"Rolling Thunder –
Inside the rough and tumble world of roller derby"
BRIGHTON - "One! Two! Three! Four! Knock 'em down on the floor!"
Clad in skin-tight pants, camouflage tank tops and helmets, full pads and quad-skates, 10 sweaty, out-of-breath members of the Green Barrettes roller-derby team gather in the corner of the Wagon Wheel skating rink, joining hands for a cheer of solidarity before the third period of the evening's raucous scrimmage.
Across the room huddles the team's nemesis, the Bad Apples, its members sporting short skirts, red lipstick and bandannas, and - in keeping with their gangster motif - tight, white "wife beater" shirts (as the skaters delicately put it).
On both sides, tempers already are flaring, F-bombs flying, as the two teams strategize their next moves.
Once head referee Johnny Roastbeef blows the whistle and five members from each team take their place at center-rink, the wooden oval is transformed into a blur of circling skaters; the air fills with the crunch of pads colliding and the thud of skaters crashing to the ground with body-busting force.
"It's full-contact for sure," explains 24-year-old Jail Bait, aka Emily Davidson, as she looks on proudly at her Green Barrette teammates. "There is no messing with a roller-derby girl."
Part speed-driven, full-contact battle, part raunchy, theatrical entertainment and part venue for women's liberation, the once-forgotten pastime of roller derby is back.
Five years after the Austin-based TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls set out to resurrect the 70-year-old sport from obscurity, roller derby - which last achieved fad status in the '70s - is the subject of a hit A&E reality show, "Rollergirls"; its athletes are getting guest spots on the "Today" show and "Good Morning America"; and there now are more than 80 teams nationwide, with two separate leagues in Denver alone.
The Rocky Mountain Rollergirls, which brought the sport to Denver in August 2004, hosts its season opener against the Sin City Rollergirls on April Fool's Day at the Bladium Sports Club in Denver. The Denver Roller Dolls, which split from the Rollergirls in December, host their inaugural bout tonight at the Denver Coliseum.
"The movement is way bigger than anyone ever could have predicted," says Audrey Rugburn, aka Erin Blakemore, spokeswoman for the Roller Dolls.
The sport was born in 1935, when sports promoter Leo Seltzer staged the first roller derby at the Chicago Coliseum. Intended to compete with the popular dance marathons of the time, the sport originally consisted of packs of skaters circling the track thousands of times, as fast as possible. But when Seltzer realized the crowd went wild whenever skaters collided and crashed to the ground, he re-worked the rules to maximize the carnage.
Today, the rules are much the same as back then: Five skaters from each team circle the course, with four designated as blockers and one designated as a jammer. The jammer's goal is to come from behind and pass as many of the opposing team's skaters as possible. The blocker's goal is to help that team's jammer get through, and keep the other team's jammer from getting anywhere - at all costs.
But in addition to high-speed skating and gratuitous violence, spectators of modern-day, all-girl roller derby also are treated to a mini-drama oft-compared to what professional wrestling has to offer, with players taking on pseudonyms and alter-egos such as Captain Ivona Killeau, Joy and Pain, and Pho Kyu, while scantily dressing in fish-net stockings, miniskirts and whatever else their characters call for.
Just three months into its inception, the Denver Roller Dolls already boasts more than 40 players, ranging in age from early 20s to late-30s, and including everyone from stay-at-home moms to tattoo artists to PhD candidates. The more established Rocky Mountain Rollergirls boasts roughly 30 players, who travel the country facing off against other teams in front of sell-out crowds of beer-swilling fans.
Teams practice three or four nights a week, honing both their skating skills and blocking and jamming techniques with rigorous drills that can cause serious injuries (Blakemore recently bruised her tailbone jumping over a limbo pole).
For many, the sport is appealing not only because it offers a chance to seriously compete and bond with other powerful women, but also because it opens the door for them to be someone on the rink that they wouldn't consider being off it.
"It's pretty much given me leave to indulge my sarcastic, bitchy side," says Blakemore, a bespectacled, soft-spoken paralegal and freelance writer by day and take-no-prisoners blocker by night.
Blakemore first discovered roller derby through an ad on Craigslist a year ago. She couldn't skate. And she was, as she puts it, "the opposite of skinny and delicate" (thus the name Audrey Rugburn, not Hepburn).
"I thought, I know I at least want to be friends with those girls, even if I couldn't skate with them," she recalls.
Today, Blakemore makes the trek from Boulder to the Wagon Wheel in Brighton four times a week for practice.
"I've seen myself turn into an athlete," she says. "It gives women the opportunity to cut loose and be involved with something that is at once sexy and powerful."
Davidson - a petite, make-up-free woman who scarcely looks a day over 16 - first played with a Texas team called the Holy Rollers, which models itself after "Catholic schoolgirls gone bad." Her life theme - of being mistaken for someone far younger - came up in conversation in the early days of her skating and the name, "Jail Bait," has stuck ever since.
Asked how old she is, she replies, solidly in character: "I'm whatever age you want me to be."
That ability to role-play, in addition to the sheer love of skating, prompted her to track down a team to skate with as soon as she arrived in Denver.
"There is definitely a bit of exhibitionism involved," says Davidson, a bartender who recently earned a degree in architectural engineering. "We are out there in miniskirts and fish-nets beating the crap out of each other."
And beat the crap out of each other they do.
Recent scrimmages and bouts among Denver-area skaters have delivered broken wrists and ankles, the loss of one skater's two front teeth and, for Boulder resident Jessica Reutlinger, aka Jersey Trouble, a nasty case of fish-net burn.
"Exposed flesh on those floors is very dangerous," says Reutlinger, a 24-year-old medical sales rep who serves as a jammer for the Bad Apples. "I tore all the flesh off my thigh once, down to the fat. I should have gotten a skin graft, but I didn't."
Players insist that on-rink battles between teams rarely transcend into real-life.
But in December, an off-rink rift between players in the Rocky Mountain Rollergirls league led dozens of its members to walk out and form an entirely new league - the Denver Roller Dolls.
Shannon Boyles, aka Lucky 7, spokeswoman for the Rocky Mountain Rollergirls, says the Denver Roller Dolls are a "rogue" league, and are not certified by the Woman's Flat Track Derby Association, a national organization that promotes and helps govern the sport. While the Rocky Mountain Rollergirls play teams from other states, the Denver Roller Dolls host scrimmages between local teams within their league.
"The bottom line is, it comes down to the consumer and what they want to see," Boyles says. "Do they want to see two home teams play themselves, or do they want to go see the home team play teams from out of state?"
Controversy aside, and regardless of who is playing who, all agree that they are glad the long-lost sport is back.
"I have always had mostly male friends, and roller derby was a way for me to connect with other strong amazing women," Reutlinger says. "It has been life-changing for me."