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.

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St. Louis Roller Derby

November 2005
Neither recalls exactly how young she was at the time, but Sarah Kate Buckles learned to roller-skate from her mother. While Laurie Buckles did laundry or when it rained, Sarah Kate and her little sister Anne circled the basement, carefully avoiding the wooden supports and central drain, for hours on end. Weather permitting, they'd skate on the streets of their Webster Groves neighborhood, or behind the school, and sometimes they even visited Rollercade, a family-owned and -operated public rink off Tesson Ferry Road in south county. They weren't supposed to skate on their steep driveway, but they did it anyway, often paying the price with skinned knees.

Sarah Kate eventually moved on to softball and soccer, but her participant-sports involvement petered out as her artistic side began to dominate. Today she's a voracious reader, knitter and gardener, and she can whip up a mean vegetarian lasagna. "Sarah always had a flair for the unusual," Laurie Buckles says of her daughter.

Early in October Sarah Kate visited Chicago to cheer on her cousin Julie, who was running the Chicago Marathon. Between shopping for shoes and comics, Buckles caught a live roller derby bout: the Windy City Rollers league semifinals at the Congress Theatre.

Five days after she returned to Fox Park, Buckles was e-mailing everyone she knew, printing up flyers and handing them out to total strangers. For the first time in fifteen years, she laced up a pair of roller skates. Under the nom de skate "Mary Manglin'," the Blueberry Hill waitress, whose tattoo-encircled arms and black cat's-eye frames make her look younger than her 30 years, is spearheading the formation of the Arch Rival Rollergirls, St. Louis' incipient all-female roller derby league.

Thirty-one women ranging in age from early twenties to late thirties have orbited in teetering ovals for barely ten minutes of Rollercade's two-hour free skate, and already the waxed-wood casualties are stacking up. Buckles herself recently tweaked a ligament in her left knee. The injury wasn't serious, but she's since heeded her doctor's warning to stretch before practice. Lindsay "Josie Stalin" Rousa fell and dislocated her shoulder. Instead of seeking immediate medical attention, she casually popped it back into place and continued skating. "She wins the bad-ass prize of the year," Buckles says. "She's one tough chick."

The league intermingles with the general public twice a week at Rollercade, where the $5 entry charge includes a doe-brown pair of rental skates accented with orange wheels. Clad in jeans and sweats, the Arch Rivals are quick to clear the rink when "The Chicken Dance," "YMCA" and "Hokey Pokey" pipe out of Rollercade's tinny speakers. The musical interludes are a little too jokey and pedestrian for their tastes.

If all goes as planned, they'll reintroduce St. Louis to a variety of skating imbued with more serious and anti-establishment overtones.

"These girls are all very focused and hard-working," says Travis DeRousse, who looks forward to decking himself out as head referee in short-shorts, tennis bands and gold chains under the name Sleaze McQueen. "Their skills are coming along a lot faster than they thought they would."

December 2005
After learning to remain upright comes learning to fall.

"You learn how to take a hit and stay up on your skates," explains Carrie "Penny Royalty" Becker. "It's a skill. Of course, there are risks that are associated with the game: We've had a few girls break an ankle on the rink, broken collarbones, concussions."

Becker is a blocker for the Hell's Belles, one of four teams that make up the Windy City Rollers league. She has come to town to conduct a "falling clinic," in which the St. Louis skaters will learn to absorb a hit by skidding on one knee. They roll forward all in a line, then descend into a slide. It's as if an entire rink of skaters has simultaneously responded to a sudden call to prayer.

Originally from St. Louis, the 27-year-old Becker waited tables with Buckles' husband, Matt, for two years at Brandt's Café in the Loop. The two kept in touch after Becker moved to Chicago, and when Matt introduced her to his wife of three years at the WCR Championship Finals, Becker was impressed by Sarah Kate's initiative.

"Sarah Kate is doing all the right things first," Becker says. "They're looking for a practice rink, she's talking to sponsors, she's already jumped on the PR. The league is moving faster than we did. If all goes well, they should be ready to begin serious training in the next month.

"The biggest hurdles they are going to have to overcome are getting a rink that will give them enough practice days, having a coach that is familiar enough with roller derby to train them in the techniques they are going to utilize, raising enough money between dues and fundraisers to pay for all expenses incurred — rink time, a coach, merchandise and, later on, a bout space — and just making sure that all the girls are truly dedicated. Even if the technique isn't perfect, the passion has to be there."

Modern roller derby traces its rebirth to the 2001 emergence of the Austin-based Texas Rollergirls. Five years later there are 44 leagues across the nation, according to, the Web site operated by the U.S. Rollergirls Association. Melissa "Melicious" Joulwan, the 37-year-old founding manager of the Texas Rollergirls, predicts that every major U.S. city will be home to a league before the decade is out.

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.

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."

Tonight's event, the league's inaugural fundraiser, sold out. The crowd reeks of sweat and liquefying hair gel even before local four-piece Mothra's Mutha's metal anarchy inspires head banging and fist-pumping.

"This is not one of my normal hangouts," laughs Laurie Buckles, who nowadays answers to "Momma Manglin'." "But I'm having fun." Buckles has attended several practices herself and even skated a bit. Moreover, she offers stretching and strength advice to the fifty women now involved with the league, drawing on her eighteen years as a fitness instructor at the YMCA. "I've told them, 'You've got to be strong to do this,'" Buckles says. "There's more to it than just skating. This is a real sport, and there's a big focus on the physical part of it."

Pabst Blue Ribbon is the league's first official sponsor, and the company provided some goodies — including a ten-speed bicycle — for the prize package that will be raffled off between sets from That's My Daughter and headliners the Vultures. The beer company also did up vinyl signs for the ARRG-manned kissing and verbal-assault booths, where civilians can get a peck or appalled for $2 a pop. (A proposed punching booth was nixed because the Way Out's insurance didn't cover it.) For every bottle of PBR purchased tonight, 50 cents goes to ARRG.

The next day Sarah Kate Buckles and ARRG treasurer Susan "Susie Scratch 'n Sniff" Haberer will tote a boxful of cash to the Commerce Bank branch on Grand Boulevard and open a business account with a $4,000 deposit.

At age 50, Ken Watts has been involved in "artistic skating" — think Ice Capades on quad skates — for more than 25 years and a coach for the past 13. He has broken at least two dozen bones in his wrists and ankles and even saw one of his pros get knocked down and killed on the rink. Curious about the females wobbling around him one night at Rollercade, Watts approached the group and found himself offering his services.

From her seat atop the purple wooden benches that skirt the rink, René Reed watches as Coach Ken helps the league break in its new practice space, the Skatium, an indoor hockey arena off Interstate 55 in south St. Louis.

Reed came across the group's profile ( and has driven an hour and a half from Effingham, Illinois, to attend her first practice. Unfortunately, she doesn't have the required gear and can't join the others as they swerve around cones, gently bumping each other into walls and practicing the "Mohawk turn," a three-step maneuver in which a forward-facing skater ends up skating backward (though not, as is the current trend, with one's skate wedged under the neck of the next person over).

Next week, Coach Ken promises, the Arch Rivals will bump into each other without the support of a wall, with the express purpose of sending their partners careening to the floor.

Reed tucks a strand of auburn-dyed hair behind her stylish black-framed glasses and smoothes her blue work shirt. A mother of two, she stands five-foot-ten, her stout frame encompassing wide shoulders and a thick midsection. On the cusp of 40, her temples touched with gray, she's the oldest participant here. Though her physical appearance may be unimposing, her mindset is anything but. "I'm gonna go home and start practicing," she vows. "I want my name to be 'Brass Knuckle Betty,' if it's not already taken."

Back in California, Reed ran a successful home-based business selling custom incense to the stars, but her family relocated to southern Illinois after gang violence drove them out of Orange County.

Her attraction to derby is twofold, the first being self-motivation: "I've gained weight as I've gotten older and this is how I'm going to lose it," she says. "I'm going to eat more vegetables and get on a good day-to-day schedule."

Second, she's after a sense of belonging: "I've always been tough; it's just something that's my style. Now I live in a cornfield and these Midwestern people don't get me. I come out here with these girls and I feel more comfortable. I'm more like me."

Toward the end of tonight's warm-up, pairs of skaters complete a stretching exercise in which one bends at the waist from an upright position while her partner stands immediately behind, applying pressure to the first skater's back, bringing to mind the doggy-style position.

"It's actually not the most vulgar thing we do. There's one where we lay back and put our legs up like this," laughs Beth "Killer Tomato" Rastberger, pointing her index fingers outward and breathing as if she's in labor. "Every time we do it I feel like, 'Hee-hee hooooooo.'"

Casey "Dee Rinkin'" Purtle does not take part in the group stretch. She sits on a bench, pressing a Ziploc of ice to her throbbing left knee.

"You need better knee pads," offers a teammate.

"You need to alternate and put heat on it now," says another.

"I'm going back out now," Purtle decides. She hobbles a few painful steps then thinks better of it.

Purtle's injury, it turns out, is more than an ice pack can fix. Stroking her massive orange cat Waylon in her sparse white south-city living room a week later, she relates how a visit to the doctor revealed a case of torn cartilage. She's scheduled for surgery in mid-March.

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."

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.

Casey Purtle's surgery was successful, but thanks to a set of neat stitches on each side of her knee, she must sit out. "The doctors said I might be able to skate again in May, but I'm pretty sure it'll be longer," she laments. "I can't even straighten my leg out yet."

René Reed isn't here at all. "I haven't been back to any of the practices," she relates via e-mail, explaining that the long commute has proven too big a stumbling block. "I'm not sure if I'll be able to stay with the league. Which kind of bums me out, but I'll figure something out — like maybe start my own central Illinois league."

Other once gung-ho participants have dropped out because of time constraints or doubts about their athletic ability, bringing February's 108-strong roster down to 83 in March and then to the current 65, says Buckles, whose own injured back will keep her off the rink tonight. Clad in red elbow-length superhero gloves and purple tights, she shouts encouragement to proficient skaters and wobblers alike, not to mention the teary-eyed who already know they're not going to make the cut this time around.

In the end, 54 out of 65 pass the test.

Coach Ken warns that the work they've put in so far doesn't begin to compare to what they're in for now.

"We've only learned skill sequences so far," he barked just last week. "We are going to learn how to play roller derby, and that means the training is going to get tougher. There are going to be more falls, there are going to be more bruises, there are going to be more fingers getting rolled over. But that's what you wanted!

"Right now everybody's going through the motions. It's about to get real! I don't want bouts! I want national championships!"

The rescheduled Hoosierweight demo was canceled after Steve Smith was unable to procure a liquor license, but the top scorers from last month's test appeared in a public demonstration April 29 at the Empire Roller Rink in Columbia.

One hundred sixty-six "really into it" fans packed the rink, reports a still-recuperating Purtle, swigging a Schlafly outside the Skatium rink as four teams battle inside. "People ended up sitting on the concession stand, and all the PBR ran out. The girls just looked so tough; everybody played 200 percent. Everyone was seriously kicking the shit out of each other." From $10 tickets and sales of their new merchandise — pink T's, kids' shirts, belt buckles, shot glasses — the league pocketed $666.

But it will take more than that to bankroll a rink. "I don't want to jinx it, but we've got a very solid lead," Buckles says cryptically. "But I will say that we officially have public bouts scheduled for September, October and November."

Raising her eyes from her knitting, she nods to Purtle. "All my fears about the Columbia bout were unfounded. It went so well, I even cried a little. The Pink Angels won and the Black Angels lost, but we were all victorious, you know what I mean? We are all very proud of ourselves."

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