A derby girl collision makes an unforgettable sound. There’s the slap of flesh on laminated wood, punctuated by the jangly click of hundreds of ball bearings rattling inside urethane skate wheels like a legion of tiny shotguns racking their ammunition. And above it all is a soft, guttural utterance voiced by everybody falling to the ground—part wind knocked out of the lungs, part animal grunt, dusted with the tiniest sprinkle of playground glee.
This Monday evening practice at Putty Hill Skateland—“Home Of The Charm City Roller Girls” proclaims the banner outside—Hilary “Rosie the Rioter” Rosensteel is watching two dozen women glide their way through a practice drill, the hypnotic thrum of their wheels interrupted every so often by that familiar symphony of wreckage.
The women snake around the rink in one looping line, measuring their distance from each other carefully. Then the lead woman twists her torso sharply and weaves behind each skater, left and right, a backward slalom that ends when she takes up the rear and the line’s new leader begins her attack. The point of this exercise is not to slam into your opponent—that comes later—but to get comfortable looking behind you and skating through a minefield of moving obstacles.
“When we first started the league [in May of 2005], those games were really pathetic,” reminisces Rosensteel, a scruffy-haired and petite 37-year-old professional dog walker and mother of two from Remington. “No one knew what they were doing. It was like the blind leading the blind. We didn’t even have closed rink time. [We just showed up] at Skateland on Thursday nights, when every child with a runny nose was rubbing chewing gum on the rink.”
A lot has changed since then. The Charm City Roller Girls are now ranked 11th in the country in a field of 50 active leagues recognized by the governing body, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). Thanks in part to bouts that routinely draw crowds of more than 2,000 spectators, plus corporate sponsors that include Chipotle and Pabst Blue Ribbon, the self-run corporation that governs the league is now financially stable enough to rent closed rink time. At tonight’s practice, there are no children around—runny noses or otherwise—just a lot of grown women and a scattering of male (and female) referees, all suited up in helmets, elbow pads, knee pads, and mouthguards (to prevent concussion as well as protect teeth), ready to play the fastest growing sport in America.
If that claim sounds exaggerated, consider this: Women’s flat track derby, as it’s officially known, has mushroomed to more than 200 leagues and counting as of last year. The sport’s been around since the 1930’s, when promoter Leo Seltzer brainstormed a variation on the dance marathon contests popular with audiences of the era by advertising a roller skating endurance competition, but quickly realized crowds hungered for brawls and collisions between the skaters. The sport coasted on and off the pop culture radar for the following six decades, but, in 2002, an exhibition bout in Austin, TX, sparked the formation of the Texas Rollergirls, inspiring women nationwide to start their own leagues. Three years later, Baltimore stepped into the fray.
“A client at my salon came in and asked if anyone would be interested in refereeing,” recalls Bethany “Deathany” Pontier, 27, a hairstylist and makeup artist who lives in Gardensville. “After a season of reffing, I decided it was really frustrating to be in a women-dominated and women-governed sport and be with the guys,” she adds. “I couldn’t not be involved anymore. I wanted to skate. I wanted to compete. Because it’s so much fun!” She has since joined the league as a player.
Pontier, with her wild, multitone hair and gigantic tribal ear piercings, doesn’t resemble the commonly-held notion of the female jock. But then again, this can be said of all the Charm City Rollers. For starters, they’re all sizes and shapes, from gamine to portly. Collectively, they give off the vibe that phys-ed class wasn’t the best thing about their high school experience. But just as penguins waddle on land but glide like sleek torpedoes underwater, the Roller Girls transform into thoroughbred athletes when they step into their skates. On wheels, they’re startlingly full of power and grace, their strong legs scissoring smoothly around turns as they negotiate the sometimes dangerous action with superb timing and balance.
“Somehow this game has managed to keep the femininity and the brutality in a balance that agrees with people who couldn’t find the joy in sweating in a basketball uniform,” says Laura “Reckless Ndangerment”
Jansen, 27, a rangy and bespectacled blonde who’s encoded the initials of her day job (registered nurse) in her derby name. (Every player gets to pick her own derby name as long as it checks out against an online database of every other player in the WFTDA.)
Unlike some of the other women on the team, for whom roller derby is their first experience with team sports, Jansen’s been an athlete “from third-grade basketball on.” But roller derby has rapidly supplanted other activities in her heart. “This is one of the few games I’ve played that doesn’t have a ball or a puck,” she explains. “Everything that happens in derby is somebody’s body. Everybody’s responsible for what happens on the court. There’s no such thing as, ‘Oh, it just wasn’t bouncing our way.’”
Referee Martin “Johnny Zebra” Foys, a 39-year-old Hampden resident, agrees. “Being a roller derby referee is one of the hardest officiating jobs you can have,” says the lean and sharp-profiled professor of English about his role on the team. “You’re on skates, they’re on skates, you’re traveling in a tight circle, and you have to keep track of 10 moving objects. Somebody falls down in front of you, you have to jump over them [without] losing track of what’s going on. It’s like juggling knives during a high-speed car chase.”
One of the older members of the team, Foys joined the league on a whim after he realized his academic desk job was making him soft. “As soon as you get involved, you realize it’s way more athletic than spectacle,” he proclaims. “I’m in the best shape of my life.”
Despite these testimonials to the sport’s true athleticism, curiosity seekers have wrongly fixated on the punk-rock-meets-naughty schoolgirl attire (fishnet stockings, black eyeliner, bad girl miniskirts, and yards and yards of tattooed flesh) worn by the players. It drives Rosensteel over the edge when critics focus on the uniforms, dismissing the sport as a mosh pit peep show, or worse, a powder puff game of dress-up on wheels.
“People have pooh-poohed the girls with tattoos,” she points out, “but look at the NFL right now. There are football players wearing their dreads, having all their tattoos, and are they being criticized?”
Truth is, it’s refreshing to kick butt in spiffy clothes. “There [are] few chances to play a full contact sport with women,” adds Mt. Vernon’s Jodie “Pixie Rocket” Zisow, 31, a solidly-built woman in pigtails. “And to have someone [like me] who’s queer, and a femme, and a feminist, wear makeup when I feel like it, and be powerful and female, there’s something amazing about that. It’s kind of in your face, too, like, ‘Yeah, I am wearing this girly stuff and I’m going to smash that girl down on to the ground and be ruthless to help my team win.’”
What would Zisow say to someone questioning their attire? “I wouldn’t even defend it,” she retorts. “I would tell them to come watch the sport. I’m not even going to argue with you about what I’m wearing.”
Whether it’s the spectacle, the athleticism, or a simple matter of people jumping on a trend, the rest of the world wants in on the roller derby phenomenon. In Hollywood, plans are afoot for Whip It!, a movie directed by Drew Barrymore and starring indie heroine Ellen Page as a young girl who joins a roller derby team. Game developer Frozen Codebase has partnered with the WFTDA to create a women’s derby video game. Rosensteel is writing grant requests in the hopes of forming a nonprofit aimed at teaching the game to teenage girls. And, in the sincerest form of flattery, men hungry to get in on the action have formed men’s roller derby leagues, including Baltimore’s own Harm City Homicide. It’s not hyperbole to consider that roller derby might be on the same precipice skateboarding was 25 years ago—only a few smart moves away from becoming a legitimate, multimillion-dollar professional sport.
But with big things on the horizon for roller derby, will the grassroots, do-it-yourself gusto of the original leagues survive? Rosensteel is optimistic: “At first, [the story surrounding Charm City Roller Girls] was like: Girls having fun, putting on fishnets, and moms discovering something great before their midlife crisis. And now, it’s women actually playing a real, full contact sport.”
Is it too much to hope that maybe the Roller Girls are on the verge of getting paid as athletes?
“I don’t know,” says Rosensteel. “Let’s hope. Charm City is one of the youngest leagues ranked nationally right now and we’re just taking leaps and bounds . . . We’re definitely the little engine that could.”