by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & ate on a weeknight, at a roller rink on the far north side of Spokane, the Lilac City Rollergirls have gathered so that "Mary Widow" (the Rollergirls' marketing director) can orchestrate a video shoot. A dozen of the members of the two Lilac City teams are supposed to pursue a male volunteer (armored for the occasion in full hockey gear), then knock him to the ground and dogpile on top of him.
"OK, take a full lap. Then everybody f---ing pummel him, like we're animals," she directs. "We want it to look f---ing brutal, you guys. Let's do it!"
Though she herself wasn't wearing any protective padding at all, Mary Widow gets caught on the bottom of the dogpile. Then she emerges, shouting her opinion that the hockey guy/tackling dummy "smells like a litter box."
Soon after, one of the skaters flies past while doing laps and shouts, "Hey, Mary, that's an awfully short skirt." And Mary duly responds by turning to a few team members seated on the sidelines, pulling up her miniskirt and revealing her black panties. They're decorated with the cutest little white frills.
Dangerous and dainty -- welcome to the sport and spectacle of Roller Derby, circa 2008.
Unlike traditional roller derby, flat-track roller derby is played on just that -- a flat track. Skaters race around the oval track in a full-contact sport on wheels. Each team has no more than five players on the track at a time. There are three types of players:
One Jammer: Wears a helmet cover with a star. Jammers are the only players who can score points. They start 20 feet behind the pack.
One Pivot: Wears a striped helmet cover. Pivots start at the front of the pack. They control the pace of the pack and are the last line of defense against the opposing jammer.
Three Blockers: No helmet cover. Blockers make up the rest of the pack. Their job is to help their jammer through the pack (using pushes and "whips") while keeping the opposing jammer back.
To score points, a jammer must first fight her way through the pack, then lap them. On her second pass through the pack, the jammer earns one point for every opposing player that she passes.
Jams, Periods and Bouts
In roller derby, games are called "bouts." Each bout is divided into two 30-minute halves. Each period is then separated into a variable number of jams, with each jam lasting no more than two minutes.
The first jammer to break cleanly through the pack earns the title of "lead jammer." She then has the strategic advantage of being able to call off the jam at any time by placing her hands on her hips.
Shoulder checks, hip checks
Blocking from behind, intentional tripping, holding (i.e. sexual misconduct), using elbows or forearms to block
They Know the Drill
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & oon after the dogpile, practice begins. The Rollergirls' new coach is "Demolisha" (who has experience skating with Portland's Rose City Roller Girls), and in the evening's first drill, she had pairs of skaters doing laps, with the one behind hanging onto her partner's hips and both of them bent low.
"I want your thighs at a 90-degree angle, ladies!" barked Demolisha. "Just like you're taking a shit on the toilet."
The night's practice continues like that, blending the earthy and the ethereal, until past 10:30. A scrimmage between the two Lilac City teams (the Toothless Annies and Pretty Deadly) begins. One of the blockers decides to display her own panties to an opponent. She has a mean and buccaneering look, and sure enough, the lettering on her butt spells out "Arrrgh!" Meanwhile, "Solar Ray of Death" was shedding blockers, weaving through traffic gracefully and accumulating points. "Crazytrain" was making some sweet crossover moves, wiggling past defenders on the inside and outside of the track at Pattison's North. In a sport that thrives on chaos, both jammers were artfully playing with the rules.
Here's the Deal
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n roller derby, a pack of eight skaters (four from each team) circulate around a track with a 30-yard-by-15-yard footprint. Each team also has a "jammer" who tries to lap the other team's "blockers" and earn points for each opponent who gets passed. Sometimes the jammers slip through; sometimes they get flattened. (For more details, see "The Basics,")
Roller derby got started in the 1920s and '30s in Chicago and New York as an outgrowth of dance and skating marathons: When couples are skating for hours and hours, some will want to circulate faster than others. It was just a short glide from there to the idea of scoring points by lapping other skaters or impeding them. Coed derby really took off after World War II and on into the '60s, but soon the excesses of roller disco and Xanadu would do it in. (The sport's popularity has always ebbed and waned.)
But six years ago in Austin, the Texas Rollergirls kicked off a derby revolution with a punk aesthetic, DIY flat tracks as venues and women only on the rosters. (Retro quad skates only, please; no in-line blades.) Ever since, all across the nation, teams in the Women's Flat Track Derby Association have been throwing elbows and dislocating shoulders.
Spokane caught up early in 2006 -- first "in somebody's garage," then at "a warehouse in Hillyard." "El Gato" -- it's derby names only here, folks -- started the Lilac City Rollergirls (actually a two-team league; an all-star team represents Spokane against other cities) with a couple of friends. One of those friends was Ted Wilke, a Spokane attorney who practices environmental and tribal law. He referees at LCRG bouts, using the moniker "Your on Her." (In roller derby, even the refs have nicknames.)
"We started with this little Sport Court, and the walls were only, like, two or three feet from the edge of the track, so we had mattresses piled up against the wall," says Your on Her. "It fit derby well -- the whole Spokane thing, dirty and grimy and real bad-ass," he says, reflecting on roller derby's rapid recent growth. "We went from piss-stained mattresses to the Convention Center. The sport's gotten a lot fancier than it was. I liked it better back in Hillyard."
With a victory over Centralia and a loss to Bend on their record this season, Lilac City's next bout has them heading upscale. This weekend, they graduate from the warehouse and past the Convention Center all the way to Coeur d'Alene Casino's House of Fury (with its $30,000 skate floor and flashing lights) for a Saturday night bout against Everett's Jet City Roller Girls.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & CRG may be getting the corporate treatment, but a spirit of bad-ass rebellion still permeates roller derby. Just browse TwoEvils.org/rollerderby, a nationwide list of registered derby names that includes "Ophelia Pain," "Ivana Tripabitch," "Kitty Bitter," "Titty Titty Bang Bang" and "Apocalypse Frau."
"The alter egos of the tattooed crowd," comments one of Lilac City's jammers, "Es Terminator." "I thought I was so clever when I came up with 'Scarlett O'Terror,' but it was already taken" (by a derby girl in Texas). So Es Terminator she remains.
Like most roller girls, she has her war stories. "My favorite moment from the [Centralia] bout was when Solar Ray of Death went into a rage and almost got thrown out. And there was some question by the refs about whether she had clipped her [opponent] on the face or on the shoulder.
"So afterwards, Solar Ray says, 'Well, I have her false eyelashes right here. They got caught on my wrist guard.'"
Another local jammer -- "Ida B. Cho Azz" -- also knows how to get physical. In a bout against Olympia's Oly Rollers, she says, "The refs, at halftime, had to give us a kind of powwow meeting. They told us we were getting really brutal and to watch it or they'd start calling majors [penalties]. Well, we felt that their girls were being really cheap, tripping skates out from under us. People were getting launched into the crowd."
So, late in the game, Ida says, when Lilac City was "way behind, we decided to ignore the score and just focus on knocking girls down."
ROLLERGIRLS RIGHT IN YOUR LAP
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n their first bout at the Coeur d'Alene Casino's House of Fury (25 miles south of CdA on Hwy. 95 in Worley, Idaho), the Lilac City Rollergirls All-Star team will skate against Everett's Jet City Roller Girls on Saturday, May 17, at 7 pm. The second half of the doubleheader will feature LCRG's two teams, Pretty Deadly and the Toothless Annies. Tickets: $15; $7, seniors and students. Visit cdacasino.com or myspace.com/lilac_city_rollergirls or call 325-SEAT. Coming up: July 12 vs. Boise at CdA Casino; July 25-27 at the "100 Years of Motorcycles" rally at the Spokane County Fair & amp; Expo Center; Sept. 20 (vs. Oil City [Edmonton] and Oct. 11 (vs. Emerald City [Eugene] at the Spokane Convention Center.
A Referee's Perspective
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & omebody's got to bring order to this chaos, and that job falls to a seven-person crew in striped shirts. (Even with 22 players on the field, the NFL only uses six officials.) Ideally, according to Your on Her, a bout will be overseen by a head referee along with an official for each team's jammer and officials for each team's part of the pack (both on the track's infield and also whizzing around the outside of the track, just to get different viewing angles).
"We try. We don't catch everything," Your on Her admits. "Don't tell the girls this, but when it gets two, three bodies deep in the pack, we can't tell what's going on. That's why there's seven of us."
Even at that 7:10 ratio, the action can get furious. But in a sport prone to violence, why haven't the men's roller derby leagues revived in the same way as the women's? Your on Her cites male inertia: "In the recent revival, men weren't active in it," he says. "The men were all buying drinks or deejaying or just on the sidelines from the start."
Your on Her acknowledges the cat-fight appeal of women's roller derby -- "I'd rather watch women out there ... I'm gonna be very careful about saying why" -- but he's also aware that sex appeal doesn't explain it all: "The fishnets and all that -- initially, that put a lot of butts in seats. But the theatrical aspect of it grew tiresome real quickly. You gotta realize, for a lot of these women, it's their first time in league sports. But for a larger woman who's never played before -- she gets out there, starts knocking people around, she's a superhero. Not to downplay the sex appeal part -- that's still bringing in people -- but they're just bad-ass athletes. Put the bigger women on skates, they can knock the skinny little women into the first row."
Eye-Gouging Yet Supportive
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & da B. Cho Azz agrees that half the Rollergirls aren't especially athletic. "Exercise just hasn't been their main thing," she says. "So they're working on getting their endurance better. And to quit smoking."
But camaraderie and persistence can pay off. As an example, take "Brawlbarella" -- this week's cover girl and No. 666 in your program. She's Jonna Kelley, who works as a scheduler in a Post Falls dental office. While she has done graphic design for the Rollergirls "from the beginning," she's only actually been skating "for about seven months. And I was horrible at the start," she says. "I couldn't even stand up." But now she's a proud member of Pretty Deadly who makes sure "to practice my crossovers when I'm going up and down the stairs in my house." Her knee socks feature skulls and roses.
Mary Widow clearly takes delight from welcoming recruits like Brawlbarella. Despite the big-ladies-with-tattoos stereotype, it's clear that the women of roller derby combine tough workouts with supportiveness.
"The leagues help each other out as much as they can," says Mary. (In real life, she's Kelli Garland, formerly a daycare director and presently a student of broadcasting.) "When the travel teams come to town, before the whistle blows, we're curious about each other -- asking lots of questions, really willing to find out all about each other. But then once the game starts, we hate each other. And then when it's over, we go back to being friends again.
"It's a real leave-it-all-out-on-the-track thing. And that's probably the single thing about derby that I like most. If only all adult interaction was as simple as that."
Mary calls her team "a messed-up sorority," but she recognizes her sport's empowerment of women, too. "You know, the WNBA came after the NBA. All the other women's sports derived from a male version of that sport," she says. "And even roller derby started as a coed sport. But in its latest reincarnation, it's been women at the forefront and women moving it along. The men have been there, and they've been supportive, but they have acted, for the most part, as volunteers. And they have been answerable to us."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & bout once a month, then, after all their practice and preparation, it's time for all-stars drawn from Lilac City's two teams to face off against another city's traveling squad. Tonight at the Convention Center, the Lava City Roller Dolls (from Bend) have shown up in skulls emerging from their blackface makeup and names like "Psy-Clone" and "Dame Deviant."
Motorhead's "Ace of Spades" blares from speakers as 700 spectators, all huddled close to the track, get fired up by the screeching of are-you-ready-to-rumble deejays.
During pregame introductions, the team does laps around the track in tight formation, hunched over like a bunch of armored myrmidons. Then, as "SparKILL Licious" or "Baby Snakes" or any of the others are individually introduced, each Rollergirl rises to her full height and waves to the crowd. And not with those cupped-hand princess waves. More like thrashing look-at-me dance moves.
Skaters roll back to their teams' benches, then stop abruptly by braking on one knee. With a flurry of mental snapshots, you see a magenta Mohawk, a mascot in a flouncy prom dress waving an LCRG flag, sparklies on a pink helmet, an old velvet couch serving as a penalty box.
In an early jam, Ida falls but then takes advantage of a teammate's slingshot arm thrust and sneaks around the outside to score. "Sweet Thunder" weaves beautifully through three Lava City blockers, then darts inside and laps the field. "Troubled Youth" does a dance of joy -- virtually untouched, she has just lapped the other jammer, who, having been knocked down four times in just one jam, just spent more time on her knees than she did upright. Criss-crossing blockers guard the path of "Crazytrain" as she wends her way through the pack.
Despite these small triumphs, however, Lava City pulls away in the second half and defeats our valiant Rollergirls.
At least the hometown crowd could amuse itself with the mysterious movements of the ninja who kept running messages throughout the game from the head referee to the statisticians' table.
The presiding officers there are known as the Time Whore and the Score Whore.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & learly roller derby -- silly and violent and retro and rough -- offers multi-faceted appeal for the women who skate in it. "Some of the girls are really aggressive," says Ida, "and they need an outlet for their anger. Because essentially, this is legal assault." For others, though, "it's the skimpy clothes. Some girls just have an exhibitionistic nature, that's all."
Derby, not to put too fine a point on it, doesn't exploit gender differences so much as it embraces them, celebrates them. "I was a tomboy," Ida says, "and I was always being told -- by adults, and even by my peers -- that you have to be one or the other, there's no mix. But that was an a-ha! moment for me, that it doesn't have to be an either/or. You can wear your miniskirt and be aggressive at the same time. And you don't have to be a part of a lesbian biker gang or anything."
Or as Sweetart says, "Roller skating is more a feminine thing -- a fun, girly thing. I mean, who wants to watch a bunch of guys in short-shorts rolling around a track?"
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & ut the old-school fascination with roller derby -- the spectacle of dainty girls cracking heads -- is complemented today by widespread acceptance of metrosexuals who moisturize and that jock in High School Musical who likes to whip up a nice cr & egrave;me brul & eacute;e. Gender's a continuum -- we all have our feminine and masculine qualities -- and roller girls are simply out there making entertainment out of that fact.
We like the audacity of those who express the kind of impulses that most of us think are in conflict. Besides, derby has another kind of appeal, too: violence emerging out of beauty. When skaters circulate around the track in warm-ups, they glide at speeds approaching 18 mph, their blurry motion accentuating the sway of arms and hips in a graceful ballet that's practically a symbol of unfettered human movement. Freedom to play, freedom to be girly and artsy and fun.
But then chaos descends, and the bodies go skittering out of bounds. Amid the flailing legs and crashing helmets, there are glimpses of frilly underthings to be seen. (You don't get that in the NFL.)
Shreds of brilliance, glints of brutality: Derby doesn't allow for reveries. It's the whole girl, the entire girl, in all her nasty-ass beauty. She displays her grace, then she pounds your face.
You got some teeth you wanna lose, or what?
HELLION ON WHEELS
"Ida B. Cho Azz"
(aka Heidi Muat, cardiac care nurse, Sacred Heart Hospital)
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & "I & lt;/span & hurt people in practice," says Heidi Muat. As her derby name promises, she'd like to beat yo' ass. "A lot of gals say they don't want to skate with me. So I try to back off, but I'm a really aggressive person by nature."
She has chosen several outlets for her aggression. Running, mountain biking, ice hockey, weightlifting, boxing -- "Ida" does it all, several times a week, in addition to roller derby. She was "into gymnastics, really intensively" for eight years when she was a kid.
All that activity has taken its toll. "I'm always breaking something," Ida says. "I played that last bout with a broken foot. It was a stress fracture, and during the previous bout, by skating on it, I cracked it worse. They wanted me to wear one of those immobilizer boots, but that doesn't exactly help with the skating.
"I have a fairly high tolerance for pain. I've broken a lot of stuff -- I've broken both shoulders, both ankles, a couple of ribs, my tailbone. I think maybe I have an adrenaline addiction or something."
Pain does have a way of clarifying the mind -- and in Ida's case, it pointed out a new career path. "I was getting injured all the time and coming in to the ER," she says, "and I thought, 'I'm comfortable with all this blood.' So I went back to school." And now Ida, 35, works the overnight shift at Sacred Heart, "taking care of patients who had heart attacks, or they're getting ready for open-heart surgery, or they just had a pacemaker installed."
She prefers the night shift. "The day shift does a lot more meds, routine stuff," she says. But at night, with just a skeleton crew, "the exciting part is, we run codes [emergencies]. So there's more adrenaline." Ida likes adrenaline.
(aka Dr. Esther Smith, physician, Spokane Family Medicine)
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & E & lt;/span & sther Smith flags us down outside her office at Fifth and Browne, her white lab coat flapping in the breeze. "I'm sorta outing myself here," she confides. She doesn't want anyone back in the office to know. Not yet.
Back in the office, they help deliver babies and treat health problems that run in families. You get the sense that Smith is a physician with a sardonic sense of humor: "Liver failure seems to be popular this spring," she says.
"Es Terminator" -- who plays a mean jammer and even sings the national anthem before bouts -- grew up in New Hampshire and went to med school at the University of Arizona. Spokane offered a family medicine residency, and then she and her husband and kids decided to stay.
"So one day," Es Terminator recalls, "this girl comes in, and she's all punked out, and she says, 'I've hurt my back.' Well, I never let on that I'm one of the doctors. And she's got tattoos and piercings all over. And you know there's this whole group of doctors -- I'm gonna get in trouble for this here -- who've been in academia all their lives and don't know how to act around somebody with lots of piercings."
"So I ask her, 'How did you hurt yourself?' and she says, 'Playing roller derby.' And I say, 'Really? I've wanted to do that for years, but there was no time in med school' -- and next thing you know, she's scribbling out a practice schedule on a paper towel."
Es Terminator admits to being "a crazy punk theater girl" when she was 14. But now, like a lot of derby girls, she values having a rounded personality: "I can have a serious profession," she says, "but I can also do loads of laundry that are all black."
She likes variety, too. "Derby is an interesting combination of things -- 80 percent sports, 10 percent theater, 10 percent Girl Power," Es Terminator observes. "I like my derby sisters. I have relationships as a result with people who I never would have met otherwise."
(aka Naomi Leong, mental health therapist, Browne's Addition Wellness Center)
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & ith its hardwood floors and soothing music, Naomi Leong's office in a Browne's Addition bungalow is elegant. She dresses conservatively; her manner is self-assured, almost regal. She counsels teens, women and couples -- relationship issues, mostly, but anything to do with women's wellness.
By day, she builds up women's self-esteem; by night, she knocks their butts down. Call it her own form of therapy.
We're discussing styles of roller derby defense when "Sweetart" says, "I love it when I get the angle just right, when I hit that sweet spot."
And which sweet spot is that?
"When I'm playing pivot and I'm out front, I'm the last line of defense against their jammer," Sweetart replies. "And when she's coming through, I try to wait until just as we're entering the turn. And if I'm in front and I turn out just a little bit, I can hit her right in the chest and right down on her ass. We call that a 'Can Opener' -- you know, because we're opening a can of whoop-ass on her.'"
Other sports don't allow her to express her aggressive side in just the same way, or with the same sense of style. "Where else does a girl get to wear short skirts and fishnet tights?" she asks.
Sweetart, 37, loves feeling "sassy and strong," though she admits, "At my age, I start worrying about breaking a hip. But then the thought of breaking someone else's hip pops in, and then I feel better."
In roller derby, accidents will happen. "Two bouts ago, I was trying to help our jammer," Sweetart recalls, "and I accidentally stuck my hand down the front of this girl's shirt. And she got so pissed off. It was a total accident, but she was cussing me out, and then she got distracted.
"And so we got our jammer through," Sweetart says. Above her prim pink sweater, she's smiling sweetly.