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Night at the Derby: Jammers, skaters and sass

Papa's money and Mama's sass weren't enough to stop the radioactive, mutated sewer rats.

Put more conventionally: The previously undefeated Old Money Honeys lost to the league underdog, the Sakonnet Sewer Rats, at the Providence Roller Derby Championship Bout last Friday evening.

Sports teams don't normally employ such colorful taglines, but women's roller derby doesn't quite fit the mold for run-of-the mill athletic competition. In Friday night's game, a player was on the floor within 10 seconds — the night's first casualty in the high-speed contact sport.

In roller derby, two teams skate around a track, and each team's "jammer" attempts to score points by passing members of the other team.

"It's kind of like a race, but it's a race between a group of people, and they're trying to knock you down," said derby announcer Jeff "Reverend Almighty" O'Neill.

On Friday night, the two teams' players whipped around the track at the Kennedy Plaza Bank of America City Center, shouldering each other and even colliding in front of an audience that included as many families with toddlers as it did punk rockers.

Only a decade ago, modern roller derby emerged from a punk, alternative subculture, but in recent years its popularity has grown — Rhode Island Monthly recently recognized the league with an award for "Best Role Model for Young Girls." Roller derby's longtime players expect Friday's release of "Whip It," a film starring Ellen Page as a novice roller girl, to bring the sport even more national attention.

Roller derby "went from just one league in Austin, Texas, in 2001 to, we think, over 400 leagues internationally," said Juliana Gonzales, executive director of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association and skater for the Texas Roller Girls. "When I started skating in 2002, I could reach out and touch all the roller derby skaters in the entire country," she said.

WFTDA, as it is known, is a volunteer-run organization that standardizes local competitions. When it was founded in 2004, WFTDA comprised 30 leagues. That number that has more than doubled, and Gonzales predicts that in the next several years, it will have over 200.

The organization's amateur, do-it-yourself nature is an institutional core value, Gonzales said, and a reason why leagues must be democratically elected in order to join WFTDA.
In addition, eligibility rules state that 67 percent of a league's management and a majority of its owners must be skaters, "whether active, injured or retired," according to WFTDA's Web site.

Of the over 5,000 WFTDA skaters, roughly 200 take an active volunteer role in running the organization, Gonzales said. "Our motto is by the skaters, for the skaters," she added.
Individual leagues vary dramatically, according to Gonzales, and range from teams that play in sports arenas in St. Paul, Minn., to ones that play in abandoned warehouses in Sacramento.

Superheroes on wheels

The non-profit Providence league was founded in 2004 by Sarah "Doom" Kingan '02 and has grown to include three at-home and two nationally competitive teams.
It is often the competitive, athletic aspect of roller derby that surprises casual spectators, said many Providence skaters.

Roller derby is the "most physically intense sport I've ever played in my life," said Ellie Leonard Smith GS, who goes by "Bleeding Rainbow" in the skating world. Three to four times a week, teams practice hitting and dexterity drills, work on strategy and do strength exercises, she said.

Friends who learn about Smith's derby-girl life often say, "Oh, that's where your bruises come from," Bleeding Rainbow said.

Beyond the physically grueling athletics, derby's theatricality remains central to its quirky culture. Teams and their individual skaters cultivate flashy, costumed personas. For Friday's championship bout, competitors donned pink, duct-taped skates and fuschia lace underwear worn over leggings. Even the referees jazzed up their outfits.

Old Money Honeys captain Sass E. McNasty, otherwise known as Lisa Dabrow, has never bouted without her glitter eyelashes, which she said she usually buys on sale after Halloween. (She is, after all, a "roller girl on a budget.")

"Every girl likes to play dress-up," Dabrow said. "Think how much more fun soccer would be if you got to wear false eyelashes and pigtails."

The team's outfits often spark debate and discussion among players. "The Old Money Honeys used to wear all white," Dabrow said. "Then we thought we looked fat in that."
Even the words the players throw around communicate the sport's playful spirit. "Jammers" and "pivots" are two types of positions, "bouts" refer to games and VIP seats are called WHIP seats — an acronym that stands for Wicked Hot Important People, according to PRD's Web site.

PRD skater Joelle "Foxie Renard" Burdette went to an early screening of "Whip It" and found it to be an accurate but flashier representation of the world of roller derby.

"The camaraderie was one of the main things that showed through," she said, adding that she "kind of teared up a bit" when she watched the trailer because it was so true to her own experience.

Foxie Renard, a member of PRD's recruitment team, has been preparing for the influx of people who might be "casually curious" about the sport after the release of "Whip It." Usually, fewer than half of all recruits stick around, in part because of the intense time commitment, Renard said.

As PRD's executive director, Cate "Baby Fighterfly" Morin spends about 30-40 hours a week on roller derby-related activities — completely unpaid.

"Now that I know about it, I couldn't imagine not being involved," she said, adding that she has met her best friends through roller derby. "It's almost like being a superhero."

Renard said she expects interest to grow among younger skaters. Several leagues currently partner with junior programs, and some take skaters as young as five years old, according to Gonzales, WFTDA's executive director.

Friday night's crowd included quite a few potential future roller girls. But the growing family presence doesn't mean the matches have lost their edge.

Though Friday's pre-show entertainment was a clown troupe, Chukles the Klown describes himself as an "evil, politically incorrect clown," and punk rock bands often play league halftime shows.

Organizers try to balance the alternative spirit of roller derby's origins and the families it now draws. But despite its rising popularity, roller derby has held on to its unconventional roots.

"Everything has to be PG-13-rated," said "Diamond" Dan White, one of PRD's announcers.

"It's all about disguising dicks as candy canes," he added, referring to the innuendo he often slips into his commentary.

White had another stereotype of the sport to address. "One of the (most common) misconceptions about roller derby is that all of them are lesbians," he said.

"That's not true," he said. "Some of them are bi."


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