Davy Rothbart, author of Found
"... surprisingly inspirational story of four teams... who started a league of their own and survived to tell the tales." Mike Shea, Texas Monthly
The 1950s phenomenon of Roller Derby is back in full force, and it's definitely not your grandma's game anymore. With leagues in more than one hundred cities across the country, a national tournament, and major sponsors, the new wave of the sport has gone mainstream. No one is better qualified to tell the story of Flat Track Derby's astronomic rise than Melissa… See more details below
The 1950s phenomenon of Roller Derby is back in full force, and it's definitely not your grandma's game anymore. With leagues in more than one hundred cities across the country, a national tournament, and major sponsors, the new wave of the sport has gone mainstream. No one is better qualified to tell the story of Flat Track Derby's astronomic rise than Melissa "Melicious" Joulwan. As a founding member of the Texas Rollergirls -- the league that launched the sport and the reigning national champions -- she has helped redefine what it means to be stylish, sporty, and sexy.
With her mouthy, tough-as-nails style, Melicious recounts her best tales from the track: her fierce rivalries with The Wrench and Ivanna S. Pankin, the scene at the annual national tournament, the thrill of a bout, and the infractions that so often bring her to the penalty box. From the minute she first laced up her skates and wrapped herself in her alter ego, Roller Derby has given her a confidence boost, and she shares the positive impact the sport has also had on girls -- young and not-so-young -- who tack posters of her on their bedroom walls and lace up their own skates.
Complete with photos and suggestions on how to develop a Rollergirl name and persona, this unprecedented tell-all comes from the woman who's watched the sport evolve from an underground Friday-night event to a bona fide national phenomenon.
"... surprisingly inspirational story of four teams... who started a league of their own and survived to tell the tales." Mike Shea, Texas Monthly
Jo's Coffee on Congress Avenue in south Austin is the kind of place where you instantly feel comfortable, even if you're a new transplant to Texas, like I was in 2001. The latte drinkers are good-looking in their own I-know-who-I-am way. The staff is bright and friendly and prone to cracking wise. The soundtrack is retro-hipster: the Cure, Elvis Costello, Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra.
I'd moved to town with the love of my life, Dave, nine months before, and we were still living in an anonymous, dreamlike state. We could never quite remember which freeway exit led to the Target, but somehow we always found it. Occasionally, we'd run across a celebrity at Jo's -- ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons or my 1986 heartthrob, singer-songwriter Charlie Sexton. We had no family in Texas, and our "friends" were a variety of waiters, waitresses, bartenders, and other drinkers, diners, and musicians that we ran into again and again in our attempts to get out of the house and "meet some people."
I was in love with Austin -- the live music, the comfort food, the feeling that I was in one of those music videos from the eighties where tromping down a dusty road in vintage cowboy boots seemed like the best idea ever. But I was also growing weary of knowing only the people who served things to me and required a tip. Although Austin was my first choice for a new home, I was blue.
Dave and I had moved to Austin so we could have a do-over on our lives. We'd both been following what I think of as the "grown-up path." We had director-level jobs at a corporate Web development agency -- and the fat salaries that went along with the positions. It was what I'd always thought I wanted: the title "creative director" on my business cards and an assistant who brought me salads during lunch meetings because my schedule was so hectic I couldn't possibly take a break. It was the go-go life that I had dreamed of in college. And I hated it.
There were minor annoyances, like pitch meetings with straightlaced white guys (and their tight little ponytails and striped ties). Or the fact that the executives had gotten rich from our IPO while the rest of us were left with big tax bills for the "privilege" of our stock options. Or the fact that the phrase "maximize billable hours" was meant to be my mantra.
The last straw came during a vacation. I was visiting my family in Pennsylvania, baking cookies with my four-year-old niece Pepper. We were up to our elbows in chocolate-chip cookie dough when the phone rang. It was my boss; she needed to discuss a second round of layoffs with me: "I know you're on vacation, but I thought you'd want to be involved in the decision making, since it affects one-third of your staff."
I put my hand over the mouthpiece of the phone and told Pepper to leave the kitchen. As I watched her toddle away, I realized I had just become the kind of person who sends her cookie-making niece out of the room to take a call about layoffs during a vacation.
So I quit.
Not too long after I submitted my resignation letter, I went to Temple Tattoo -- to Mr. Scott Silvia, the best old-school tattoo artist in the land -- and I had my left forearm permanently inked as a reminder to never "take a meeting" again. My tattoo is a black panther surrounded by yellow, pink, and red roses. She wears a crown, and she's ferocious and beautiful and sleek and powerful -- all the things I wanted to be in my postcorporate life.
Austin seemed like a great place for Dave and me to reinvent ourselves. I once read a passage in a tour book that theorized that the reason Austin has such great nightlife is because during the day, it's too damn hot to move around. In San Francisco, even summers are gray and chilly most of the time -- black turtlenecks and big black boots were my standard uniform before we relocated. But I was now in the land of flip-flops, tank tops, shorts, and the mad dash from one air-conditioned building to another.
The draw of a caffeine buzz trumps the climate at Jo's. Dave and I were parked on stools at the counter -- sweating -- watching the traffic slide by and idly talking about what to do with our day.
The back wall of Jo's is the DIY equivalent of a town crier: posters, handbills, flyers, postcards, and hand-drawn notes are tacked, stapled, and taped floor-to-ceiling. Notices about rock shows, yard sales, lost puppies, a sofa for sale, belly dancing classes, political speeches, houses for rent, and volunteer gigs overlapped, creating a paper patchwork quilt, a snapshot of the crazy-good stuff Austin has to offer. I regularly used Jo's wall as a to-do list: "Tuesday night, we should go to the Alamo Drafthouse...Jesse Dayton's playing at the Continental Club on Friday!"
In the upper-right-hand corner of the wall on that particular Sunday was a poster for "All-Girl's Roller Derby." The punk-rock girl in the illustration wore old-fashioned roller skates, knee pads over fishnet stockings, and a helmet. There was a skull and crossbones on her ripped tank top, a "fuck you" expression on her face. "With live music from the Flametrick Subs. Playland Skate Center. Tickets $5."
Roller skating and punk-rock chicks...irresistible! We decided to check it out, and I started to obsess about what to wear.
When Dave and I pulled into the parking lot of Playland Skate Center to watch our first-ever Roller Derby bout, the scene was already jumping off. Cars were parked bumper-to-bumper on the residential streets around the rink, filling every legal spot between the perfectly landscaped driveways. People streamed toward the building in packs, like the Jets and the Sharks headed to a showdown.
The boys wore the standard punk-a-billy uniform: cuffed jeans or Dickies work pants with pristine wife beaters, black boots, chains on their wallets, and chips on their shoulders. Tattoos snaked up their arms and the sides of their necks; their hair glistened in the sun, pomade melting to an extra-shiny lacquer in the Texas heat. And the ladies! Short skirts or fit-like-skin capri pants, fishnet stockings, ruby red lips, and jet black eyeliner that flicked up -- just so -- at the outer corners of their eyes. They vamped and flirted and giggled and chatted as they made their way across the shimmering asphalt to the front door, vintage handbags dangling off their wrists.
Playland is in north Austin, a neighborhood so different from mine in south Austin's 78704, it could be another city entirely. We southies decorate our yards with shrines to the Virgin of Guadalupe and pink flamingos; every corner has a fly-by-night taco stand. Up north, it's a kitsch-free zone of SUV dealers and sprawling ranch-style houses with arrow-straight rows of daffodils. Dropped right in the middle of the suburban sprawl, like Oz landing in Dorothy's backyard, is Playland.
The skating floor is huge: 27,500 square feet, or about half a football field. The acrylic surface is a putrid shade of lavender, scraped and dented in some spots to reveal a pale yellow underfloor. Suspended over the rink are multicolored lights and a six-foot roller skate covered in disco-ball mirrors. Just inside the entry door, racks display rows of rental skates: dun-colored with orange wheels and dark brown laces.
The hipster crowd sat on the floor, or stood in clusters around the track and on the carpet-covered benches for a better view. Electric fans the size of airplane jet exhausts fought a valiant crusade against the heat being generated by the thousand bodies packed into the rink. A thick layer of cigarette smoke hovered in the air, and music thudded in the cavernous space. In the center of the floor, an oval track was outlined in white Christmas lights. On that track, the reason we were all there. The main event. The most amazing thing we'd ever seen: Rollergirls.
At the time, beyond recognizing that they were skating very fast, it was impossible to make sense of what they were doing. But I didn't care. They seemed taller than regular girls. Certainly tougher. And so much sexier. More fit than the honey-blond-and-manicured girls on the elliptical trainer at the gym. I was riveted.
The only Roller Derby I'd seen prior to that night at Playland was on a Charlie's Angels episode. The great mystery of the show was not so much the insurance scam the Angels investigated, but how Farrah Fawcett fit her helmet over her gigantic blond waves. But these women blew Farrah away! They were a blur skating around that oval track. They bashed into each other. They tripped themselves, then jumped up to race back into the fray. They slid on their knees. They crashed together, tumbling to the floor in a tangle of arms and legs and flailing skates. They skidded and glided and leapt and twisted. They were graceful and awkward and altogether amazing.
"I had a horrible case of the Sunday blues, just moping around the house. After watching me all day, my beau Blake said he was taking me out...to the Roller Derby. 'Nothing like girls in short skirts and torn fishnets knocking the shit out of each other to make you feel better,' he said. I thought to myself, Yeah...that'll make you feel better. But I went. I was mesmerized. I turned to Blake and said, 'I must do this.' And he asked, 'Do you skate?' I answered, 'I do now!'"
-- Apocalippz, Hell Marys/Texas Rollergirls
The group of girls putting on the show was known as Bad Girl Good Woman Productions, and the bout that I saw that night in August 2002 was their first time performing for the public. They'd been at it for a year or so, learning to skate and holding fund-raisers to get their four teams up and rolling.
The Rhinestone Cowgirls wore red Western shirts -- with spangles, fringes, rhinestones, and rivets -- and Daisy Duke shorts or up-to-there miniskirts. With fishnets on their legs and their boobies strapped into bustiers and push-up bras, they were what Lori Petty would have been if Tank Girl had been set in a turn-of-the-century Western. That night, they played the Putas del Fuego. Literally translated, their name means "whores of fire," and they dressed the part in black skirts painted with red and gold glitter flames. Even to my untrained eye, the Putas were definitely the Bad girls among the naughty girls. There was something particularly menacing and feral about the way they taunted the other players and the audience.
The team called the Holy Rollers got the biggest reaction from the crowd. They were a male fantasy come to life on wheels: parochial school girls in plaid miniskirts that would never have passed muster at my parents' Catholic school. But the Holy Rollers didn't look shameful. They were brazen in skimpy tank tops, knee socks, the de rigueur skirts, and mock-pious cross pendants and rosary beads. They might have been my favorite team, were it not for the Hellcats and their logo: a black panther wreathed in roses, just like my tattoo.
AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" reverberated off the walls and the house lights dimmed. Red, yellow, blue, and white lights flashed over the track and, one by one, the Holy Rollers skated onto the rink as the announcer called their names. Strawberry. Helen Fury. Holli Graffic. Mean Streak. Miss Conduct. The crowd whooped and stomped and generally lost its mind in a frenzy of excitement.
The faux Catholic school girls looked unbeatable. They reminded me of some of the girls who went to my high school -- the girls with feathered hair and parents who worked nights. They smoked at the bus stop, talked during assembly, organized pencil drops in class, and regularly threatened to beat me up in the locker room. The Holy Rollers appeared to be that kind of tough crowd. But then the Hellcats took the floor, led by Pris.
Pris is probably only a little taller than average height, but she looked like a pink-and-black-clad amazon. Her dark hair was cut in a chin-length bob, tucked behind her ears under her black helmet. Her face was striped with war paint -- a thick black horizontal band across her eyes -- and she skated like a banshee. She was the Hellcats' primary jammer, which I learned later meant that she was a sprinter and the player on the team responsible for scoring points.
But watching the first time, I didn't know that. All I knew was that she looked otherworldly. Like a superhero. She seemed to will herself through the pack of girls, her legs bent at steep angles. She deflected body checks and went down on one knee, then popped back up before anyone could register that she was down. She balanced on one skate around the corners, turned and skated backward to taunt the other team, pumped up the audience by pointing and waving at them, and cheered for herself like she, too, was overcome by her performance.
At halftime, the score was so close, it was still anybody's game: Holy Rollers 18 to the Hellcats 17, but the audience didn't seem to give a damn about the score. It was about the girls.
Across the rink, the Flametrick Subs set had started. They're a psychobilly band, which means they amp up the raw ingredients of hillbilly music -- lyrics about drinkin' and gamblin' and women, sung with a twang -- with an extra dose of rock 'n' roll danger. In front of the band, a combination dance floor-mosh pit was taking shape, with the fancy rockabilly girls in high heels swinging around the circle with their partners. But because it's Austin, there were also gray-haired hippies in tie-dyed shirts doing the happy-twirly dance, and a cloud of little girls, maybe five or six years old, skipping around everyone else's feet.
At the other end of the rink, the beer line snaked across the floor, intersecting the scenesters waiting for nachos, and the chattering, smoking queue outside the ladies' room. Everywhere I looked, I saw beaming faces. Dour, "I'm too cool to let you know I'm having a good time" expressions were nowhere to be found. Roller Derby was pure, unadulterated fun -- and no one was afraid to show it.
During halftime I picked up a program that helped me understand what the devil was happening on the rink. Despite the on-track skirmishes and girls flying -- ass-over-teacups -- into the crowd, the game of Flat Track Derby is a real sport, with rules and penalties for breaking them. When it's played well, it brings together strategy, skill, teamwork, determination, and psychological warfare.
There are three positions: jammer (aka, the speed), blocker (aka, the brawn), and pivot (aka, the brain).
Each team gets one jammer on the track at a time. She starts at the back of the pack and wears a star on her helmet. Her mission is to haul ass and get through the pack -- by being sneaky, fast, brazen, daring, and slippery.
Then there are the blockers -- each team gets three on the track at a time. They play defense and offense, bullying the other team's blockers, making holes for their jammers to skate through, and trying to stop the other team's jammer by almost any means necessary.
The pivots -- one from each team -- wear a stripe on their helmets and skate at the front of the pack. They control the pack's speed and act as the last line of defense in demolishing the other team's jammer.
The basics of a Flat Track Derby game are fairly simple: during a period of play called a "jam," one jammer from each team sprints through the pack of eight skaters, while the opposing players try to stop her. The pack starts with pivots in front, blockers in the middle, and jammers at the back. When the pack is in formation, the ref blows the whistle and all the skaters except the jammers start rolling. Then the ref blows two short whistle-blasts to signal the jammers to take off. The first jammer to fight her way through the pack becomes lead jammer.
The first time through the pack, if the jammers go out of bounds, there is no lead jammer and the jam will continue for the full two minutes. The jammer doesn't earn points if one or both of her skates is out of bounds while she's passing other skaters.
For the next two minutes -- or until the lead jammer calls off the jam -- mayhem ensues. Jammers run on their toe stoppers, sprint, duck, bob, and weave to pass the opposing team and earn points. The blockers and pivots do everything they can to put the brakes (and breaks) on her. When tempers flare, the game can take on the blood lust of combat. Like ice hockey, there are times when a fight is a smart strategic move, a weapon in a skater's handbag of tricks to prevent the other team from scoring.
The "game" itself consists of two skating periods. Each period is thirty minutes of adrenaline-fueled fury, and there's a halftime (beer-time, music-time, primp-time) between periods. At our Texas Rollergirls' home games, we usually have doubleheaders.
At all times, the pivots are required to stay within twenty feet of the front of the pack -- and the blockers must stay within twenty feet of the back of the pack. That means there's no chasing down the jammer until you finally catch her, and no hanging out behind the pack to clobber the jammer when she's defenseless.
Like the mythical natural-looking tan-in-a-can, tie games in Roller Derby do not exist. If the score is tied at the end of the second period, the game will roll into the high drama of Sudden Death -- a battle for a final two-minute jam. The team with the most points at the end of the overtime jam is the bout winner.
If Rollergirls are the queens of the rink, the referees are the gods. In lots of leagues, the refs are also league coaches -- friends of the family, husbands, fans -- so the refs have to work extra hard to be impartial. And their word is law; zebra shirts have the final say in all decisions. Woe to the Rollergirl who dares mess with a ref, even if it is her boyfriend: touching, pushing, harassing, and trying to sweet talk a ref in any way may be grounds for getting booted right out of the game.
Just as I was getting a grasp of the mechanics of the sport, the Rhinestone Cowgirls and Putas del Fuego skated out to AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" for the second half of the bout. The halftime break hadn't improved their behavior. Unlike traditional sports where breaking the rules means time in the penalty box, the penalties at that first Roller Derby bout were strictly for laughs. Girls were sentenced to spinning a hula hoop for two minutes or to a trip down "Spank Alley," a row of eager audience members armed with paddles to swat the derrière of the offending skater as she rolled past.
Trying to recall the specifics of those first games is like trying too hard to grab the shreds of a dream before they dissipate in the morning light. In my memory, it's a blur of fishnets, cleavage, catfights, warrior girls, chain-smoking tough guys, crushed beer cans, piercing whistle blows, and a continuously rocking soundtrack. Our conversations during the game went something like this:
"Did you see that?"
"Holy shit! Oh my God!"
"Ow! Holy crap!"
"Get her! Kill her! Stop her! Get her...yeah! Fuck, yeah! Holy shit!"
I was entranced, and entertaining a life-changing thought: I wanted to be a Rollergirl. With each lap the girls skated around the track, I became more convinced that I must become a Rollergirl. The move to Austin, my panther tattoo...they were just the first steps to what was beginning to look like my destiny: Roller Derby.
Sometime during the second half we ran into a musician friend, Clay. He's "a guy who knows a guy." You need some muscle to back you up, or a good mechanic, or a locksmith, or the best way to smoke a rack of baby-back ribs, Clay may not be your man -- but he knows who is. So I shouldn't have been surprised when, right in the middle of me gushing about Pris and how I wanted to be a Rollergirl, he said he knew her.
"You wanna meet her? Come on, I'll introduce you," he said.
"Right now?" I said in the voice that I usually squeak out when faced with meeting one of my heroes. (I made the same ridiculous sound when I met John Taylor from Duran Duran and Brian Setzer from Stray Cats.)
Clay took my hand and pulled me through the crowd to where Pris stood among the mortals. She was even more incredible up close: close to six feet tall in her skates, sweaty, and muscular. She looked like a hired assassin when she skated, but off the track, her smile was friendly and so wide, it threatened to slice her face in half, just below the intimidating black stripe painted across her eyes.
Clay introduced me to Pris, and I had an out-of-body, babbling experience. Clay acted as translator, explaining that I wanted to try out to be a skater. Then something incredible happened. Pris wrote her home phone number with a Sharpie on the corner of my program, looked down at me, and said, "Cool! We need girls who can skate. We have practice tomorrow night. Call me."
The Hellcats ultimately beat the Holy Rollers, 39 to 31, but I was distracted by the thought that I might be going to a Roller Derby practice the next day. I was thisclose to becoming the new me, a tougher-than-waterproof-black-mascara roller babe.
Dave and I rode the tide of exhilarated fans that swarmed out into the parking lot. The greasers revved their engines, trying to burn off the extra testosterone that had been riled up during the games, and the girls -- in twos and threes -- alternately mused aloud about maybe trying out for Roller Derby themselves, or talked smack about what we'd just seen.
I was spinning, alternating between two strongly held convictions: Of course I would call Pris the next day and go to practice.
There was absolutely no way that I would call Pris the next day and go to practice.
About halfway home, I turned to Dave: "Aw, shit. I don't have roller skates."
Copyright © 2007 by Melissa Joulwan
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