Related media: Listen to Miranda’s Alter Ego, a radio documentary on roller derby by Claire Neary.
By Elyssa Goodman
A popular 1950s sport is making a comeback
The Steel City Derby Demons (SCDD), a roller derby organization in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was founded in 2006 and they describe themselves as taking “all the action and exhilaration of yesterday’s roller derby and combining it with punk rock flavour.” With teams like the Bitch Doctors, the Wrecking Dolls, the Slumber Party Slashers, and the Hot Metal Hellions, these derby girls serve up a fresh plate of attitude with every game. Roller skating used to make me think of birthday parties, with children clinging to the walls of skating rinks for dear life while tottering on bright orange wheels. Now, though, I can only think of the fishnets, tattoos, short shorts and hair dye sported by the ladies of the Steel City Derby Demons.
My friends and I drove out to what seemed like the boonies, 30 minutes from my college campus in Pittsburgh proper, to see The Battle Royale, the SCDD finals between the Bitch Doctors and the Wrecking Dolls. As we arrived, a man with short, blond spiked hair and sleeves of tattoos directed us to a parking spot.
When we went to pick up our tickets from will call, we were greeted by four women, all short and slim with anemically pale skin, jet black hair, and scathing red lips, à la Bettie Page. One of them wore a leopard-print tank top and had rose tattoos inked on her chest, another wore a black corset linked with silver metal chains, her ears gauged to possibly fit quarters for safe keeping. I hoped the roller derby would be as sassy and adventurous as these women looked.
We entered the arena, a hockey rink by day. Now it was covered with thick blue plastic and an 88-foot long elliptical track that would soon be covered by skaters. We sat in an area marked “Only 18 and Over Permitted,” because we could possibly be struck by a derby girl sent flying or falling by her opponents. I value my teeth, but sat there anyway, thinking that the possible battle wounds would make a good story.
To our right sat the Wrecking Dolls fans, surrounded by the team colours, orange and blue. To our left were the fans of the Bitch Doctors, adorned in black and red. The teams skate around the track as each player is introduced by the announcer, a dreadlocked white guy with a lip piercing and a trucker hat.
The Wrecking Dolls fly in front of me, wearing navy dresses with orange stripes that resemble construction wear, sheer orange tights underneath. They have names like Scary Schiavo and Snot Rocket Science, with whatever numbers they damn well want written underneath them. Their hair is dyed, in braids, bobs, dreadlocks and, once or twice, just blonde or brunette.
The Bitch Doctors are next, wearing black skirts with homemade black, white and red skull and heart patches, black fishnet tights, and black t-shirts crossed with white X’s and secured on the left with bright red hearts. Some of the girls wear skull face paint, red lips, dark eyes, and have names like Dresta Kill and Anita Cocktail.
The game begins, and I quickly learn the rules: each game of roller derby is referred to as a bout, made up of smaller two minute (at most) jams. In each jam, there is a jammer, whose goal it is to make it from the back of the pack (the herd of skaters) to the front without penalties. Teams obtain points by getting their jammer to the front of the pack before the opposing team, and they can do this in an unlimited amount of jams in a 30-minute period. Each bout is made up of two 30-minute periods.
Soon, the girls fly around the track at speeds I didn’t think were possible on roller skates. We cheer and jeer along with the rest of the quite sizable crowd of equally tattooed and fishnetted girls, pierced guys, children under 10 excited to see Mommy or Auntie skate, and players’ families, who I can only spot because they are wearing jeans and t-shirts and have no fleshly adornments.
Referees with spiky black hair, named Reffer Madness, Donnie Rotten, and Big F’N Ref, have been specially trained to referee roller derby. They stand on roller skates (which I imagine is far more difficult than it looks) in the center of the track wearing black-and-white striped jerseys, following the girls around in circle after circle.
I am instantly hooked by the intense concentration the derby girls have, the Clint Eastwood-like squint in their eyes as they take on jammer after jammer. By the end of the first 30-minute bout, the Bitch Doctors are in the lead. While the Wrecking Dolls make a fierce effort in the second bout, they are ultimately defeated, and the Bitch Doctors walk away with the trophy, an immense mannequin leg wearing a black fishnet stocking, surrounded by balloons in each team’s colours.
My friends and I leave the arena, and I feel like I am in on a big, exciting secret. I am impressed with how passionate the girls are about their sport, about what I thought was an underground phenomenon, but is actually a (re)burgeoning sports scene.
While on a break from her announcer duties, Kara Wendekier, aka Double Destroyer of The Bitch Doctors, helped me figure out how people become involved in what is today such an obscure sport. Wendekier is about five-feet-six, with close cropped light brown hair and a tiny nose stud that subtly shimmers on her light skin, sprinkled with cocoa freckles. She tells me of when she first started skating, “you know, junior high, roller skating, slow songs,” making the face of an awkward middle schooler touching a boy for the first time. But two years ago she heard about people starting the SCDD, and instantly wanted to get involved.
“I had heard about roller derby from some friends in Chicago and on MySpace, and I was like, “Yeah, I wanna do that,” she explains. Wendekier has been with SCDD since its inception in February 2006, and loves being a derby girl. “Yes, I’ve made lifelong friends and met some incredible girls, but I really love the sport aspect, learning from my peers and being the best you can be at something.”
And the sport is not a joke.
“The bruises are real, the injuries are real,” she says. Wendekier herself suffered a shoulder separation at the beginning of last year. “Once you’re a derby girl, this is your life,” she says. Practices are usually three to four times a week, and skaters train using speed skating techniques and drills.
That’s quite a time commitment for women who hold down other jobs all over Pittsburgh. Wendekier herself works at Verizon Wireless. Another skater, Jamie, or Ally McKill, is a contractual analyst for a construction company, and has a law degree (hence the Ally McBeal reference). There is also Joyce, or Scary Schiavo, a senior at Chatham University who spent time as a soldier in Iraq. Though the girls have different jobs and come from different backgrounds, they all share a love of roller skating and a love of competitive sport. And they’re willing to take time out of their already-busy lives to nurture their passions. So, does Kara Wendekier moonlight as Double Destroyer?
“No, no, no. Double Destroyer definitely moonlights as Kara,” she says emphatically.
Derby girls are often different people when they play their sport. That is, theres an element of entertainment, of performance in roller derby. Roller derby used to be staged in the 1970s, with costumes and characters. Though the sport is all real today, there are still costumes and characters. Is Hurricane Heather really as tempestuous as the “Category 5” on her back suggests? Does Formalde Heidi really play with chemicals? As far as names go, either of these is really quite possible. The skaters choose names that relate to them somehow. Why did Wendekier choose Double Destroyer?
“I wanted a name that matched my bra size,” she says, cracking a smile.
Roller derby actually dates all the way back to 1935, when founder Leo Seltzer gathered co-ed teams together to race in a 3,000 mile roller skating marathon around a rink in the Chicago Coliseum. The race lasted for one month, with skaters skating for 11 hours daily. According to the National Museum of Roller Skating in Lincoln, Nebraska, the sport took its current shape in 1937: “The roller derby evolved from an endurance race, to one in which two teams of five players earned points by successfully circling the track and passing a member of the rival team at the end of the pack.”
As roller derby became more and more popular in the 1950s, it began to draw crowds of 30,000 to 40,000 people, and maintained this level of popularity until the 1970s. Though interest slowed for a while, groups like the Steel City Derby Demons are giving the sport a comeback.
Perhaps what has most helped roller derby begin to rise again is the formation of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). The WFTDA was founded in 2004, and “promotes and fosters the sport of women’s flat track derby by facilitating the development of athletic ability, sportswomanship, and goodwill among member leagues.” All of the leagues that are a part of the WFTDA are skater-owned and organized. Some of the other members of the WFTDA include the Gotham Girls Roller Derby (New York City), the Boston Derby Dames, and the Kansas City Roller Warriors, among a long list of others. All of the teams on the list have been around for five years or less, as long as the WFTDA itself, and mirror the resurgent interest in the sport.
Typing in “roller derby” on Google currently gets you over 2.2 million hits. That’s more than typing in “sumo wrestling” or “Pauly Shore.” Two books about roller derby, Shauna Cross’s memoir Derby Girl and Catherine Mabe’s Roller Derby: The History and All-Girl Revival of the Greatest Sport on Wheels were both released at the end of last year. The sport was also recently featured on television show Psych on the USA Network, in an episode titled “Talk Derby to Me.”
The idea of being a tough chick on roller skates still conjures an image of 1950s B-movie kitsch, but perhaps with the resurgence of roller derby in this decade, more people will soon think of derby girls as punk rock goddesses on wheels, takin’ no shit from nobody. Jim Croce may have described the derby girl best in his 1971 song “Roller Derby Queen:”
You know that I fell in love with a roller derby queen
Round and round, oh round and round
The meanest hunk o’ woman
That anybody ever seen
Down in the arena
Well I could not help it
But to fall in love
With this heavy-duty woman
I been speakin’ of
Things looked kind of bad
Until the day she skated into my life.