In roller derby's revival, women elbow to the fore

At a harshly lit, slightly grungy second-story space in Chicago, things are getting ugly.

Women are flying across the floor, knocking one another down, and careening around curves before they crash into a chaotic pileup.

And this is only a practice.

"We're trying to take it easy tonight," says Brigette Sullivan, aka Elektra Fire, who nurses a sore ankle after a fall during play. "It's our first scrimmage of the season. In a real game, we'd be more aggressive."

Seventy years after men and women strapped on skates and took to wooden tracks, speeding down banks and blocking opponents in a new sport named roller derby, the game - and its rough-and-tumble spirit - is back.

The basic elements of the derby, which experienced its heyday of sold-out stadiums in the 1950s and '60s, have remained the same. Two teams of five race around the track, scoring points when their jammer breaks through the opponents' blockers in front and comes back around to lap those from the opposing team. Sure there are a few rules - no blocks with hands or forearms, no elbows to the face, and no hitting in the chest. But make no mistake, this is a high-contact sport.

In its latest incarnation, it's all women. By day, these are lawyers, mothers, students, artists, bartenders, and businesswomen. But they wear bruises and scars from the battles they fight at night, as derby dames with names like Val Capone, Elle Destructo, or Ivana Krushya.

The first of these all-women leagues emerged in 2001 in Austin, Texas. Since then, dozens of amateur leagues have sprouted up across the country. Boston has been practicing for a year and plans to feature its first home interleague games this season, which runs roughly from late spring to fall. The Ohio Roller Girls kicked off its first bouts Sunday.

The number of teams in various stages of formation has doubled from last year, to more than 100, according to the Women's Flat Track Derby Association.

In Chicago, women organized a four-team league, the Windy City Rollers, nearly two years ago. Hundreds of women showed up at the most recent recruitment event, and bouts regularly fill the 3,000-seat Congress Theater.

"It's helped me tune into a side of myself I didn't know was there," says Katie Muldowney, who skates under the name of OctoPushy, and whose fictional biography on the league's website details a life as a bounty hunter of unknown origin. Her real background is more mundane: Ms. Muldowney is a research assistant at DePaul University who always liked to roller skate and used to pride herself on never falling down.

"The first thing I had to do [after starting roller derby] was get over that," she laughs.

Like most of the women in the Windy City Rollers, she's never taken part in organized sports until now, but has always nurtured a bit of a subversive streak.

Now, these iconoclasts and nonjoiners have created a league of their own. Many say they're loving the competition, discipline, camaraderie, and physical exercise, and feel a sense of empowerment from playing a sport that's physically demanding and dangerous.

"It's the power and attitude and sport and agility and fierceness," says Ms. Sullivan, who sports a large grape tattoo on her shoulder, and says she grew up enthralled with the roller derbies she saw on television. "A lot of these women are highly competitive, but never had an outlet for that before."

The Chicago derby girls take particular pleasure from playing in the city where roller derby first emerged as a sport 71 years ago. Leo Seltzer, a promoter, who was brainstorming ways to draw audiences to the Chicago Coliseum, started it at the height of the Great Depression. He had heard that the majority of Americans skated at one point in their lives - and created a game that would honor that pasttime.

From the beginning, roller derby challenged gender conventions. It was the first time many in the world watched women participate in a contact sport, on equal footing with men.

"It is a place where women were always welcome," says Gary Powers, who runs the Roller Derby Hall of Fame from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. That was both its draw and a major detraction: Roller derby always had trouble gaining legitimacy in sports circles.

That fringe element still defines the game today, says Mary McDonald, the past president of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport and a professor at Miami University of Ohio. "It was parody, and kitsch," she says. These days, it is still carnivalesque.

Roller derby "purists" are hesitant to embrace it fully, in part because the sport today is primarily skated on flat tracks, not the angled banks used in the original sport. Mr. Powers, drawn to what he saw as a "morality play" each night on television, says many women who compete today were not alive when the original roller derby ended in 1973. "Roller derby today is not really the roller derby that I grew up loving and watching," he says.

The sport has had an off-and-on history. The teams of the 1950s and '60s broke up in a series of squabbles and financial woes.

Since then, attempts to revive it yielded various forms. In the late '90s, a cable TV network began a program with young, inline skaters called "RollerJam," but Powers says it was modeled on the theatrics of wrestling and fizzled. A&E ran "Rollergirls," a reality show based on the team in Austin, but it was canceled recently.

For the Chicago women, derby is first and foremost a sport. The theatrics and personas, the costumes, light shows, and music that plays at bouts may bring comparisons to professional wrestling. But nothing, they say, is staged or choreographed.

Still, many derby girls are performers who dive wholeheartedly into the showmanship.

"The theatrics behind it keep it light-hearted," says Dawn Kobel ("Cha Cha Charger"), escaped mental patient by night, promotional marketer by day. "It makes you feel OK about watching someone pushed into a wall."

The crashes have real consequences, though. Ms. Kobel says she separated her shoulder once. Sullivan reports she broke her ankle in three places during last November's championship game.

"We wear our bruises like badges," Sullivan says, eager to test her ankle in a new season of play - and with no plans to hold back. "If you have any kind of fear, you're going to be hesitant, and you can't hesitate in this sport."

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