Over 200 rowdy fans piled into the Funtime Skate Center in Fultondale, Ala. on Aug. 20. On U.S. 31, a barren stretch of road populated by tatty strip malls and fast-food hideaways, there was a small piece of white poster board that simply read, Roller Derby , in thin, black lettering. The parking lot was packed, spilling cars out onto the highway. Everyone was there, or so it seemed, from the preppy frat-types to the punk-rock hipsters to the intellectually-morose emo kids to the beer-bellied rednecks, who’d be at home yelling profanities at a UAB game.
Everything you see here tonight is 100% real , according to the night’s program. Nothing is ever staged .... Every scratch, bite and throw down is as honest and true as our love for beer!
The Tragic City Rollers, who skate out of Birming-ham, brought some fervent support. A group of belligerent drag queens decked out in cheerleader garb got the crowd fired up, ready to cackle and jeer our Hard Knox Rollergirls. Three queens ran around the track, carrying signs that read Tragic and City and Rox . One cheerleader, more concerned with jumping up and down and screaming, held her sign upside down. No one cared.
We knew we were in for a rough night as the Birmingham girls made their way onto the track for their first warm up. Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” echoed through the rink, mocking us with its playful, upbeat vibe.
The aptly named Anne Rollen tossed a severed doll’s head into the crowd. Not to be outdone, Hard Knox co-captain Karma Krash lifted her skirt as she skated by, showing us that the phrase “Karma’s a bitch” was delicately emblazoned on her bloomers.
Then, to change the mood, the Toadies’ “Possum Kingdom” played through the loudspeaker. Its lyrics seemed to carry a haunting, perhaps foreboding message:
Give it up to me Give it up to me Do you wanna be My Angel? So help me!
Our girls held their own at first, scoring one point on the opening jam, successfully blocking Tragic City’s jammer out of scoring position. Then, things got a little shaky. The blocking pack lost its cohesiveness as Tragic City’s Schnott Nose Kid, Suge Fight and Acute Pain sliced their way through, scoring at will during the first period.
“You do inter-league games as often as you can, really,” says Tattoo Jay, the Hard Knox Rollers’ league president, “because those are usually the most exciting. The teams aren’t best friends, they didn’t grow up together—they’re just meeting each other for the first time, and they go at it. Somebody’s gonna get hurt.”
When Madame Mayhem elbowed a Tragic City Roller to the floor, all sense of civility was abandoned, and the hits became evermore primal. Two of our best jammers, Jamie Skull and Hyperlicious, felt most of the onslaught. But each time they hit the floor, they were back up, always working their way through the Tragic City blocking corps.
On the sideline, you could hear Hard Knox team captain Battle Ready Betty say, “I love it when people cheat.” There’s no love during a match. That’s just the way it’s supposed to be.
Tonight history is being made in the Magic City by a gaggle of girls who’ve been lovingly beating each other up for many moons now , the night’s program read. These girls and their ref men slaves would like to welcome you to Birmingham’s first ever all-female flat track roller derby bout! So get ready and grab a seat and prepare yourself for full throttle mayhem ….
We lost the match that night. But, as any coach will tell you, you’re almost expected to lose your first match. It’s a learning experience, after all. None of our roller girls had real derby experience before Aug. 20th. Every push—every bruise and cramp—is a steppingstone.
“Vicious,” Tattoo Jay says. “It can be ruthless. They stay within the rules, but it’s not a comfortable experience. But, at the same time, why else do it? Even at our practices, we’ve had two broken ankles, cracked ribs, a mild concussion, many messed up fingers and knees. Bumps and bruises. Every girl’s experienced something. Getting beat up at practice, I think they’re used to it. They’re not really afraid of getting hurt. They just want to get out there and hurt the other team first, before they get hurt.”
"It was the first bout,” says Madame Mayhem. “I’m sure there were some dirty things on each side.”
After the scrimmage against Birmingham, there were rumors that the Hard Knox Roller Girls were petitioning the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association to revoke Tragic City’s status as an official flat track derby league. There may have been some talk immediately after the game, when the adrenaline was still pumping. But, when dopamine levels returned to normal, tempers also faded, and reality set in. This was, after all, a learning experience. Now you’ll only hear talk of inviting the Tragic City Rollers to Knoxville for another crack, this time on our home turf.
“We learned that we need to not let our nerves get to us,” Madame Mayhem says. “That first period, we were all over the place. We were spread out all over the place. By the third period, you could tell that we had gotten into it.”
Tattoo Jay agrees, explaining that he’s still in awe of how far our young league has come over the past few months. “The first couple of practices, there were a few girls out actually skating around the rink,” he says. “There were a lot of girls skating near the wall, arms extended. You’d never imagine—it’s only six months later—not only are these girls really good skaters, but while they’re skating, they’re also getting hit, passing, weaving in and out…. I would never have recognized these girls six months ago.”
Before we caravanned down to Alabama, Tattoo Jay said that we were going to put up a hell of a fight. His pre-match prediction rang true. Every Tragic City Roller who was forced to eat floorboard that night knows that our girls are all business.
Similar leagues are popping up all over the country, because roller derby has managed to become a legit sport. The ethos behind today’s flat track leagues is totally different than their predecessors. There were theatrical leagues back in the ’70s and early ’80s, sure, back when the San Francisco Bay Bombers would host epic bouts against the Ohio Jolters. These matches became more like professional wrestling than real, honest-to-god sport. But it wasn’t always like that; the theatrics of roller derby happened by pure happenstance.
The first derby game was skated on Aug. 13, 1935, in the Chicago Coliseum. It was reported that over 20,000 fans showed up for that first bout. Back then, it was an endurance match, with teams relaying to complete 57,000 laps, which was reportedly the distance from New York to Los Angeles. In 1938, a few speed-jammers got tangled up, and the crowd loved it. Miami-based sportswriter Damon Runyan suggested that contact should be a part of the game. The next night, full-contact roller derby was born, slowly evolving from sport into pure fiction.
“Derby had it’s biggest drop off in the late ’70s, early ’80s,” Tattoo Jay says. “It tried to be too flashy, too showy. It came off almost as wrestling. Even though there was some sport involved, people seemed to lose interest. The next resurgence was with RollerJam in the mid ’80s. That wasn’t really roller derby.
“Today the leagues are run by the skaters,” he adds. “In the past they were run by promoters, by people who you’d think I would be, people who put it together just to make money. Nowadays, the girls run these leagues. They’re not working for anyone else. Everything they make goes to them. They’re really interested in keeping it a sport more than a show.”
There are three 20-minute periods. The periods are divided into jams. No jam can exceed two-minutes. Five players from each team come onto the rink; three blockers, one pivot and one jammer. When the first whistle blows, the blockers and pivots begin to skate. When the second whistle blows, the jammers take off. After passing the blocking pack without crashing or going out of bounds, the jammers will pick up a point for each of the opposing team’s blockers that they pass. It’s simple, perhaps, but it’s so fast and primeval in real life that these rules only seem like guidelines to keep chaos in check.
I don’t believe in roller blades. Proper way to do whips is—? Looking back, checking it, kissing it! Remember, this is proper posture: Stay low, keep your knees bent— Hey! You’re not talking! I guarantee you, that team in Birmingham is going to be talking. Just ’cause you’re fucked up doesn’t mean you gotta try to fuck everyone else up. I hate, hate, hate that song! What song? I love red. They’re wearing all black. I’m gonna wear red tights. I’m going to wear red tights, too. I dropped a five-pound hunk of metal on my toenail. How do I stretch out my groin? I’m burning hot. You’re burning for my love?
A typical practice session is a weird mix of socializing and strenuous workout. “There is such a variety of females,” says Napalm Blownaparte, who sports one of the best monikers in the game, “from stay-at-home moms to women who run their own companies. Engineers, secretaries. It’s just a real easy fit with the girls. We’re not high-maintenance like other women’s sports.”
“A lot of these girls need an outlet,” says league referee Betty Boobs. “It’s bonding, exercise, a feeling of belonging. I think it’s a proving ground, not that we have chips on our shoulders. We’re girls, we’re moms, and we can do this and be good at it.”
It’s not terribly complicated, according to Madame Mayhem: “You work hard. You give it your all.” Alecha 4 Breakfast says she quit her job as sales manager at the Holiday Inn Select to focus on roller derby.
“With derby, obviously you strive to become more athletic, but body type or athletic skill don’t really matter,” Tattoo Jay says. “It takes a really fast girl to be a jammer. It takes a very steady, sturdy girl to be a blocker. It takes someone who has some organizational skills to be a pivot. Any and every type of person can play this game.
“There is no one type of girl in Roller Derby. There’s not. The one common thing I’ve seen is that most of them either were generally loners, or didn’t hang out with women at all, usually didn’t play organized sports at all, usually didn’t do a lot of female-oriented activities. But given the opportunity to go out and fight people, they’re like, ‘Sure, I can do that. I don’t have to like anybody to do that.’ And then they all end up being best friends.”
The first intra-league bout will be held on Sept. 24, 7 p.m., at the Smoky Mountain Skate Center, 2801 East Broadway Ave., in Maryville. The $10 entry will help pay for future track improvements. Although Jeff Kay, the rink owner, lets the team skate for free, his tip jar jokingly suggests otherwise: This ain’t no free skate, bitches! Give Jeff some $.