My Night at the Roller Derby
It involves pathos. And players like Chainsaw Mary and Hard Licker.
By Paula Marantz Cohen
The other night I went to women’s roller derby. The Penn Jersey She Devils were playing Canada’s Hammer City. I didn’t have a clue what roller derby was, but I’d been intrigued to read in the local paper that this was National Roller Derby Hall of Fame Weekend, and it was being celebrated in the New Jersey town next to my own.
The game was held at the Mount Laurel International Sports Centre — another surprise. I had no idea there was an international sports centre so close to where I live. As it turns out, I had passed the International Sports Centre many times without knowing it. It was that warehouse-like building next to the strip mall where my allergist has his office.
When I arrived at the International Sports Centre, there were about 50 roller derby fans waiting at the door. They were a lively group, amply adorned with tattoos and piercings. Some of the older folk were carrying folding chairs, and I learned, through friendly chitchat, that there were no chairs or bleachers in the International Sports Centre. You either brought your own chair or sat on the floor (in the latter case, I was warned, “you’re liable to get a lapful of roller derby girl — haha”). I went home to get a folding chair.
By the time I returned, things had gotten underway. The She Devils — in red, white, and black T-shirts with little black skirts, many with fishnet stockings under their knee pads — had a distinctly S&M look. The Hammer City girls wore brown and white, some with gold underpants. None of these girls were girls you’d want to mess with.
I found a place at the edge of the track (actually, a double basketball court). There were a good number of babies and toddlers in the group; tattoos notwithstanding, this was a family crowd. Around the arena were posters advertising the sponsors: Dadz Bar and Grill of Lumberton, New Jersey; Fat Kat Tattoo of Keyport, New Jersey; Unclaimed Diamonds of Philadelphia; Bill Worrell’s Auto Body of Levittown, Pennsylvania; etc.
I perused the program, which had a voluptuous roller derby girl, with an American flag and an eagle by her side, sketched on the cover. It explained that the Penn Jersey She Devils “are a proud member of the Old School Derby Association (OSDA), a growing organization of women’s, men’s, and co-ed leagues interested in playing Derby the way it could be, would be, & should be.” The program continued, for the benefit of those working on roller derby Ph.D.s: “Old School rules are a melding between many of the current developments in Flat Track Derby with the rules used by Old School Banked Track Roller Derby skaters. These rules were developed by the Penn Jersey She Devils through consultation with representatives from Derby teams from the 70s and we believe add to a more exciting game for both the fans & the players.”
Trey Sandusky was introduced to sing the Canadian and the U.S. National anthems. Trey has a resonant baritone and sang both anthems well. The program noted that he is known in the Flat Track Roller Derby circuit as “Bobby Narco,” and has performed at Alice Tully Hall, Carnegie Hall, and the Met. He is also in his 12th year in the Bronx District Attorney’s office and has had stints in the violent crimes and narcotics bureaus.
After the anthems were sung, Judy “the Polish Ace” Sowinski — the She Devils' coach and former member of the “legendary Eastern Warriors Roller Derby team” — was introduced. Other members of that legendary team were assembled on folding chairs in the VIP section. They would be formally honored the next evening at the National Roller Derby Hall of Fame Awards Presentation and Reunion Dinner at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
“Polish Ace” Sowinski explained the rules before the game got underway. Both teams skate together as a pack, with the exception of one skater from each team. These skaters have stars on their helmets and are called jammers. When the first whistle blows the pack takes off around the track. When the second whistle blows, the jammers take off with the aim of breaking through the pack. The jammers score points for each member of the opposing team they legally pass within the period of a jam (which lasts no longer than two minutes). There are additional nuances to the game, but that’s it in a nutshell.
To add to the proceedings, the girls go by pseudonyms. The She Devil
team, for example, featured such skaters as Lucky Luciano, Goody Two
Skates, Hard Licker, Tequila Sunrise, Pass a Fist, and Hot Rod Hussy.
Hammer City had Bashley Olson, Miss Carriage, Chainsaw Mary, and (my
favorite) Bitchslap Barbie. Given these names, the play-by-play
announcing is colorful.
There is a good deal of pushing and shoving in roller derby. To keep this under control, the rules call for penalties for “vindictive skaters,” but it’s a rough sport, and the jammers, in particular, must be aggressive and resilient. As they approach the pack, teammates hold out their hands to help swing them through; then, the jammers push and weave to get to the front. Sometimes, there’s a pile-up. Lucky Luciano (or was it Cherry Bomber?) was a big girl and when she fell, others went down, cascading on top of her. Still, they all got up in a jiffy and were skating again. That is, until the middle of the second period, when one girl toppled and remained prostrate in her fishnets and kneepads, unable to get up.
That’s when I left. There seemed to be no telling how long before Miss Chievous (or was it Dirty Gert?) would be on her feet. An umpire with spiked hair and multiple piercings had run out for ice packs, the toddlers were wandering about and the babies passed around. Fortunately, the She Devils were far enough ahead that I could assume an American victory (though I confess to having developed a soft spot for Danger Mouse, a spunky Canadian skater).
Contemplating Roller Derby afterwards, I realized that it’s a sport with pathos. It doesn’t have much visibility, it doesn’t have affluent fans, it doesn’t have fancy venues. But it does have lots of piss and vinegar. All this seems a function of its origin. Roller Derby was founded in 1935 in the depths of the Great Depression. As a sport, it dramatizes the ethos of the 1930s. Jammers are the individualists who make their way through the pack — that resistant mass that was Depression America. The scrappy jammers need to be fast, tough, and pugnacious, able to use their teammates when they can to swing them through, but ultimately relying on themselves. James Cagney in Public Enemy and Paul Muni in Scarface were “jammers,” as was Jean Harlow in most every movie she made. Joan Crawford was a triumphant jammer — she pushed through and scored again and again. Admittedly, Crawford wasn’t a very good mother, but what do you expect when you’ve spent your life elbowing your way through a pack of really tough, nasty girls, not to mention lecherous studio executives?
The narrative of success in this country has become much fancier and more complex than Roller Derby. I suppose it’s been replaced, metaphorically, by football or maybe lacrosse. But it’s nice to know you can still get a taste of a Depression sport, played by Old School rules. And it’s nice to know there’s an International Sports Centre right around the corner. • 14 November 2007
Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is author of the bestselling novels Jane Austen in Boca, Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan, and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale Review, The American Scholar, The Hudson Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. She also writes the On Shopping column for The Smart Set. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Photo by Joe Rollerfan via Flickr (Creative Commons).