These Roller Skating Women Get 'Down And Derby'

Alex Cohen i i

Alex Cohen (aka Axles Of Evil): Public radio reporter by day, roller derby demon by night. She is co-author of Down and Derby: The Insider's Guide to Roller Derby. Rich Dean hide caption

itoggle caption Rich Dean
Alex Cohen

Alex Cohen (aka Axles Of Evil): Public radio reporter by day, roller derby demon by night. She is co-author of Down and Derby: The Insider's Guide to Roller Derby.

Rich Dean

Alex Cohen may be a public radio reporter by day, but by night she goes by her roller derby name — Axles of Evil.

Cohen first fell in love with roller derby in Austin, Texas, several years ago, while reporting a story on the sport. Since then, she has skated as "Smother Theresa" with the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls' Holy Rollers in Austin and Axles of Evil with the L.A. Derby Dolls.

Cohen has joined forces with another L.A. Derby Doll, Jennifer "Kasey Bomber" Barbee, to write Down and Derby: The Insider's Guide to Roller Derby.

Cohen — who describes herself as "5-foot-2 on a good day" — says she never expected she'd get involved in such a rough-and-tumble sport. "I have never been athletically inclined," she tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "I was always the theater and speech and debate geek. When I started doing derby, I was amazed to see I really liked beating people up."

Down And Derby
Down and Derby: The Insider's Guide to Roller Derby
By Jennifer Barbee and Alex Cohen
Paperback, 224 pages
Soft Skull Press
List price: $14.95
Excerpt: Take The Quiz: Are You A Rollergirl?

It's not all about brute strength and size, though. "If you're a good skater it doesn't matter what size you are," Cohen explains. "People are most intimated by ankle biters" — skaters close to the ground who are very quick and hard to pass. After all, on the track, it's all about speed.

Derby Doll K.T. Wiegman — also known as Trixie Biscuit — is 37-year-old photographer who was a sergeant in the Army Reserve. She says that for her, derby was destiny.

"I've always been a bruiser," Wiegman says. "I was the catcher on the softball team that was like: 'Go ahead. Slide into me. Try it. See where it gets you.' "

Much like Cohen, Wiegman lives a relatively tame life away from the derby track. "I knit. I'm a mom. I have a dog," she says. "I have a little house with everything but a white picket fence."

Roller Roots

If anyone can be credited with "inventing" roller derby, it's a man named Leo Seltzer. Marathon roller skating competitions had been around since the 1880s — for men. But decades later, Seltzer had the idea to put women in skates and send them on the road in his 1935 Transcontinental Roller Derby. This "traveling circus" of derby guys and gals piled onto team buses with trainers, announcers and trunks full of skating outfits, Cohen explains.

"A lot of it was born out of the Depression," says Cohen. "People wanted to earn a buck and this was an opportunity to do that. You had young kids that gave up their lives, traveled the country, became families with each other. ... They got paid no money but it was their chance to see the country, their chance at this tiny little sliver of fame."

Among the biggest crowd pleasers were rivalries between two opposite types: the sweetheart and the mean girl. Co-author Barbee says derby's original rivals brought out passion in the crowd that has never been surpassed.

Members of the U.S. roller skating team practice together in May 1953. i i

Members of the U.S. roller skating team practice together before a derby in May 1953. Ron Burton/Keystone/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ron Burton/Keystone/Getty Images
Members of the U.S. roller skating team practice together in May 1953.

Members of the U.S. roller skating team practice together before a derby in May 1953.

Ron Burton/Keystone/Getty Images

It all started with two gals back in the 1930s, Barbee explains. The beautiful, fashionable Gerry Murray — "the Betty Grable pinup of roller derby" — who was pitted against Midge "Toughie" Brasuhn — "a 4-foot-11 spitfire plumber's daughter." The young women were just teenagers at the time, and crowds loved to cheer for Gerry and boo for Toughie.

At one game, a female fan became so incensed by an aggressive move by Toughie that she ran up to the track — and threw her baby at the skater. Thankfully, Toughie had lightning-quick athlete reflexes and caught the child.

"For me, that's derby in a nutshell," Barbee says. "I want those kinds of fans" ... but minus the baby throwing.

Sport Or Spectacle?

The key to the continuing fascination with women's roller derby is the mix of bold sexuality, in-your-face violence and a certain playfulness.

Ellen Page in 'Whip It' i i

The 2009 film Whip It, directed by Drew Barrymore and starring Ellen Page (above), helped revive interest in roller derby. There are now 17,000 skaters in more than 400 leagues worldwide. Darren Michaels/Fox Searchlight Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Darren Michaels/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Ellen Page in 'Whip It'

The 2009 film Whip It, directed by Drew Barrymore and starring Ellen Page (above), helped revive interest in roller derby. There are now 17,000 skaters in more than 400 leagues worldwide.

Darren Michaels/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Perhaps it's best demonstrated in derby names: Georgia O'Grief, Tequila Mockingbird, Iron Maven, Rita Ploy, Ruth Enasia, Judy Gloom ... To help keep things straight, there's a central Internet registry of the thousands of roller derby names all over the world.

It's hard to find a name that hasn't been taken, says Sheila Noonen a 33-year-old, high-school English teacher. She held a brainstorming session with her mother and grandmother at a family reunion and finally settled on the name "Haught Wheels" — but not before finding that "Bonny and Collide" was already claimed.

The derby announcer — who gets to say all these names — narrates the action and adds a touch of humor to keep things from getting too serious. (Jimmy Fallon played the derby announcer in Whip It, the 2009 film with Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page.)

It isn't hard to pinpoint the appeal of roller derby as a spectator sport: women in short skirts and fishnet stockings ... beating each other up. Wiegman says some people are drawn to participate in derby for the glamor, the drama, and the performance — but they don't last.

"Do you want to be a derby doll or derby skater?" she asks. "Are you here to look pretty in a little skirt, or are you here to go out there and work? Our training process is very long, arduous — it's difficult, it's extremely competitive, and those people wash out."

Roller derby faded out in the late '70s and was pretty much nonexistent in the '80s and '90s. Just a few years ago there were only a handful of leagues — but now roller derby is back and bigger than ever.

Jennifer Barbee i i

Down and Derby co-author Jennifer Barbee (aka Kasey Bomber) helped organize Rollercon, the first national roller derby convention, which took place in Las Vegas in 2005. Meghan Quinn hide caption

itoggle caption Meghan Quinn
Jennifer Barbee

Down and Derby co-author Jennifer Barbee (aka Kasey Bomber) helped organize Rollercon, the first national roller derby convention, which took place in Las Vegas in 2005.

Meghan Quinn

There are more than 17,000 skaters in more than 400 leagues worldwide — including the L.A. Derby Dolls. Every few weeks fans pack into The Doll Factory to see the skaters fight it out.

Noonen says people show up for the spectacle, but they stay for the sport.

"When they watch the game, they realize it's not theatrics. It's not an alligator pit." she says. "It's actually a very difficult and highly choreographed game. You have to work very hard for every single minute of that hourlong game. I think that's what brings people back."

Excerpt: 'Down And Derby'

Down And Derby
Down and Derby: The Insider's Guide to Roller Derby
By Jennifer Barbee and Alex Cohen
Paperback, 224 pages
Soft Skull Press
List price: $14.95

If reading the rules of the game didn't scare you away, you might now be asking yourself, "Am I a derby girl?"

We remember very vividly the days we asked ourselves that same question. We both wondered if we would be tough enough, athletic enough, rock-n-roll enough, or hot enough to stand up to the other derby girls.

Back then, in 2003, the L.A. Derby Dolls league was only months old, still skating with its figurative training wheels. We had no notion of what to expect when we showed up to our first practices. One of us was a lapsed athlete worried that she'd encounter a rogue pack of SuicideGirls in an inked up beauty contest on wheels. The other was a 5'2" thirty-one-year old, fairly certain that her size and childhood dread of P.E. class would make her instant meat in an Amazon sandwich.

We arrived at Skateland, the Derby Dolls' practice venue back then, where an unlikely shift change was about to occur. Deep in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, the parking lot was teeming with excited women waiting to begin practice, looking as though all they had in common were their ovaries and the skates slung over their shoulders. Strains of Christian rap music filtered out of the front doors, accompanying an exodus of teenaged holy rollers and making way for the entering derby hopefuls.

We met brainiacs, brickhouses, and will o' the' wisps. We laced up next to tattooed punk rockers and elementary school teachers, cops and reformed delinquents, loudmouths, and wallflowers. We were relieved to realize even though there were tough girls who embodied all our imagined fears, there were also plenty of others who looked just like us. They also skated just like us—which at that point, wasn't saying all that much.

Then again, back in our early days of skating, things weren't quite what they are today. This version of roller derby was so new and skaters were so scarce that if you showed up — Congratulations!

You were on a team. In more recent years, the standard of play has escalated to heights of athleticism scarcely imagined back when we first ironed out our strides. To watch a game today — with all the screaming fans, jarring collisions, and lightning strategy — and think, "Hey, I can do this starting tomorrow!" is truly a brave aspiration.

The skaters in their war paint and personalized uniforms look like a gang straight out of The Warriors. They are intimidating.

The action is raw, and painful-looking. Bones are broken on a regular basis. This is something that people do for fun? You're damn right it is. Catch a skater coming off the track after a game and look in her eyes, and you'll see something confident and attractive. That's called pride. Tenacious new girls by the dozens step up every month to learn how to get that look for themselves.

Of course, it had to be more than quads and chromosomes that brought us all to the rink, right? Is it an elusive set of inner desires, something wrong in our heads, or perhaps a genetic disposition to be a capital-B Badass? Maybe it's an outlet for people who like to think of the word "can't" as a challenge rather than as a dead end. Or an all-consuming hobby for those who have always wanted more than they were allowed, and weren't afraid to get physical to get it.

Natily Blair, a.k.a. Ginger Snap of the Gotham Girls Roller Derby, once put it, "You don't become a rollergirl, really, you realize that you are one already." But maybe you're still not sure if this describes you. Maybe you are still asking yourself if you have it in you. If you haven't already run out to buy your first eight wheels, maybe this quiz we've devised can help you decide.

1. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of roller skates?

a) Jam skating to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" at the local rink when I was a kid.

b) That Baywatch-esque rollerblading phase I was in back in the early nineties.

c) The horrific memory of all those skating parties I spent clinging to the wall as a child.

2. Which of these best describes the amount of free time in your schedule?

a) Let's put it this way, I've seen way too many reruns of The Golden Girls lately, so I'm wide open for an exciting hobby.

b) I'm pretty busy with work and family, but I still try to take some time for myself.

c) Things are crazy; I barely have time to answer this survey.

3. What would you do if you got a black eye?

a) Immediately take a picture of it and put it up as my Facebook default.

b) Slap a steak on it and hope it goes away before anyone starts to worry about me.

c) Stay home until I could cover it with makeup, because I can't stand going out looking less than perfect.

4. How would you describe yourself socially?

a) I'm the life of every party. I love to be the center of attention . . . or so I'm told when I wake up in the yard wearing someone else's pants.

b) I can seem a little shy when you meet me, but I come out of my shell after a while. Or after a few tequila shots.

c) I try to avoid crowds, because strangers really creep me out.

5. Your friends invite you on an extreme sports vacation, how do you react?

a) Heck yeah, man! I'll try anything once, and probably twice. Let's go, like, yesterday.

b) I'm not into sports, but my friends are fun, so I'll give it a shot.

c) I don't like sweating, and team sports are totally gay, forget it.

6. When you see an Ultimate Fighting Championship match on television, what do you do?

a) Play a drinking game for each time someone bleeds.

b) Pretend to be reading my copy of US Magazine, but take note of a few good moves for self-defense.

c) Iron my tie-dyed "Give Peace a Chance" t-shirt, then go out and combat senseless violence with free hugs.

If you answered "a" to most of these questions, you are definitely roller derby material. You are no stranger to roller skates, you're not afraid to get out there and try new and potentially dangerous things, and you've got time to devote to a new hobby. Essentially, you have "Potential Derby Cult Recruit" tattooed all over you.

If you answered "b" to most of these questions, there's hope for you for sure! You might not think you are very bold and adventurous, but that fire in you isn't just heartburn. Trade those roller blades in for quads and introduce yourself to your inner badass.

If you answered "c" to most of these questions, roller derby might not be for you. It looks like your schedule may not permit you the practice you need, and the potential for injury in front of a big crowd could scare you off derby. But, if the fact that we just suggested that you can't do this makes you so irritated that you want to try anyway . . . there might just be a rollergirl in you yet!

Excerpted from Down and Derby: The Insider's Guide to Roller Derby by Jennifer Barbee and Alex Cohen. Copyright 2010 by Jennifer Barbee and Alex Cohen. Excerpted by permission of Soft Skull Press.

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