Would the WNBA Be More Popular If It Had Players Named Dixie Wrect?
"Whose ass is that?"
Minnesota RollerGirls founder Mary Donnelly Silverstein (a.k.a. Head Trauma) asks the question with genuine confusion as we stand on the patio of Psycho Suzi's Motor Lodge, ogling the mess of bodies participating in the league's Twister fundraiser.
On the mat is a guy who paid five bucks to tangle with four of the rowdiest girls in the state. At the moment, he's barely visible, trapped in a cage woven of legs clad in fishnet stockings, striped knee socks, and little else. The RollerGirls play fast and loose with the rules, knocking each other over and arguing the caller's claims that they're out. Finally the only ones left are the guy and Michelle Powers (a.k.a. Holly Go-Fightly), a brunette in a crimson miniskirt and straw cowboy hat.
For a while it looks like a stalemate. Then Michelle Will (a.k.a. Led Debby) steps in with an assist. She's wearing huge '70s cop sunglasses, a fake moustache, red hot pants, shiny pantyhose, and rainbow striped socks. Picture a "Sabotage" Beastie Boy dressed for Jazzercise. Out of nowhere she tackles the hapless guy, making Powers the winner. Behind me, a girl shouts, "If one RollerGirl can't do it, two sure as hell can!"
Point taken. If you mess with one, you'd better be ready to take on all of them.
But as I watch, what I'm thinking is, This is what they do to an outsider who's not even wearing protective gear. The spectacle stirs fear in me for a particular reason: I've already committed to tying on some skates and joining the girls for practice next week.
When I meet Donnelly at the south Minneapolis café called Butter a couple of days later, I have plenty of questions about roller derby and possible injuries. Donnelly puts to rest the stereotype of the huge, masculine "hell on wheels" broad. With her auburn hair and freckles, she looks less like the Queen of Mean and more like Anne of Green Gables.
Roller derby wasn't a contact sport when it was invented in the 1930s. It was a tag-team endurance test that lasted 57,000 laps, a distance equivalent to a trip from New York to Los Angeles. By the '50s, it had evolved into a game between offensive and defensive skaters. Bouts received televised coverage and roller derby became a popular sport for both men and women.
Since then, the sport has returned in waves. A 1970s resurgence stalled when gasoline prices limited teams' travel schedules. And a late-'90s television program RollerJam presented roller derby with a professional-wrestling twist.
Fortunately, that's not the roller derby loved by Donnelly, a 27-year-old internet-usability consultant who first heard about the sport's revival in Jane magazine last year.
"I thought, 'Oh my god, that's just the coolest thing in the world,'" she says. "I'm always looking for some sport to do that involves girls and contact. But one where you don't just play the sport; there's also a social aspect to it."
Leagues had just started up in Austin and Chicago. Donnelly, a Minnesota native, was living in L.A. at the time, but she and her husband were contemplating a move back to the Midwest. Once in Minneapolis, she forgot about skating and took up rugby. "I'd go to practice but the girls wouldn't teach me how to do it," she says, sipping her coffee. "I would try to do the drills and they'd say, 'Yeah, you'd better just stand over on the side.' I was like, 'I'm here to play, damn it. Just teach me!'"
Frustrated, she enlisted the help of sisters Bridget and Molly to start a roller-derby league. Following the DIY instructions of other teams popping up around the country, the Donnellys generated a recruiting buzz with fliers and posters. Their first Psycho Suzi's party in August drew more than 50 girls. The league now boasts 25 official members, ages 21 to 37, a population that includes PR reps, students, waitresses, artists, hairdressers, and a train conductor. Some were recreational skaters when they joined, others had no idea how to skate. Donnelly's goal is to collect 60 women before breaking into four teams, playing some expo bouts in March, and then competing against other leagues next fall.
In addition to immodest Twister, the RollerGirls have made money through an equally immodest car wash. Donnelly admits they've relied a bit on sex appeal to draw attention. "I think some girls weren't comfortable with it at first," she says, "but they understand now that that's part of it. We're not out there selling our bodies."
When Donnelly picks me up a few days later, she's wearing a brace. It turns out her first RollerGirls-related injury didn't happen in the rink. She cracked her wrist playing Twister.
Since roller derby is popularly misconceived as a bunch of butch chicks on skates pushing each other down, this seems like a good time to explain the rules of the game. All the action happens in the pack, which consists of each team's pivot (who sets the pace for the pack) and six blockers (three on each team). On the first whistle, the pack starts skating. The second signals each team's jammer, who sprints to catch up. Once they reach the pack, they thread their way through it, trying to pass as many skaters from the opposite team as possible and earning one point for each. The blockers use whatever body part is handy to get in the way of the jammer from the opposing team, while trying to help their own by slinging her forward. One two-minute round is called a jam.
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.
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