When I was a college student on a co-op job in New York City in the late 1950’s, I used to regularly spend my Friday nights at the Roller Derby which was held at an armory in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. I thought it was the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen. The participants were not only skaters but dramatic personages, with gaudy costumes, colorful pseudonyms, and clearly defined images as heroes (i.e., the home team) and bad guys (the visitors). The oval track sloped upwards from its center to maximize possibilities for speed, and the players’ skates gave off a collective drone akin to a jet engine. Men’s and women’s teams alternated in the competition, and both exhibited a lot of exaggerated aggression: punches exchanged for the men; hairpulling and catcalls for the women. The crowd was emotionally charged, shouting and screaming, and fistfights would break out in the stands as well as on the floor.
After leaving New York, I didn’t see the roller derby again in person, and it pretty much disappeared from the sporting scene in the 1970’s. A year or two ago, though, I saw an ad for the Cincinnati Rollergirls in the newspaper. I mentioned it at a dinner party. Katja wasn’t much interested, though her coworker Kathy R. was enthusiastic. Then, last month, Kathy actually did organize a group outing to a Rollergirls match from her and Katja’s agency. Katja and I signed up.
The Rollergirls’ home is the Cincinnati Gardens, a now aged venue with a long tradition of hosting professional basketball (the Cincinnati Royals with Oscar Robertson) and college basketball (Xavier University, the University of Cincinnati). Since the construction of downtown and campus sports stadiums several decades ago, the Gardens has fallen on hard times and in recent years has hosted Monster Truck Rallies, Shop Till You Drop, the Shrine Circus, and now the roller derby. The roller derby, we learned, has seen a resurgence nationally in the last decade, with about 200 women’s teams in operation around the nation. The Cincinnati Rollergirls are currently ranked 17th, along with several other high-ranking teams from the North Central region (the Windy City Rollers, #3; the Detroit Derby Girls, #12; and the Mad Rollin’ Dolls from Madison WI, #13).
We got to the Gardens at the 6 p.m. opening time on a Saturday night in order to get the best available $15 VIP seats. By 6:30, there was a respectable crowd, and by the 7:00 start time, people were in rows nearly up to the top of the stadium – perhaps a crowd of 1500. I’d expected a mere sprinkling of people, so the fan turnout was a surprise. It was a pretty young bunch, 100% white (as were the skaters), and with a higher than normal proportion of tattoos, male ponytails, and close-cropped crewcuts.
At 7:00 management turned the lights off, lit up the outer rim of the oval track, and shined a spotlight on the rotating crystal ball at the ceiling’s center. The Hard Knox skaters were introduced first, one by one, and they individually circled the track to some mix of mild boos and polite applause. The Cincinnati Rollergirls then elicited enthusiastic cheers as they sped around the track. Their names were theatrical and fun -- Candy Kickass, Hannah Barbaric, Maim E. Van Gore’n, Sadistic Sadie, Panterrorize, Glamour Azz, Sex Pistol, Killian Destory, Nik Jagger. (In fact, these wild women were accountants, librarians, medical professionals, and business people in their mundane daytime lives.) The referees for the evening, who skated around the interior of the oval track during play and assessed penalties, were Susie Shinsplintski, Fireman Bill, Peal Eyes, Professor Murder, and Jennemy of the Skate. The Rollergirls were clad in black and white outfits, with short mini-skirts or panties and a wide variety of leggings and protective gear (helmets, knee pads, elbow pads). The Knoxville team wore fluorescent yellow-green.
The first hour-long match was between the “junior varsity” teams, Cincinnati’s Silent Lambs and the Hard Knox Brawlers. Five-person teams formed up at the starting line. The pivot from each team was in front, their task being to regulate the pace of the pack. Then came the pack itself, consisting of three blockers from each team. Finally, the single jammer from each team was at the back and set out a second or two after the rest of the pack started off. Each jammer’s task was to get through the entire pack during the two-minute round and then to come around and pass players on opposing team (receiving one point for each opponent passed). The blockers’ job, on the other hand, was to keep the opponent’s jammer from passing them, preferably by knocking her down, while helping their own team’s jammer take the lead.
The players skated on a 15 foot wide oval concrete track, marked by fluorescent tape on floor, with the outer perimeter about 50 feet wide by 85 feet long. The pace was fast, perhaps 25 or 30 miles an hour at top speed, and there was lots of physical contact as blockers tried to knock opponents out of position or derail the other team’s jammer. The referees sent rule-violators to the penalty box, so that often teams varied in the number of players on the floor. The crowd was excited, and our group cheered and yelled (especially Katja). The roller derby strikes me as some mix of Olympic-style speed skating, horse racing, and football. We were generally able to follow what was going on, though the frequent penalties remained a complete mystery. An announcer reported the action over a totally inaudible speaker system, simply infusing the action with incoherent noise. The home team Silent Lambs were completely dominant in the first match, winning handily.
The half-time entertainment was provided by three African-American guys – the CincyCool Skate Crew – who did a trick skating exhibition, some mix of fancy skating moves, hip hop dancing, and acrobatics. They were good, and the crowd showed its appreciation.
The respective all-star teams – the Black Sheep vs. the Brawlers A-Team – competed in the second match. The Black Sheep’s top jammers were Candy Kickass, Hannah Barbaric, Sadie Sadistic, and Lethal. My personal favorite was Sadistic Sadie. Sadie was fast as lightning, dodging this way and that before opponents could figure out her whereabouts, spurting ahead, and running the Brawlers off the track or causing them to tumble to the concrete.
By and large, the competition between teams was intense, but one got little sense of animosity. The Brawlers were bigger and heavier, but the Black Sheep were quicker and more athletic, so the contest took on a special interest of brawn vs. speed. Perhaps the primary instance of raw aggression occurred when Sadistic Sadie got into a combative interchange with opposing jammer Jamie Skull and knocked her flat on her butt. Later in the match the Brawler’s current jammer, Rockalottapus, took a hard fall and was writhing on the track in pain. Dr. Kil-Dear called for a stretcher, and Rockalottapus was carted off, though she had recovered sufficiently to give a double victory sign to the crowd. Later, toward the end of the evening, another Brawler was injured, and, given the likelihood of a lengthy delay, we decided to leave. The Rollergirls were ahead 141-38 at the time, and it was clear that we had the superior team.
Like other contact sports, e.g., football, hockey, lacrosse, basketball, the roller derby provides intrinsically interesting and adrenaline-arousing elements – inter-group conflict, power, speed, physical aggression, risk of injury, and explicit winning and losing. Women’s roller derby offers the further element of women engaged in highly competitive, physical activity that our culture defines as traditionally masculine. Thus, the Rollergirls provide an intriguing amalgamation of traditional gender roles (makeup and clothes, sex appeal, even their nomenclature as “girls”) and distinctively nontraditional roles (power, aggression). Internet accounts describe the women’s roller derby resurgence as both campy and feminist in its orientation. At the same time, this is serious sport where the more accomplished players show high levels of athleticism and competence. We liked it a lot -- we’ll definitely be going again.