Soon, Donnelly and I roll up to Cheap Skate in Coon Rapids, where the RollerGirls practice three nights a week. This evening an open skate is still going on and a group of kids, including a Boy Scout troop, are playing Red Light/Green Light.
My plan to blame my poor skating performance on the cheap rental skates hits a bump when Powers offers me an extra pair of speed skates decked out in flames. While sitting on the sidelines, I chat with a couple of first-timers. One is Beth Donarski, who was drawn in by Twister Night. When she told a co-worker she was coming to roller-derby practice, he laughed.
"I loved it," she says. "It was the first honest reaction. Everyone else said, 'Oh, that's...interesting.'"
With knee and elbow pads, wrist guards, and helmets secured, the girls take the floor amid the few remaining kids. The DJ has chosen Usher's "Burn" as the last couples' skate and we spend it dodging Boy Scouts, who don't seem to be obeying the normal counterclockwise flow. When the girls who are flying rings around me slow down to ask how I'm doing, I tell them, "I'll feel better when these kids are out of the way." I've only completed a couple of rounds when Michelle Will/Led Debby swoops in from behind and swats me on the ass. I've been initiated.
"The old roller derby was more like WWF wrestling, where everything was choreographed and they weren't hurting each other," says Donnelly. "They knew who was going to win before they even played. We don't know that. This is real."
The girls introduce themselves with their badass nicknames (my favorite being Dixie Wrect--say it out loud) and then we start with some laps designed to rank the team according to speed. The pace is what a mother might call "reasonable" until Lindsy Hallezkson (a.k.a. Rebel Stella) takes the lead. With blond dreadlocks streaming out from her skull-and-crossbones helmet, she escorts those who can keep up through a brutal warm-up.
Afterward, I ask Hallezkson about her exceptional skills, and she explains, "I was a competitive figure skater for 13 years. I'm used to the speed but not the wheels."
Back on the track, Cheris Haire (a.k.a. C. Stars) plays taskmaster. Every time Haire explains a drill, Donarski and I exchange a look that says, She-wants-us-to-do-what? Skate as fast as you can and come to an abrupt stop? Build up speed and then skate on one foot? See how long you can skate while squatting? What?
"I already spent the whole day squatting while kissing my boss's ass!" jokes Powers.
We run drills to build endurance, balance, and flexibility. Then comes falling down.
"If you don't know how to fall, you could seriously hurt yourself," Donnelly explains. "It's really important with street Rollerblading too. If you're jumping over a car, you have to know how to fall properly."
Feeling secure in my skates, I'm not very concerned with proper plummeting until Haire explains the pushing and pulling drill. During a bout, shoving is inevitable and knowing how to stay vertical is vital.
"Isn't pushing against the rules?" one of the newbies asks.
"There are the rules and there's what actually happens," says coach Leif Nelson. "The refs don't see everything."
Finally, we try a few practice jams. The close proximity of the girls in the pack reminds me of the Boy Scouts and I get nervous. Skaters zip past me, huffing and puffing blurs of colorful T-shirts and black safety gear. Crouching low, they zigzag through the crowd like the other girls aren't even there. Occasionally a girl wipes out and a half-dozen voices ask if she's okay. It occurs to me that while practicing falls is fun, I don't want to be involved in a multi-RollerGirl pileup, even with all the padding.
I lag behind the rest of the pack, prompting Haire to yell, "Tighten up!"
I was by no means a speed-hungry kid and that hasn't changed with age. I didn't chase danger or roughhouse or do anything that might prepare me for roller derby. But there was a time, I remember, when I felt comfortable on wheels, sometime before my hometown's Skate World turned into a furniture store 12 years ago.
Just as I'm blaming my sluggishness on first-practice jitters, fellow novice Donarski, with blond braids flying, expertly weaves through the pack, eliciting cheers from the other girls. Some RollerGirls are made, it seems, and some are born.