Pictured At the Windy City Rollers practice. Photos by Ross Foreman. Kelly Simmons. Elizabeth Gomez. Coach Bettina Von Brickhouse
All over the country, women are strapping on skates and pulling up fishnets to join the revolution to revitalize and reclaim a long-forgotten sport. Armed with a helmet, a do-it-yourself attitude and a mean pair of hot pants, women are joining new roller derby leagues and finding an active way to form a sisterhood. With the formation of the Windy City Rollers, roller derby is back for another spin in its birthplace: Chicago.
The rules of roller derby state two teams with five players per team and three positions, the pivot, a jammer and three blockers, must skate around the rink in two-minute intervals. Moving in a pack, the pivot sets the pace, and the jammer of one team tries to pass the pack of the opposing team without being blocked. When a player is blocked, she runs the risk of falling and causing a derby pile-up. The competitions are called 'bouts' and many times draw audience members looking for a good fight on the rink.
Born out of the tradition of speed and couple skating, roller derby evolved into a spectator sport during the Depression era in Chicago when team members accidentally fell on the track, said Tim Patten, 52, owner of the Bay City Bomber league since 1988. When skaters accidentally bumped each other and fell, the audience loved it, and derby became a contact sport. It later became female-dominated, and the appeal of women knocking down their opponents on skates collected a cult audience when roller derby reached its height of popularity in the '60s and '70s. Always irreverent, roller derby challenged the ideas America had about female athletes and drew fans from everywhere.
'Roller derby was America's first look at this female world, that's why it became such a popular gay sport,' he said. 'These women represented girls all over America and that they can do things that aren't feminine.'
Just like the roller derby of the '60s and '70s, new leagues are packing all the punches original fans long for. This time around, the women are bringing their own brand of bad-ass by assuming pseudonyms and hosting bouts with half-time punk rock shows. The rock 'n roll skater personas and kitch spectacle combined with athleticism is proving the perfect outlet for women.
Natily Blair, 27, aka Ginger Snap of New York's Gotham Girls Roller Derby, describes the sport as the perfect combination of femininity and violence. Blair works as a performer and graphic designer when she's not kicking butt on the rink.
'We get to be tough and skull-cracking and sexy all at the same time,' she said. 'And it's a lot more exciting than going to the gym.'
The punk rock roller derby started in Austin four years ago. Heather Burdick, 35, and several friends and co-workers started a league with the Bad Girl Good Woman Productions, hoping to resurrect roller derby and include rock 'n roll acts in the spectacle. In a town that Burdick describes as 'a great music town with a lot of support,' roller derby turned into a phenomenon among people in the Austin music scene, and the Lone Star Rollergirls were born.
'We were a bunch of chicks who booked bands and worked in bars. No one had ever done this before. We were building it from the ground up,' she said.
With the same grassroots spirit of the Lone Star Rollergirls, more than 20 leagues have turned up in cities from New York to Seattle to Tucson in just the last year. One of the newest editions is the Windy City Rollers.
Elizabeth Gomez, 30, aka Juanna Rumbel, and her co-worker Kelly Simmons, 34, aka Sister Sledgehammer, had the idea to form a league in Chicago after a 'rollergirl' served them at a restaurant in Austin in April 2004. Impressed with what they thought was a tattoo on her hip, the waitress revealed it was actually a 'derby burn' injury. Gomez and Simmons went home to do some research on how to start a league of their own. By September they had thrown a recruitment party, and by October they had their league, Gomez said.
With more than 60 women in the league, the Windy City Rollers practice up to four times a week and hope to have their first bout in March. Until then, they are raising money with shows and parties while giving proceed portions to charities like the Chicago Abused Women's Coalition and Planned Parenthood. League member Kelly Brannon, 29, aka Ida Ho, said being involved with the Windy City Rollers is an opportunity to be on a team and do something for the greater good of Chicago.
'We all work together towards this fantastic thing we want to do. We're bringing derby back to Chicago and giving people entertainment and also giving back to the community,' she said.
Described as something that just 'gets in your blood,' Simmons said derby members who have no experience with sports are passionate about their leagues.
'It doesn't matter how small you are or weak you are, we will make you a member of something bigger. We are accepting everybody,' she said. 'I see the women growing and becoming more confident and it's very satisfying.'
For most team members, roller derby is a passion and a commitment taken very seriously. The Windy City Rollers require 50 percent commitment from their members. For Gomez, derby life fits somewhere between a full-time job as an account coordinator at a printing shop and raising two daughters ages 3 and 6. Though Gomez's daughters are just learning to skate, they already have derby names: Baby Rage and Princess Fiona Falls A Lot.
What has caused women to yearn for roller derby among their busy lives? According to Rebecca Ninburg, 35, aka Demo Licious of the L.A. Derby Dolls, the roller derby resurrection is due to its nostalgic appeal for women in their late 20s and 30s.
'I don't think I was alone in looking for roller derby. Things have their cycles. The revival makes sense,' she said. 'We remember it as kids and we long for it as adults.'
The internet has also been instrumental in providing a forum for women to create new leagues. The Windy City Rollers recruited on-line and created their own Web site for derby news and skater profiles. Ninburg co-founded the L.A. Derby Dolls by posting ads on www.craigslist.com, the amalgamative classifieds Web site, and described the response to her ads as 'overwhelming.' Since then, the L.A. Derby Dolls maintain their own Web site.
'I can't even fathom what it would be like to deal with this scale of a group without the internet,' Ninberg said. 'It would be a nightmare.'
The Gotham Girls recruited interest through a yahoo group, and Gomez stated that she wanted to get derby in Chicago the minute she 'googled' it.
'I looked it up online and I fell madly in love with it,' she said.
So far, the roller derby resurgence has been successful because women want to skate and people want to watch. The Gotham Girls' first bout attracted more than 600 spectators, all drawn to 'new school' roller derby for different reasons, Blair said.
'There was kind of a mixed crowd: mostly urban hipsters. But it [ the audience ] also included family members and old school derby fans who were excited to see some derby action,' she said.
For every woman longing to beat the stuffing out of her fellow sister, all in good fun, there will soon be a league she can join. Until then, Blair is enjoying the exciting ride.
'It's a nation of derby girls,' said Blair. 'You always have a couch to sleep on.'