Roller Derby Enjoys a Rowdy Renaissance

By Beacon Staff

Click the image or use the arrows to see more images from a Roller Derby League practice.

Smashbox may have broken her wrist. She was skating backwards fast while explaining a new drill to 10 women in the nascent Flathead Valley Roller Derby League, when her wheel jammed, causing a nasty spill. Prior to the fall, Smashbox had been leading the more experienced skaters through a series of endurance exercises. One drill, to strengthen quad muscles, involved forcing the skaters into a squat position as they rolled around the rink of the Glacier Country Boys and Girls Club in Evergreen.

“Butt down!” she hollered at the women, like a petite, roller-skating drill sergeant in miniskirt and leggings. The other skaters were dressed similarly, in tube socks adorned with skulls and crossbones, torn fishnet stockings and short skirts or shorts. At the far end of the rink another instructor taught beginners how to stop. Her name is Pippi Broadknockings, and she sported a Spice Girls T-shirt and red pigtails under a helmet adorned with jellybean images.

Though Smashbox, whose real name is Lara Matola, didn’t betray much pain after the fall, she held her wrist tenderly while skating to the edge of the rink where fellow league organizer Scarley Davidson said she and Pippi would continue leading the session. On this night, 16 women have turned out to skate, about five of whom put on skates for the first time since they were children. Two men, interested in officiating future competitions or “bouts,” have also turned out to train.

“We will always be recruiting,” Pippi, whose real last name is Robben, said. “We’ll never say no to any girl – no matter what their skating ability is, they’re welcome.”

It’s been almost three months since Scarley, whose real name is Lisa Pooler, began recruiting women for roller derby in the Flathead. Scarley moved here last year to take a paralegal job and ride her motorcycle during the summer. But she found the Flathead winters long and began to consider forming a league like the one where she competed in New Hampshire, her previous home.

“The first week we had four people,” Scarley said. “The next week we had ten people show up, and it’s just growing exponentially at this point.”

Scarley promptly learned she was not the only skater with experience when Smashbox, who had skated in a Denver league, and Pippi, who competed in San Diego, showed up to help launch the Northwest Montana league.

As is typical with subcultures already established in cities, roller derby arrived late in Montana, though Scarley said teams have formed in Missoula, Great Falls and Billings. The modern reinvention of the sport, according to several roller derby Web sites, began in Austin in 2001 on a flat track. It quickly spread to Arizona and Los Angeles. Within a few years, roller derby was played in more than 20 cities, with inter-city leagues fielding traveling teams of their best players.

At present, dozens of teams throughout North America are listed on the Web site of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, the sport’s governing body. In 2009, the Oly Rollers of Olympia, Wash., won the national championship. Last year’s film, “Whip It,” starring Ellen Page and Drew Barrymore, helped boost roller derby’s swelling ranks.

The fastest growing branch of roller derby is played on a flat track, which allows teams to form and practice in a range of facilities, from gymnasiums to warehouses. At 35 pages, the official WFTDA rulebook is long but the basic bout rules are straightforward: Two teams of five skate around the track for two 30-minute halves. Each team has four “blockers” and a “jammer.” The jammers begin behind the pack and skate through it; once through, the lead jammer earns points for every opposing player she passes. Her teammates try to help her through the pack while opponents try to block, hence the physical contact. Players wear helmets, knee and elbow pads, and wrist guards. Jams last two minutes or less and the skaters wear special quad skates; no in-lines allowed.

Scarley’s favorite player is Beyonce-slay, out of New York, whose signature move, the “Slay-ride,” involves a kind of crouching hip check where the jammer is lifted onto Beyonce-slay’s back for a moment before crashing down onto the track.

A push clearly exists within the modern roller derby movement to embrace the rowdier elements of the sport while rejecting negative aspects people may remember from watching it on TV in the 1970s, when it was played on a banked track, with frequent staged fights and virtually nonexistent rules.

“This is not the derby of the 70s,” Scarley said. “I’ve only seen one punch thrown during a national tournament; they take that stuff very seriously now.”

Yet beyond the undeniable athleticism required, the ubiquity of skulls and fishnets, tough names, short skirts and fast speeds clearly harkens back to the atmosphere of the sport from decades ago. Roller derby women are sexy, but also a little scary, like the female characters in a Quentin Tarantino film.

As a result, a natural camaraderie develops between women through their shared obsession with derby, Scarley said. They compare bruises and register their skate names on an Internet database to ensure it doesn’t mimic someone else’s too closely. That name should say something about you, she explained, and the players refer to each other by those names during practice.

“I think a lot of women need an outlet to get rid of the stress of daily life,” Scarley said. “If you had a bad day, go skate around and hit some people, get rid of it.”

And derby embraces women of all ages (18+) and sizes.

“There’s no specific body type that this sport caters to,” Scarley said. “I am far from skinny and I make a great blocker.”

The Flathead squad, however, which has yet to come up with a name for itself, still has a long way to go. Scarley and Pippi think it could be a year before they’ve got a team ready for bouts. At this stage, many skaters are at the “fresh meat” level, where some lack pads and no contact is allowed during practices. The Boys and Girls Club rink during public sessions is also less than ideal, since there are young children skating, loud music and low lights, which makes running drills tough.

Scarley is going before the Northwest Montana Fair Board to request access to one of its buildings, with a polished concrete floor, for weekly practices. She believes eventually holding roller derby competitions could be a moneymaker for the fairgrounds as well. As a spectator sport, derby is – for obvious reasons – popular with men, while families enjoy it too.

“It’s something different,” Scarley said. “It shows young girls that there are full-contact sports out there for women.”

As practice begins to draw to a close, Rhoda Hell, a jammer from Wisconsin, leads the women in several more drills. In one, the women skate in a line and the last woman attempts to weave around them while the skaters reach behind and whip her forward. In another, called “jammer hell,” they sprint for two minutes, with 30-second intervals of rest, to mimic the rhythm of real bouts.

By the end, the women are exhausted but upbeat, comparing “skate reek” and planning to head to a nearby Mexican restaurant for drinks and a league meeting.

Lisa Yaeck of Kalispell is new to roller derby, but has barely missed a practice and feels confident the women gathered at this early stage are laying the foundation for a long future of Flathead roller derby.

“I see it becoming huge,” Yaeck said. “I think it’s a good group and we’re going to have a lot of fun.”

She’s hooked, and is already contemplating her skate name: Pinky Bruiser.

Flathead Roller Derby currently practices 6:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesdays at the Boys and Girls Club in Evergreen. For more info, contact [email protected].