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.

As the TV switches from maxi-pad and Vagisil commercials back to the program in progress, the dozen skaters gathered in Purtle's living room abruptly cease their conversations about socks, bruises and who made out with whom at their Hi-Pointe fundraiser last week. "Game on!" they shush, and attention returns to Rollergirls, the hour-long A&E reality program that dramatizes the lives of a half-dozen members of Austin's Texas Rollergirls each Monday evening at 9 p.m.

In this episode the skaters road-trip to San Francisco to meet Anne Calvello, namesake of the Rollergirls interleague trophy, the Calvello Cup. The derby legend found the sport in 1948, at age eighteen. She skated well into her sixties and was the subject of a 2001 documentary, The Demon of the Derby.

"She was one hell of an athlete, competing almost every night in front of thousands including places like Madison Square Garden," explains Arch Rival Amy "Joanie Rollmoan" Whited. "She was quite the personality — she dyed her hair polka-dotted and preferred the crowd to boo her rather than cheer. She seemed to understand the blend of sport and publicity that is roller derby."

Since joining the Arch Rivals, Dana "Grave Danger" 
McDonough and Beth "Killer Tomato" Rastberger have 
become fast friends.
Jennifer Silverberg
Since joining the Arch Rivals, Dana "Grave Danger" McDonough and Beth "Killer Tomato" Rastberger have become fast friends.
Modern roller derby requires helmets and more 
substantial padding than did its previous incarnations.
Jennifer Silverberg
Modern roller derby requires helmets and more substantial padding than did its previous incarnations.

When Calvello appears onscreen, her modern restaurant scenes interspersed with vintage black-and-white shots culled from her heyday, the St. Louis women are rapt. When Calvello tells the Austin skaters, "This is you girls' time," the south-city living room collectively gasps.

The Arch Rivals enjoy hanging out together both online and in public — drinking, celebrating birthdays, visiting strip clubs — when they're not throwing elbows. As Purtle puts it, "These girls are my teammates, and my friends, and my family." This might be mistaken for a grown-up version of Girl Scouts — if the Girl Scouts had no troop leaders and wore uniforms that were Bettie-Page-in-wrist-guards risqué.

"Since we are skater-run, we get to decide how we want to be marketed," Whited writes on her blog ( "I think any of us who have been practicing 2 or 3 nights a week (plus Rollercade on Wednesdays, outdoor skating, committee meetings, etc.) believe downplaying the hard work we have put in isn't fair to what we have accomplished thus far and will continue to do. Many men and non-league members have been called upon as refs, advisors, sponsors and allies. But knowing that we have made it this far OURSELVES is a pretty incredible feeling. Something women don't often have the opportunity to take pride in.

"We understand that derby, especially an all-female league, has a certain level of sexuality that is being promoted. This sexuality isn't directed exclusively toward males. It is also not strictly a physical sexiness. Commitment, hard work, and creativity are also sexy. Girls of all ages and sizes are sexy, not just the young skinny blonde skaters. Yes, sexuality is part of our sport in a way it is not part of, say, baseball. However, we run our own league and create and deliver our sport to the public on OUR TERMS. That's pretty sexy in itself."

Rollergirls' January debut was only the latest in a series of indicators that derby is back on track. The sport has been featured on CSI: New York, Insomniac with Dave Attell, Trading Spouses, Good Morning America, Access Hollywood and print outlets from Spin to the New York Times, Playboy to Newsday. A full-length documentary, Hell on Wheels, is in post-production. And in February twenty leagues descended on Tucson, Arizona, for the first-ever Dust Devil National Flat Track Derby Tournament.

February's ARRG exhibition was pushed back to April, but the Arch Rivals prefer to look on the bright side: It buys time. Now that dues have funded merchandise, rink-rental fees, pay for Coach Ken and sundry legal bills, the league can begin to address the task of finding a warehouse space to rent, build a track and fill with an adoring audience.

On March 13, Anne Calvello died at age 76 of liver cancer, just days after being diagnosed.

"I find it quite beautiful and kind of Hollywood-endingish that she died just two weeks after being in an episode of Rollergirls," Amy Whited says. "It's like she lived just long enough to pass the torch."

Calvello also appears in the final Rollergirls episode, right before A&E pulls the plug because of subpar ratings.

Tonight at the Skatium, the Arch Rivals are nervous. The skaters, with papers numbered 1 to 65 pinned to their backs, are about to find out if they're good enough to pick up the torch.

"I tell you what: If you want to know how good you are, bring out a camera, film yourself, then take it home and watch it. It'll scare the bejesus out of you. It'll make you throw up at how lousy you are," Coach Ken chided last week.

In his gruffly militant way, Watts told his charges he's proud of the progress they've made in ten weeks. But now they need to think realistically about the official WFTDA skills test he's about to administer. "I don't expect everyone to pass this test," he says. "If everybody can pass it, what's the point of having it?"

Watts rounded up a crew of judges to rate each skater's skills in ten areas. In splitting the league into four teams, there will be no draft, no choosing up of sides. Instead, Watts will attempt to assemble evenly matched teams based on today's results.

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