Derby Rolls Again

Roller derby's St. Louis roots run deep. Now a new generation of skaters vows to bring this rock-'em sock-'em sport back to life.

In July 2005 Joulwan ventured to Chicago, where over the course of a two-day conference, fifty-five skaters representing twenty leagues formed the Women's Flat-Track Derby Association. A freelance writer by day, Joulwan assumed the title of PR director for the body. She says the first annual Rollercon, held in Las Vegas a month later, drew 400 rollers.

The sport was developed by a Chicago promoter in 1935. Leo Seltzer envisioned his creation as an answer to the dance marathons of the day and called for 25 pairs (one man, one woman) to race around a track until they covered an aggregate 3,000 miles. But high-speed crashes proved better at attracting audiences than endurance did, and play evolved into the team-based, point-scoring model that's still practiced today.

A roller derby lineup comprises five skaters: one pivot, three blockers and one jammer. A match — or, in derby parlance, a "bout" — consists of three twenty-minute periods, each divided into a series of two-minute "jams" during which the two opposing teams skate together in a tight pack around an oval track, with each squad led by its pivot. The two jammers then lap the group and earn points by passing opposing blockers a second time; the blockers, meanwhile, may employ a variety of means — and body parts — to prevent being passed.

Sarah Kate Buckles,  a.k.a. Mary Manglin',  
founded the Arch Rival Rollergirls in October.
Jennifer Silverberg
Sarah Kate Buckles, a.k.a. Mary Manglin', founded the Arch Rival Rollergirls in October.
Away from the rink, Kelly "Polly Lop" Soraci is a tattoo 
artist and bicycling enthusiast.
Jennifer Silverberg
Away from the rink, Kelly "Polly Lop" Soraci is a tattoo artist and bicycling enthusiast.

The Transcontinental Roller Derby took to the road during the 1940s, playing to millions of spectators and spawning fan clubs and newsletters. Derby fever peaked during the '50s and '60s, when Seltzer's son Jerry moved the still-unisex sport's base to San Francisco, home of the high-profile San Francisco Bay Bombers, and all three major television networks covered the sport weekly. In the late '60s, leagues included National Roller Derby, the Canadian National Roller League, the Japanese National Roller League and the International Roller Derby League, whose Midwest Pioneers team entertained crowds in St. Louis, Chicago, Indianapolis and Green Bay. The sport inspired songs (Jim Croce's "Roller Derby Queen") and films (Kansas City Bomber and Unholy Rollers). But by the mid-'70s roller derby had lost its luster, despite intermittent TV revivals that kept it flickering in the national consciousness.

Buckles recalls watching derby bouts on Sundays when she was a kid, after the St. Louis favorite Wrestling at the Chase. Fitting programming partners, considering that both sports were heavily choreographed. "Oh, the fighting's still there," laughs Joulwan. "But it's real, instead of being scripted and played up to fit some story line."

In contrast to the banked ovals of yesteryear, most of today's leagues utilize flat tracks, which are cheaper to build, easier to maintain and place an emphasis on skating prowess. "It really is different athletically, because you're generating your own speed when cornering," Joulwan explains. "It completely changes the way the game is played."

With increased athleticism comes more substantial padding. Participants used to rely primarily on minimal knee pads built into tights and the occasional elbow pads and helmet; today's skaters are required to wear knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, mouth guards and a helmet. Special "speed skates" — distinguishable from normal quad (roller) skates by a higher boot, Velcro strap over standard laces, thicker and wider wheels and a more stable plate joining the wheel chassis to the boot — are mandatory.

The typical roller derby personality reveals itself in several manifestations: the wardrobe (traditionally black, torn and form-fitting); the hair (dyed); the piercings (numerous); the tattoos (prevalent); the nickname (fear-striking). Taken together, they form a skating identity, a fearless alter ego that obliterates any trace of one's day job, be it schoolteacher, stay-at-home mom, retail associate, tattoo artist, bartender, graphic designer or librarian.

In turn, imparts Joulwan, "We take the strength we have on the track and carry it back into our own lives. It's rewarding seeing that happening."

"There's an energy to it, more than camaraderie, that also encompasses the audience," echoes Windy City Roller Carrie Becker, who adds: "It's the most fun I've ever, ever had."

Buckles, Graphics Committee head Liesl "Teasel von Tramp" Christman and Bobbi Jo "Jane Saw" Leykam of the Events Committee have taken the stage for some speechifying and a brief state-of-the-union update.

The three, along with the other women sporting spanking-new ARRG T-shirts tonight at the Way Out Club, show signs of having undergone a steady transformation over the past few months. Faded sweats and loose ponytails have been replaced by black leather skirts and meticulously dyed hair. But although they may look the part of asskickers-on-wheels, it'll take more than skating skills and ripped fishnets to get the new league off the ground.

It requires money.

Forty dollars a month in skater fees won't cover insurance, a skating coach, a private practice space in which they can knock each other into the next millennium without fear of admonition or a venue in which to stage bouts. Buckles concedes that procuring bout space, building a track and scheduling regular events is "more of a 2007 thing."

Short term, the Arch Rivals intend to make their debut with a demonstration bout between Hooserweight boxing matches at the Soulard Market Gym during Mardi Gras. "It'll add a little variety to the fights," confirms Hoosierweight impresario Steven Fitzpatrick Smith. "[The fights] have that sort of rough, south-side appeal, and that's what roller derby seems to have in its blood. It's the perfect complement to that roughneck yet glamorous way of life."

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