Young Women Create Their Own Outlet For Physical Aggression With the Charm City Roller Girls
“Oh, this is an awesome drill,” laughs Caroline Donaghy as she carefully roller-skates up to one of the tables at the Putty Hill Skateland snack bar and maneuvers herself into a booth while watching the women on the rink. Out of breath from practice, she rips off her wrist guards and helmet and tosses them on the table. “They go as fast as they can to the end of the rink and end in a turnaround toe-stop. But they belly-flop a lot, ’cause this is a hard one to do.”
As she talks two women roller-skate full speed ahead across the rink. At the last second they pivot around to come to a full stop and, sure enough, one falls hard on her stomach. Flesh meeting roller rink looks like it should make an impressive smacking sound and maybe even elicit a cry of pain, but everything is drowned out by the laughter from the 20 to 30 women at the other end of the rink, awaiting their turn. Watching the women practice is reminiscent of a high-school gym class on substitute-teacher day. Practice is going on, but there’s a feeling of careless fun and joking around, and someone has slipped into the DJ booth and put on an old Yo La Tengo CD, blasting “Sugarcube” throughout the rink.
Few people would describe belly-flopping as fun, but those who do are gathered here tonight. They are the most recent devotees of the sport of roller derby, a game that had all but died decades ago. In the past five years derby has made a major comeback, and while the game itself is the same, the players are decidedly unique. Today’s roller-derby leagues are nearly all female, unlike many of the coed leagues of the past, and they are grass-roots organizations started and run by the players themselves. As a result, instead of a retread of the tired, old idea of chicks on skates beating each other up that was so prevalent in the 1970s and ’80s, today’s roller derby emphasizes feminine strength without the exploitation or gratuitous violence and puts the focus back on skills rather than fake-punch theatrics. These new leagues consist of tightly bonded young women, communities of their own making where the woman is always the aggressor. On the rink they take on names such as “Iona Handgun” and “Betsy Battleaxe,” they learn the safest moves to tackle each other while wearing skates, and then they go out drinking together afterward. No wonder it’s sweeping the nation.
Donaghy first became involved with roller derby while living in Austin, the place where modern flat-track roller derby was reborn with the founding of the Texas Rollergirls in 2003. “I’m from Baltimore,” she says. “I went down to Texas for a job and started going to the Austin games and watching their roller derby and became friends with a couple of those girls and really got into it and wanted to do it. I came here [to Baltimore] for a two-week vacation and went skating with a couple of my friends, and I was showing them how to do cool falls and everything, and they were like, ‘We need this here.’ And I extended my stay for about a month . . . and then it wound up being my mission.”
Donaghy has spent the last year organizing and training the Charm City Roller Girls, Baltimore’s first all-female flat-track roller derby league. The league consists of 43 active members split into four teams, with each team allowed a maximum of 14 skaters. The teams—the Mobtown Mods, the Junkyard Dolls, Speed Regime, and the Night Terrors—were formed in late January, when the women were each evaluated on their individual skill level to form four equally matched teams. They’re currently running through the last few days of practice before kicking off their inaugural season with an April 23 bout at this northeast Baltimore County skate park.
“We had our expo bout on Monday, and it got really crazy,” says Donaghy, captain of the Mobtown Mods (derby name: Ivana E. Chabrains). “We were gonna do the same thing tonight, but everyone was like, ‘Noooo.’ So we said, ‘Let’s just have a fun night, let’s do stuff that we used to do, like play dodge ball and freeze tag.’”
The recent expo bout—in front of friends and family—was one of the first times the women had competitively played each other since splitting into teams. And while all the teams performed well, the derby ladies were surprised by the number of scuffles that erupted between players on the rink.
“Those are the first spontaneous fights we’ve had,” says Anna Adler, sitting on the floor of Skateland doing some last-minute adjustments to her skates before joining practice. Adler, aka Betty Beatdown, is the captain of Speed Regime, one of the teams that engaged in the most fighting during the expo bout. She’s quick to add that unlike in the days of staged hits and wrestling-style choreography so prevalent in 1980s shows like Rollergames, all the skirmishes between today’s roller girls are real.
“It’s not like they walked out of here and wanted to take it out into the parking lot,” Adler says. “They weren’t really trying to break each other’s faces, but they were definitely fighting.”
“We don’t buy into the whole wrestle or fake fight for show,” says Tara Gebhardt, aka Cindy Lop-Her, co-captain of Speed Regime and self-confessed expo bout skirmisher. “Anything that you see us do out there is real. The family and friends night on Monday, that was real. I jumped on someone.”
Gebhardt exudes a congenial mien, and the idea of this pretty, bubbly woman jumping on someone and pummeling them sounds surreal. “I sent an ‘I’m sorry’ e-mail when I got home, though,” she adds. “For throwing the punch.
“There are some banked-track leagues who have different rules than we do,” she continues. “And they do a lot of showmanship. We don’t.”
Banked-track leagues—derby teams that play games on angled tracks such as the Lonestar Rollergirls in Austin and the Los Angeles Derby Dolls—perform the kind of showy roller derby with which most people are probably familiar: G.L.O.W. on skates. Roller derby wasn’t always like that. The sport originally began during the Great Depression, conceived as a marriage of skating and endurance dances that were popular at the time. Teams would skate a race of more than 57,000 laps, approximately 4,000 miles of track. Leo Seltzer, the man popularly credited with founding roller derby as it is popularly known, noticed how much the crowds enjoyed the occasional scuffles that occurred between skaters during a game and decided to make roller derby officially a full-contact sport.
By the late 1950s two separate leagues had formed. Seltzer’s International Roller Derby League focused on competition and skating skill, while the Roller Games League focused disproportionately on showmanship and theatrical violence. The two leagues had a rivalry that continued until the 1970s, when derby fell out of favor altogether. Since then attempts to revive the sport have largely focused on the Roller Games League-style of play, with shows such as Rollergames that included fully choreographed fights amid pits of live alligators.
In 2003, a group of women in Austin got together to bring back roller derby’s skilled skaters and honest competition and founded the Texas Rollergirls. Since, many women have rekindled this idea in their own cities, and in 2004 the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association was formed as a governing body for all the teams, with strict guidelines regarding acceptable fighting during a bout. Today, a woman might pick a fight, but she stands the risk of getting kicked out of the game on a serious penalty call.
In fact, flat-track derby players like the Charm City Roller Girls balk at any comparison between how they play the game now and the way it was played in the late ’70s and ’80s. “That’s how it got ruined,” Donaghy argues. “In the ’70s it got taken over by major corporations, and they wanted more and more fights ’cause they thought that would bring them their ratings. So they took out really awesome skaters and put in wild and crazy skaters, and it totally ruined the sport. It’s kind of cheesy to do it—you can tell when someone’s pissed at someone and when someone’s pretending to be pissed at someone. If it’s gonna happen, why force it?”
Not only do today’s skaters find the fake violence silly, but they view such choreography as negating one of the main reasons many of them became involved with the sport in the first place: to have a physical outlet for actual aggression, not an easy task for most women in their 20s and 30s. Athletically competing in a highly aggressive sport with other women is something that is hard to find after college, but the proliferation of roller derby leagues across the country clearly attests to women wanting that outlet. Nearly every major city has a league, and in Baltimore the response was so overwhelming that the Charm City Roller Girls still have a waiting list to try out.
“It’s extremely physical,” says Gebhardt, nodding sternly for emphasis. Her long ponytail peeks out beneath her helmet and bobs along as she explains the rough play. “And you’re actually trying to hit people hard and not get hit hard at the same time. I have a lot of friends who are on intramural [sports] teams around the city, but whenever you hear them talk about their games they talk about, ‘Well, we won today because the other team didn’t have enough women and had to forfeit,’ or, ‘Well, I made a touchdown today because every third pass has to be given to a girl.’
“And I didn’t want to do something like that,” she continues. “I wanted to do something where I wasn’t going to be an exception when I was doing it.”
“It lets you show that you’re strong,” Adler adds. “You have to be able to skate. You also have to be able to hit people.” She pauses as she tightens her wrist guards. “It’s a great way to get out aggression.”
While that aggressive impulse can and does erupt into trash-talking and the occasional brawl, many of the women say that one of the main reasons fights break out is not just to hassle the other team but because someone is doing something unsafe on the rink. “We’ve got some girls who will pull an illegal move, like grabbing you from behind,” Donaghy says with a sigh. “And that really bothers me, because I know you can injure someone if they fall by you pulling them from behind. You can really hurt their tailbone.”
“A lot of times what distinguishes a good skater from a novice skater is that someone who’s not that comfortable yet can’t play by the rules,” Gebhardt says, with more than a little exasperation in her tone. “So that usually provokes a lot of actual fighting, because they’re doing things behind the referee’s back. And that was the case for what you saw on Monday [at the expo bout]. There was a lot of that going on.”
A look at the tally of injuries the women have already incurred quickly explains why they’re so anxious about dangerous moves on the rink. “Not from fighting, but we’ve had one broken leg, a broken ankle, a couple broken wrists, a broken hand, lots of bruises, lots of concussions,” Adler says. “Almost every night someone falls or gets taken out in a way that they have to hold back for a little while. Everybody gets knocked out pretty badly.”
Despite the fighting, the falls, the broken bones, and the trash-talk, the women of the Charm City Roller Girls are all still completely enamored with the sport, and are hoping that Baltimore jumps on their bandwagon. “Derby takes over your life,” Gebhardt warns. “And once you get sucked in it just consumes you. We’re doing it because we love to do it, and I think that even if we didn’t have spectators or fans we would still do it, because it’s fun. It’s just an added bonus. I really hope that the fans in Baltimore will accept us well and that they’ll be excited to come out.”
Beginning this week, the Roller Girls play bouts once a month. Playoffs begin in July and end in September with the championship game to determine who rules the rink in Baltimore. After that the Roller Girls hold October tryouts for “fresh meat” and begin training for the 2007 season. In addition to their home games, the Roller Girls are already planning their ascent to national derby domination.
“We have a travel team,” Gebhardt says. “And we’re taking them to Las Vegas to RollerCon [national convention in July], and we’ve challenged Assassination City, which is Dallas, and they’ve accepted. So we’re going to scrimmage them out there in Vegas. We’ve already had some proposals to go up to play [the] Harrisburg roller derby [team], and we’ll probably play Dominion, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York.” She grins. “We only want to get bigger and better.”
More than anything the Roller Girls are just hoping that the current roster of women can stay committed to the league and to the game, drawing in new women to play every year. “There’s so much about it that I love,” Donaghy laughs. “There are a lot of elements that are cool. It’s a fun sport, and it’s a sport that has a place for everyone. You get to be around really awesome girls. You get to be cute but you get to be tough. You get to be a rock star without having to play music.”
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