The undefeated Wicked Pissahs beat the Cosmonaughties in September at the 2010 Golden Fez Championship presented by the Boston Derby Dames league at the packed Wilmington, Massachusetts, Shriners Auditorium. The league has been drawing big crowds from day one and championship night was buzzing. This was definitely not the roller derby that I remembered from the 1960s and 1970s, promoted by cigar-smoking impresarios with the "girls" tarted up excessively and the matches disintegrating into choreographed fight scenes. That was entertainment. This is sport.
Today's flat-track roller derby is a community-based sport that raises the kind of excitement and devotion only local heroes can. These women are creating the leagues, holding down jobs while training at least three times per week, filling halls that hold—in the case of the Shriners Auditorium—1,300 fans, and setting out a rules system that has turned the derby from its 1960s' freak-act status into a respected, popular sport. The derby is skater-owned and operated. The participants call it a "do-it-yourself" organization. All the revenue comes from sales of tickets and merchandise, some sponsorship and skaters' dues, and all profits are invested in practice spaces, travel expenses, and advertising. Not only must each skater join a work committee, they must also buy their own gear and uniforms.
The truth is that the roller derby is much more exciting than the old days because now it is a grass-roots movement. The loyal and growing fan base seems to be built on the family and friends of players and officials, with increased press interest and some advertising drawing in more people.
Behind me in the bleachers during the championship bout sit some cowbell-ringing men—a so-called "Derby-widow" and his pals. These guys are making noise for their buddy's wife and for the team that has become the center of their social life. In front of me sits a group of about eight young lesbians and transmen, mostly students or recent graduates of local colleges. They have a connection with one of the volunteer officials—"characters" with great names like Whistler's Mutha, Jeff da Ref, and Messy Jessy.
All skaters choose a name for themselves and it becomes an indelible part of their competition persona. Many of the names are punderfully entertaining—from Slam Chowdah to Jackie KO to Chicana Bruyza and Sin D. Lapher. As for couture, the Boston Derby Dames pick out a common team shirt together and then individuals are free to layer on sparkly knickers, a tutu, or flamboyant tights. Safety considerations define the accessories: teeth guards, joint pads, and helmets.
Shelby Shattered, one of the members of the original league Board in 2005 and an award-winning skater on the all-star traveling team Boston Massacre, explained the basics. (Her team wasn't skating that night so she was stationed at the ticket desk.) The closest comparison to other team sports, she says, would be basketball, but it is the actual body of the jammer (point scorer) that is the "ball." In the 2, 30-minute intervals of each game, 4 blockers try to prevent the opposing jammer from passing while they assist their own jammer to get past the pack of blockers from both teams. Jammers start out 30 feet behind the pack and once they make it through the pack, they get a point for every opposing blocker they pass on the next laps. Only the lead jammer can call off the jam before the end of two minutes if the other jammer appears to be in a position to gain an advantage.
While each team has 14 players, only 5 are on the track at any time, unless one or more has been sent to the penalty box. It takes 4 minor penalties to send a player to the box. Penalties include an elbow to the throat or a shove. A major foul that is potentially game-changing, like tripping, sends a player to the box. There's contact, but it is done by the body, generally hip to hip.
It is exhilarating to see the range of bodies out on the track—from small and swift to thick and tough. "Girls embrace who they are and learn how to use it. Everybody's got an advantage," Speed Metal, who is tiny but fast, told me in her "extra" role running the publicity department.
The derby is having a huge national resurgence, particularly the flat track leagues. Using a flat track has at least two major impacts: leagues can set up in any venue with a large empty floor without carrying around a banked track. All propulsion comes from the skating. This means that the speed is slower than on a banked track and there are no railings for players to bounce off of. The league emphasizes the competitive sport, not personal rivalries and fist fights.
The derby is governed by the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), an international body that was established in 2005 and now has close to 100 leagues across the country. Their tagline is, "Real. Strong. Athletic. Revolutionary." While distinguishing themselves from the sex-bomb, hair-pulling, bitch-slapping days of yore, the derby is visually stimulating and the scene is still theatrical, but in a homespun kind of way.
One of the announcers, Lady O, has been volunteering on the Boston Derby Dames microphone for four years. An American football player herself, she goes to all the Boston Derby Dames games and even travels with them. She was recruited by one of the skaters who saw her announcing at a burlesque club. "It's a family, first of all," Lady O tells me. "Over the years I've been able to watch roller derby explode. It's a very empowering sport for women to get involved in, whatever their shape or size."
Speed Metal tells me the skaters are mostly in their 20s and 30s, although she thinks it would suit older women as well. They often have careers, but if their employment has been interrupted by the economic downturn, they are likely to spend even more time volunteering with the league. The recession, she says, has not stopped the derby from growing or the fans from coming. Speed Metal quoted a WFTDA survey indicating that 71 percent of their fans are aged 25-44 and 91 percent have a post-secondary education.
The officials, sometimes borrowed from other leagues, are charged with keeping the skaters safe—this is a contact sport, a big point of appeal for skaters and fans alike. Contact, though, inevitably leads to injuries beyond the expected bruises and sprains. Joints are particularly vulnerable. Lady O points to ankle injuries and Speed Metal talks about the strain on knees of always skating in one direction.
Following the championship game there was a big party, complete with DJ and dance floor, in the bar of the Shriners' hall. The Shriners are huge fans and a constant presence during the match. Each of them is as dressed up as the players and the more costumed guests are in an elaborately embroidered fez. The last to arrive at the party are the players. When I peek back into the track room, I see them cleaning up, moving equipment, and doing it for themselves.
Sue Katz is a wordsmith and rebel, offering frank talk about aging, sex, the Middle East, class rage, and ballroom dancing. She used to be most proud of her martial arts career, her world travel, and her voters' guide to Sarah Palin, Thanks But No Thanks, but now it's all about her blog Consenting Adult (www.suekatz.typepad.com). Photos are by David Andrew Morris.