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Take it like a woman

The women of the Arizona Roller Derby might play in short skirts, but they're not afraid to take a hit. How this old-fashioned sport is breaking down gender barriers.

 by Tara Brite  published on Thursday, April 27, 2006

On the cover


On a small wooden rink toward the back of Castle Sports Club in Phoenix, 20 women race around on roller skates throwing large rubber balls at each other.

The balls are flying everywhere -- an exercise in learning to spot when a skater is coming up behind you. Skaters smash into walls and into each other. Every few minutes, someone takes a nasty spill onto the rink's starkly painted blue floor.

Outside this small circle, it's still largely a man's world. But inside, the women of the Arizona Roller Derby League are, literally, hell on wheels. They skate fast and viciously with the motto, "Get down and derby," they suffer broken bones and bruises and they often get into fist fights.

The names of their teams match the tenor of their play: the Bruisers, the Bad News Beaters, the Tent City Terrors, the Surly Gurlies.

But there's also a fun side to roller derby shenanigans. Team members wear matching costumes -- white nursing uniforms, striped prison clothes (complete with pink underwear) and short black-and-white skirts with pirate emblems.

And they adopt alter egos on the rink -- a mild school teacher becomes "Helen Wheels;" a corporate recruiter turns into "Brickhouse;" a massage therapist transforms herself into "Tenancious T."

For some, roller derby is a way to vent life's aggressions and frustrations and to have some fun. For others, roller derby is their life.

Either way, one thing is clear: This is not your mother's roller derby.

A sport grows up

In a typical roller derby game, or bout, two teams of five players skate in circles around the track. It is the job of one player from each team to overlap the other skaters to score points.

Roller derby has been around since the 1930s, but for a long time, it didn't have much traction. Originally created as a spectacle sport, roller derby smacked of TV-style professional wrestling, complete with made-up rivalries and staged violence. But it was never considered a real sport.

This type of roller derby peaked in popularity around the 1960s and lost steam through the 80s. By the early 1990s, it was very nearly dead.

The resurrection of roller derby began in 2001 with the Texas Rollergirls League in Austin, Texas, says Jennifer Wilson, an administrator in the Women's Flat Track Derby Association.

Wilson, whose Rollergirls alter ego is Hydra, says leagues started popping up all over the country shortly after. In the beginning, about one or two new leagues would contact the Rollergirls each month for help in forming their own teams.

The Arizona Roller Derby League was one of them.

AZRD was founded in 2001 by a skater known in the derby as Ivanna S. Pankin, says Angela Duhon, general manager of the Arizona league. Pankin saw a poster with a female skater on it and thought starting a new league was just what Arizona needed. After a little research, she discovered the Texas Rollergirls, so she called for advice.

When the league was formed in 2003, it had only 20 members. Three years later, there are more than 60 registered skaters, Duhon says.

Along the way, roller derby was reinvented as a different kind of sport, one born of the punk rock movement.

Many of the women who got involved were punk rockers and preferred a more realistic, edgier sport, with loud music and themed costumes, Wilson says.

"The new roller derby was born from a certain genre," she says. "In 2001, there were mostly punk rock girls doing it. They incorporated bands, so it was all about the music and a certain look and feel."

Today, roller derby is more about sport than spectacle, Wilson says. "A lot of older versions had planned moves and stories. We stripped all that. There's no planning what's going to go down. It's just the raw game."

There are currently more than 30 registered all-women's leagues across the country, with more forming all the time. Some were inspired by a reality television show called "Rollergirls," which the cable Arts and Entertainment channel briefly aired earlier this year.

"There are leagues popping up every day," says 37-year-old Janet Clarke, captain of the Bruisers, an Arizona team. She says there are leagues in California, New York, Canada and England. She's even heard of someone wanting to start a league in Germany.

"It's beginning to not be a grassroots thing," she says. "It's definitely branching out and spreading. I can see this being a sport people across the world want to see."

Wilson says the Women's Flat Track Derby Association welcomes the growth, but wants to be sure new leagues are really serious about roller derby.

"If we can sift through the people who take the sport seriously and those who just want to wear fishnets, short skirts and striped socks, then we can give the sport some legitimacy," she says.

Wilson says there are several qualifications the WFTDA considers before letting a league join the association. For example, all the skaters must be female, they must skate on a flat track with four-wheeled skates, and the leagues must be owned -- to a certain extent -- by the skaters themselves.

While roller derby has changed considerably over the years, fans of the older derbies don't seem disappointed.

Linda Eads Mitchell, co-owner of a soap manufacturing company called Coast to Coast Soapworks, attended her first Arizona Roller Derby bout in March after she ran across the league's Web site. A fan of the 1960s' sloped-track derby, Mitchell watched the Surly Gurlies take on the Bruisers at Phoenix's Castle Sports Club.

"All the craziness is the same as it used to be," she says, nodding her head to the live rock music playing between periods. "I'm glad to see it back."

The lead jammer

By day, Clarke is a seventh grade teacher at Deer Valley Middle School in Glendale. By night, she is Helen Wheels, team captain of the Bruisers and one of the toughest women in the Arizona Roller Derby League.

Clarke might look small and innocent, but dressed in a short nurse's uniform, helmet and pads, she routinely laps other skaters to score points.

Clarke discovered roller derby in June 2003 when she was paging through a newspaper at a coffeehouse and found an article about the league. "I was amazed that it was happening in the Valley," she says.

After attending one bout -- roller derby code for a game -- Clarke says she was hooked. She signed up that same night.

Clarke has always loved to skate. Her parents owned a skating rink in Iowa, and she grew up in the rink. But her inspiration was roller derby. She and her brother used to watch the roller derby on TV every Saturday morning after cartoons, then they would go out on the rink and re-enact what they saw.

"We would go to the skating rink and knock each other around," she says.

When she joined the Arizona League as an adult, it was a simple matter to come up with her registered roller derby nickname. Clarke says she always knew she would be Helen Wheels because she used to skate around to the 1973 Paul McCartney song of the same name.

"We'd joke that when we were skating really fast, we were hell on wheels."

Clarke also plays for the Arizona league's travel team, the Tent City Terrors, a prison inmate-themed team inspired by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Tent City, where prisoners famously wear pink underwear. The Terrors do the same.

But Clarke, conscious of her role as a teacher, didn't want to be a prisoner.

"I felt more comfortable being a positive role model," she says. "So I became the Sheriff -- Sheriff Shutyerpaio."

Clarke can't quite shake her teacher persona even when she is acting tough in the rink. During practices she constantly takes her team members aside to explain how to get maximum speed during a drill or how to use their toe stops to avoid injury.

She says she skates, in part, because of her job.

"Sometimes my [students] tend to be a little challenging because of their age and maturity. They're little kids in big bodies," she says. "Roller derby gives me a great outlet to deal with the political frustrations of the AIMS tests and the emotional frustration of the kids. It helps balance out my day so I don't take my frustration out on the kiddos."

Her students are intrigued by a teacher who spends her free time getting knocked around a roller rink, and many have come to watch her compete, Clarke says.

"They always come back and are amazed that Mrs. Clarke is so mean."

Getting physical

During a Tucson tournament in February, Clarke took a bad fall -- her leg bent, crushing her knee and sending her skate toward her backside.

As a result, she developed a serious knee condition, bursitis, that inflames the bursa (the sack under the knee cap that keeps the joint from creating too much friction when you bend your leg).

Despite this injury, Helen Wheels keeps skating.

"I just kind of grin and bear it," she says. "I deal with it because it's part of roller derby."

Tracy Radando, a massage therapist who is known as "Tenacious T" on her team, the Surly Gurlies, broke her ankle during a practice in December. "I was just goofing around and I went out," she says, mimicking falling backwards. "Most injuries seem to happen at practice."

She was out for a few months, but by March, she was back in the rink. After just one period, she was kicked out of a game for fighting.

"I'm an old-school player," she says. A player called TNTia "knocked me down and I got mad. I didn't let her get away with it."

Teammate Heather Green, 36, who plays under the name "Brickhouse," has suffered two major injuries in just seven months with the Surly Gurlies.

In November another woman took her out from the side, and she suffered a bad case of hemotoma on her right hip. The bruise, which covers almost her entire thigh, is still dark black and blue, five months later. And at the team's last bout in March, Green tumbled on her left side, fracturing her shoulder.

"My whole left side went numb," she says, taking a break from practice on a recent weekday night. "As one of the older players on the team, we don't heal as quickly."

She could sit out practices, at least until her shoulder heals completely, but she doesn't.

"I'm too competitive. I don't want to sit at home," she says. "You start to think, how important is derby? But when you're a competitor, you don't walk away."

"Beat some girls up"

Green, a corporate recruiter who graduated from ASU in 2000 with a degree in administration of justice, discovered roller derby in September 2005 when she saw a segment on television about the league.

"I thought, "'I'm pretty fast. I skated in high school and I'm good at sports'," she says. "I can mesh these things together and beat some girls up."

She went online to find out more, then attended a bout and joined up.

"The TV was misleading," she says. "They looked like a bunch of little girls, but they're fast."

She loves the sport for the eclectic group of women who are involved and the opportunity to blow off steam, she says. But for her, roller derby is more hobby than passion.

"I just come to skate and to co-captain my team," she says. "But for some women, derby is their entire life."

Nikki Laduke, 28, is too new to roller derby to know yet what it means to her. For now, she just wants to have fun and get some exercise.

Laduke got interested in roller derby after watching the A&E show Rollergirls on television.

"I used to skate in high school. I was never really into sports, but it seems like fun," she says. "It seems more interesting than the average softball or basketball game."

At her second practice in mid-April, Laduke, who hasn't come up with a roller derby alter ego yet, takes a break on the benches beside the rink.

"I think it's cool so far," she says, wiping the sweat from her forehead. "But I have to keep in mind that it'll take more time to build up. Right now I'm just trying not to fall."


While the stereotypes that women shouldn't compete in sports that are too physical aren't as prevalent as they once were, Green still hasn't confessed her roller derby alter ego to many of her co-workers, most of whom are male.

"I haven't come out at work yet," she says with a grin.

She did, however, tell her female boss about her alternate life on the rink, she says. Her boss has even come to a few bouts, and enjoys them.

Wilson says she keeps hearing the word "feminism" thrown around in connection with the derby.

"I don't know a lot about feminism," she says. "It's just that women are being able to control their own images and the product of the game. It's given them a lot of confidence and strength."

Clarke agrees, saying that being a part of roller derby is empowering to women.

"We'll allow guys to be involved -- they can carry our skates. But it's our game. We redesigned it. They can just watch."

And they do.

Phoenix resident Rodney Roquemore attended his first bout in March. He heard about the league from a man at a hotdog stand in downtown Phoenix.

"It's a little hard to keep up with, but I think I'm catching on," he says, watching the women race around the track on a cool March night. "It's a contact sport, kind of like football. It's cool."

Luke Eide, a Phoenix resident who works for a golf management company, also attended his first bout in March with several friends. Though they weren't sure what was going on, they stood near the front of the rink (appropriately dubbed the Crash Zone -- where girls on skates are prone to come crashing into the audience), waving signs and cheering for the Surly Gurlies until their voices were gone.

"We're having a blast," he says. "We're going to come every time now."

If so, he can join a man who identified himself only as Z-Trak, who comes to every bout with his 12-year-old daughter.

"I loved the sport way back in the day," Z-trak shouts over the booming music. "What I like about the AZRD is the camaraderie. They're family. They're all friends. And once you understand the rules, you get to love the sport."

It's fans like these who convince AZRD's general manager Angela Duhon (alter ego Paige Burner) that all-women's roller derby is going to be around for a long time.

"It's come and gone so many times before, but now I don't think it's a trend," she says. "It's getting to be more organized and more of a national league. Everybody is working together to make it a more qualified sport. That is something that is going to last and unify."

Wilson couldn't agree more.

"People are really enjoying it - the fans, the skaters," she says. "Derby is a great new thing for a lot of women."

Rules of Engagement
Roller derby began in the 1930s and was developed by a Chicago sports promoter named Leo Seltzer. He put men and women in skates and had them race in circles as fast as they could around a sloped track to simulate cross-country skating. It was a way to imitate skating from Los Angeles to New York City.

Due to the speed and the circular course, collisions were inevitable. Before long, Seltzer realized that it was the crashes that people liked to watch, so he modified the derby to maximize the violence, often planning fights and skater rivalries to exploit this aspect.

Here are the rules that developed:

The game, or bout, lasts for three 20-minute periods. In each period, there are several two-minute jam periods, where the skaters circle the rink and points are scored. Five women from each team skate in each jam. Four make up the pack, and one is the jammer. The eight women of the pack line up and start skating when the referee blows a whistle.

The two jammers race off when a second whistle is blown a few seconds later. Once the jammers start, their goal is to overlap the women in the pack. After they overlap the pack, the jammer in the lead scores one point for each woman on the opposite team she passes. The goal of the pack is to prevent the opposing jammer from passing while helping along their team's jammer. The jammer in the lead can stop the jam whenever she chooses by placing her hands on her waist. This could stop the opposing jammer from getting in the lead and scoring the points.

While roller derby may sound like a simple game, what happens during each jam makes it unique. The skaters in the pack do almost anything to keep the opposing jammer from passing -- they push, trip and intentionally fall to take down several skaters at once.

Although the game has always been prone to violence, recent developments in the sport have given it a new, punk-rock twist. Skaters wear short skirts, race to rock music and take on skating personas.

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