Southwest.

Few know the story of the roller-derby resurgence, even though Austin was its seedbed and remains its epicenter. As the tale goes, in early 2002, a character called Devil Dan posted flyers around town to recruit young women for a new roller derby-cum-circus. Five teams formed, and Dan started promoting the event, but then he skipped town suddenly, leaving the women to take charge themselves. The team captains stepped up as managers, and the rest of the skaters pitched in. Some handled training, some handled merchandise, others devised a track, and a committee established rules. They all worked on their diva-goth-punk-glam outfits.

The first bout was held in June 2002. Soon, all the matches were selling out, once again proving Austin to be the most open-minded city in Texas. Says Hydra, one of the original roller-derby competitors, “Austin’s full of people willing to try kooky things.”

It wasn’t long before the national media caught on. The fledgling sport was shown on TV. And then in Playboy (it was an article, thank you). But all was not well within the league: Fed up with the team captains turned managers, four of the teams broke away in April 2003 to start the Texas Rollergirls, their own skater-managed league.

“Then it started spreading everywhere,” explains Melicious, a.k.a. Melissa Joulwan, one of the rebel skaters who helped establish the Rollergirls and the author of Rollergirl: Totally True Tales from the Track.

Indeed. Now there’s a national umbrella organization, like the NFL or the NBA, but for skating: The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), which establishes rules and protocol, sets up intercity matches, and the like. Forty-eight leagues composed of dozens of teams compete for an annual championship. There are stats, MVP awards, and rabid fans who travel from city to city to witness as many bouts as possible. There’s even an online Rollergirl name registry. And with thousands of women (about 20 per team) now donning helmets and ruffled panties every month, it’s getting more and more difficult for new players to find a moniker that’s not taken.

Despite the broken bones, detached retinas, concussions, and all the expected dangers of a take-no-prisoners sport, roller derby attracts more than the type of girl you’re probably imagining would be interested in it. There are players who work in research labs or law firms by day and chug Jim Beam from the bottle or shoot craps by night — as well as women who work in, shall we say, the entertainment industry. Skating the track and kicking butt together can’t help but challenge a person’s preconceived notions, Hydra says. “I never thought I’d hang out with strippers,” she says. “But, you know, strippers are people too.” And the audience? Assumptions must be checked at the door. Gender roles? Smash. Etiquette? See ya. Personal-space boundaries? Dissolve. As the saying goes (or should go): If you don’t want a skimpily clad Rollergirl to land in your lap, get out of the front row.

IT’S A WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON in the funky South Austin neighborhood where Melicious lives and works as a musician. She and her husband, a fellow musician called Dave the Body by the other Rollergirls, have a backyard studio: Her keyboards, computer, and red-velvet sofa are in the studio’s front room; his guitars and whatnot are in the back. Melicious got married in July in a pink dress made by fellow skater Speedy Marie. It’s something of a tradition, apparently, for Rollergirls to stitch one another’s bridal apparel: Amen obliged for Bloody Mary when she tied the knot. Right now, Melicious is wearing a black shift dress ornamented with a discreet skull and crossbones and is talking about roller-derby fashion. “Madison [Wisconsin] has great uniforms,” she says. “They have a burlesque team, with corsets and ruffly panties …” Then Melicious transforms from fashion critic to derby historian, a job she first took on when she decided to write Rollergirl. Obsessed with chronicling the sport’s past, she spent months doing research and even rounded up team rosters from early-day bouts — which is no mean feat. She met a few of the stars of the ’50s and ’60s derbies, tough women who don’t hesitate to acknowledge the sometimes brutal side effects of their sport. (“What do you think this is? Tiddledywinks?” one said in an interview.) “They were so excited we were bringing the sport back,” Melicious says.

Truth is, like the misty beginnings of the current version of derby, roller derby 1.0 has acquired the simultaneous heft and evanescence of legend. We know it started during the Great Depression and was spurred on by one Leo Seltzer, who launched New York’s Transcontinental Roller Derby, in which pairs of skaters raced around a track for more than a month, hoping to be the first to reach 3,000 miles — roughly the distance from New York to Los Angeles. Round and round and round the track they went — politely, no pushing or shoving. It may sound boring now, but pre-TV, it was high entertainment, and thousands showed up to watch. The derby went on the road, and eventually, the writer Damon Runyon persuaded Seltzer to refrain from breaking up on-track brawls and to devise rules that minimized niceties and maximized wipeouts. Propriety gave way to ferocity. Certain moves were staged, and the outcomes of some matches were predetermined; it was part sport, part spectacle, and the fans loved it.

The sport struggled when World War II took over the American mind, but it started rebuilding in the late ’40s. Eventually, championships sold out Madison Square Garden, and in the ’50s, after Leo Seltzer had passed the reins to his son Jerry, 120 TV stations covered the games. By the ’60s, the sport packed arenas across the country: Some 50,000 fans showed up for a match at Comiskey Park in Chicago. But in 1973, in the thick of the energy crisis, high interest rates, and inflation, Seltzer folded roller derby.

A few attempts to resurrect it came and went, but none took hold — that is, until Devil Dan’s Austin brainstorm. “Now we’re in 150 cities in four countries,” Melicious says, ticking off teams on her fingers. “We get thank-you notes from skaters in other leagues — thanks for starting Flat Track, for sharing what you know.”

Then in comes Hydra, the petite yet solidly built blonde who, in her day job, works for the state as a hydrologist with the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission and, in Rollergirl land, is the immediate past president of the WFTDA, fresh off the group’s annual meeting. She’s putting together a training manual for other leagues; this is part of roller derby’s slow morphing from stagy WWF-type almost-competition (pre-Rollergirl) to almost-lawless free-for-all (early millennial all-girl derby) to legit sport that just happens to be wild, crazy, and lipstick-covered. But Hydra brags about the Rollergirls’ smash-and-reform effect on femininity. “I feel proud when I see new women join and make that transformation into Rollergirl,” she says.

“From the beginning, we’ve been referred to as girls,” Melicious puts in. “It’s third-wave feminism. We can call each other girls, and it’s not derogatory. We’re super-athletes, super-sexy — feminists who don’t feel like we have to burn our bras or beat our chests about it.

“Tell me I throw like a girl? Great. ’Cause the girls I know could kick your [butt].” “Yeah, the other night, Will” — says Hydra, talking about her husband, one of the significant others the Rollergirls refer to as their Widowers — “he got mad and tried to tackle me. I put him in a headlock and said, ‘Did you forget who I am?’ ”

Who she is — who each of them is — is, technically, an amateur athlete. No one makes money as a Rollergirl; in fact, the all-star road teams often have to pay their own travel expenses. The many wee hours Hydra and Melicious spent brainstorming how to promote the new rebel league in the early days — all were unpaid. Hydra would like to see the leagues bring in more money, preferably, in the by-skaters-for-skaters tradition, via a broadcasting medium they could control themselves, like the Internet. More money would mean better venues and the means to travel overseas for international competition; it would also help bring some of the leagues whose level of competition isn’t tough or polished up to a higher standard. “I don’t see getting paid to play,” she says. “But money could bring a lot of power, get the sport more widely recognized, help the skaters cover their expenses.”

Some of the skaters have parlayed their Rollergirl statuses into moonlighting gigs and even full-time jobs: One Rollergirl teaches punk-rock aerobics, using bricks instead of hand weights. Another invented nonfraying skate laces. Others consult with skate manufacturers. One Widower, Punk Rock Phil, is a photographer who’s seen demand for his sideline — Rollergirl pics — grow and grow.

Then there are the outsiders who’ve recognized Flat Track Roller Derby as a phenomenon and have tried to cash in, laughably in some cases. “There’s a Rollergirl perfume?” Hydra asks. “No one wants to smell like a Rollergirl. Seriously. Those pads and helmets are gross.”

“Faster! Faster! Kill, Kill, kill! Faster! Faster! Kill, kill, kill!”

Fans of the Hotrod Honeys chant for their heroines as the team’s vanguard, two skaters waving checkered flags, take to the track. The rest of the Honeys circle up and stack their hands like any team before a match. “Kill, kill, kill!” they shout as they break and join the flag bearers. They circle the track, looking like Pink Ladies who told the T-Birds to take a hike and then took up with the Sex Pistols instead: Think pink and black, tattoos, strategic rips in clothing, and fluorescent streaks in hair. Then they move to the center, to their bench, where Hydra is doing support duty. (Melicious, a Honey, is sidelined by an injury, but she’s here, wearing pink and black in support of her team.)

A few feet away, the Hell Marys, in their punk-plaid schoolgirl outfits, are talking strategy. The referees take their positions. “Don’t spill your beer,” the announcer commands. “Stay behind the blue line. If you’re lucky enough to get a Rollergirl in your lap, you can’t pinch or poke her … at least not until the after-party!”

Five from each team crouch at the starting line — a pivot, three blockers, and a jammer, in that order — and they’re off. The jammers, wearing starred helmets, skate furiously, trying to fight their way past the blockers and the pivots. The first jammer who makes it past the pack is named lead jammer; she’ll be the only one to score points during this round (officially known as a jam). She scores by lapping her competitors, one point for each girl she passes.

It’s Cat Tastrophe for the Honeys versus Buckshot Betty for the Marys. Cat Tastrophe’s hit … blocked … she goes down … but she jumps up and takes the lead. She laps one, two, three, four of the Marys and then knocks her way past the fifth, the pivot, the team’s last line of defense. As she takes off ahead of the pack, her trademark eyeliner — flared beneath her eyes, like whiskers — is still crisp and clear, and there’s nary a twist in her thigh-high stockings.

Between jams, someone in the audience violates the unwritten rule and spills a beer. “Publicly shame this guy!” says Julio E. Glasses, and the crowd obliges, brushing one forefinger against the other in the universal sign language for “Bubba, you got caught.” A shout goes up: “Shame, shame, shame!”

Sparkle Plenty takes the lead next and then Rice Rocket for the Honeys. “She defies the laws of physics!” exults Glasses as Rice Rocket puts her hands to her hips to call off the jam, adding a pirouette flourish. (Ahead of time, Melicious had described Rice Rocket, who joined the league a few years ago and went from newbie to superstar in a season. She doesn’t drink or smoke, and she comes from a traditional Chinese family, but on the track, she’s a killer. She got ejected from the game once. She flipped off the audience, and the crowd was so entranced, they shouted until the refs let her back on the track. “Off the track, she’d never, never flip anyone off,” Melicious crowed. “Shows how some of the quiet girls at tryouts end up with big personalities. The persona takes over.”)

Alas, tonight neither Rice Rocket nor her Honey teammates nor the Marys will get satisfaction. A brutal Texas thunderstorm rolls in. Lights go out. After about half an hour in the dark, the game’s called incomplete. “Let’s settle this at practice!” some skaters call, but the rivalry won’t be decided till the next month’s league championship.

Driving home through an eight-foot-visibility downpour in a city whose streets are no strangers to flash flooding and with lightning striking so close it sends shock waves through the car — it’s like maneuvering past blockers, swerving to avoid a pivot, racing to outrun the thunder that’s coming up behind. The two nine-year-old girls with me are thrilled. At home, after midnight, they pull out their old baseball jerseys and obliterate the logos with Sharpies. “Faster! Faster! Kill, kill, kill!” they write, on the front and the back. One says, with the conviction of a third grader who surfs, rides horseback, and hits the trails on a dirt bike, “I’m going to be one of those when I grow up.” She puts on her bike helmet, draws a tattoo on her stomach, and strikes a pose.

TRACY STATON is a contributing editor for American Way.


Mike White said...

I'm not one to get really political but I made an online petition today in hopes that Drew Barrymore uses the song "Roller Derby Saved My Soul" by Uncle Leon & The Alibis for WHIP IT!

The song is already a "hit" amongst the roller derby community. That the movie's being shot in Ann Arbor, a stone's throw from where Uncle Leon grew up and went to college, is another good tie-in. And, really, Uncle Leon is a heck of a guy.

Please take a few minutes to stop by and sign the petition:

For more information (including a youtube clip that uses the song), check out my blog at:

Mike White

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I added your Zazzle store to my links page on my derby blog.

Derby Love,

Rei Zerburnn

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