Roller derby has arrived.
Her arm limp in a sling, Jenny Luby, aka Rita Slayworth, snaps her attention back and forth between her 10-year-old daughter and the action on the floor in front of her.
It's Tuesday night at Skate City, and members of Colorado Springs' roller derby league, the Pikes Peak Derby Dames, are rehearsing various ways to fall.
After a few rounds, the drill runner switches up the exercise.
"OK, now, instead of dodging, lock arms with your partner, and swing each other around to the ground. And try and do it in a constructive, nice way," she advises.
Most skaters charge forward, tumble, then get up quickly for another go. A few hesitate, and their takedowns, though slower, are awkward and still slightly painful.
Luby, who works in insurance and roller-skated in this rink growing up, broke her arm during practice about a month ago.
"I was trying to push through a wall of girls when one fell in front of me," she explains. "I went into the air, then landed on my shoulder. I continued doing the drills with my arm hanging because I didn't want to seem weak.
"Now I play advocate to the injured," she says, just as another Dame rolls up, flashing a swollen and darkly bruised thumb.
Amanda Sharpless, aka Swiss Missile, isn't doing drills because she left her equipment at home. A helmet, elbow and knee pads, and wrist and teeth guards are mandatory. While most Dames are dressed gym-casual, the coiffed Sharpless is dolled up in a pretty knee-length skirt and buttoned short-sleeved shirt.
"I've got a party to go to," she announces.
Colorado Springs, meet your Derby Dames.
Back on track
Leo Seltzer, a Chicago businessman, is credited with founding roller derby in 1935. With his Transcontinental Roller Derby league, derby became one of the first televised sports, broadcast widely across the networks from the late 1940s to the early '50s. Seltzer passed the league down to his son, who flipped the switch on it in 1973. Variations of the sport sprouted over the years, but none blossomed. Until recently.
The Pikes Peak Derby Dames are part of a feminist subculture that's been rolling across the U.S. since its rise in Austin, Texas, in 2001. From the Gotham Girls Roller Derby in New York City to L.A.'s Derby Dolls, and leagues in nearly 30 cities in between, all-girl, mostly flat-track roller derby teams are reviving the historically blue-collar spectacle, one nom de guerre at a time.
Last year, Courtney Mansfield, aka Slugs 'n Kisses, read a feature in Tattoo magazine about the Texas Rollergirls that inspired her to start a league in the Springs.
"It really was that simple," she says. "I read the article; it kicked ass, and I decided right then and there that I had to be a rollergirl."
Mansfield consulted with Denver's Rocky Mountain Rollergirls, solicited donated rink time from Skate City, and let the word loose, through friends and fliers, that she was looking for teammates. The league became official with the Dames' first practice in June. The women recently held a recruitment party at Benny's bar, currently the Dames' dive of choice, and they're entreating sponsors.
Only females 18 and older can be Derby Dames. The previously mentioned equipment and special derby insurance, at $35 per year, are required. A non-refundable $25 also is obligatory to join. Most of the Dames buy their own skates (quads only; no in-lines allowed) but Skate City offers free rentals during practices, which take place for at least one hour Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings.
Of the cities that boast roller derby leagues, Colorado Springs is among the smallest.
"There are always those people that try to bring original things to this town, but sadly, nothing usually lasts, so I didn't think roller derby would take," Mansfield says. "But we have 28 official girls right now, which is great for only being around four months. We have more girls than Denver had in this time span."
Both the Dames and the Rollergirls are members of a currently unnamed national organization that will attempt to organize bouts, the term for derby competitions, between the nation's flat-track leagues.
Before the Dames can bout, though, they must split into teams, a potentially contentious process.
"We are shooting for summer for our first bout, but nothing is set in stone," Mansfield cautions. "We want to be prepared and ready before we showcase our badass selves ... We all can't wait though, I can tell you that."
In the meantime, the Dames play supportive spectators to their "sisters" up north.
Very, very good luck
Inside the Bladium Sports Club in Denver's freshly redeveloped Stapleton subdivision, Colorado's premier roller derby teams, The Sugar Kill Gang and the Red Ridin' Hoods, are about to begin their second bout since the Rocky Mountain Rollergirls became a league two years ago.
The rather well-behaved fans sit and kneel around a portion of the track. Nothing is in place to guard against a player making contact with the front lines of the audience, a common occurrence. Cocktail waitresses weave through crowds of post-punk hipsters, taking beer orders.
An island in the center stages the teams' benches, two of the night's four refs, and the bleached and buxom master of ceremonies, Betsy Blackheart. Across from them along one of the track's edges sit scorekeepers Zoom Zoom Zetta and Boo Boo Radley, two more refs, a stats keeper and DJ SixTwentySix, spinning a mix of popular, crowd-pleasing tunes.
Blackheart provides a quick rap on how the game is played, the rules and some contemporary lore.
"If a derby girl crashes into you and you spill your beer, it's considered very, very good luck," she says to the sea of raised plastic cups, cans and bottles.
Blackheart introduces the players, known exclusively by their alter egos -- Dee Monica, Kissa Death, Penny Payne and Ivona Killeau among the most threatening. Their "grrrly" fashions -- short, short skirts, fishnets, piercings, tats, Houndstooth knee-highs, neon, candy-colored hair -- win hoots and whistles. Cheering them on from the front row are a dozen or more Dames, clad in their black logo-emblazoned T-shirts.
Although each league designs its own rules and regulations, the bouts essentially are played the same. Five skaters from each team are allowed on the track at once: three blockers, a jammer and a pivot. Points can be scored only during a "jam," signaled to a start by a whistle from the ref.
Pivots, topped with striped helmets, stay at the front of the pack to set the pace. Blockers keep to the center, with the star-helmeted jammers bringing up the rear. The whistle blows, and the jammers make quick attempts to break through, then lap, the opposing pack, whose push-and-shove defense also can include the occasional spank, swat or trip, among other sometimes rule-breaking ploys. Once a jammer laps, her team makes a point for every opponent passed thereafter.
As Rikki Rockett, the Sugar Kill Gang's star jammer, whizzes by, would-be jammers from the Dames reverently keep their eyes on her. Another SKG skater rounds the bend and closes in on a Red Ridin' Hood. She reaches for the Hood's bum, grabs the red lace trim of the black boy-shorts she wears under her skirt, and partially rips it away. The fans holler.
"I love this," Angelica Bencomo, aka Bebe Barrio, shouts out.
The Sugar Kill Gang claims the bout, 130 to 102. No skaters have been seriously injured.
An SKG and a Hood are spotted taking one final lap, hand in hand.
Showmanship and sisterhood
"I may slug you on the rink, then kiss you after the bout," says Mansfield, explaining why she chose her derby moniker, Slugs 'n Kisses. "It's tough for my derby mean streak, and sweet for my little girl antics."
Derby's combination of rough imagery and female empowerment has invited admiration as well as misconception since the Dames rolled out in June. People who remember '70s-style derby -- or have seen it enacted in movies like Kansas City Bomber, starring Raquel Welch as K.C. Carr -- tend to think of it as WWF-style wrestling on wheels.
"We can speak in more than monosyllables," says Marcea Flowers, aka Hanky Spanky. "There is showmanship, and that's the only parallel."
Another comparative current that flows into conversations about derby likens it to burlesque. The association isn't so dubious. SuicideGirls-style performers indulge bout audiences during halftime in leagues nationwide. In Denver, some Rollergirls moonlight as burlesque entertainers and perform at bout after-parties.
That's not the case in Colorado Springs.
"We're not scantily clad," Flowers says. "We're not looking like Dita von Teese or showing off all of our assets. But I can see how people come to that comparison. The culture of sisterhood is a big part of both."
Indeed, the notion of female solidarity figures prominently into modern-day derby. For some of the women, it's an almost radical experience.
"I haven't had a whole lot of situations where I've gotten along with a lot of women. It's been interesting, learning how girls operate," Luby admits. "I was always friends with the guys."
For Terri Boshert, aka Skullz, a self-described "military brat, gone military, gone civilian," who served in the Air Force before she started hawking motorcycles for a living, this kind of female unity is novel.
"I've never hung out with this many girls without some kind of scandal," she says.
"Some people think we're doing this because we like to hurt each other, or they think it's degrading," Flowers notes. "But we govern ourselves. We love each other like family. I've never experienced camaraderie like this before. The last thing I want to do is hurt them. I have, and I will, but ... "
One thing in common
The Pikes Peak Derby Dames share an obvious love for derby as well as feminist sensibilities. Otherwise, they're a pretty diverse group of women with disparate skills. Some have skated since they were kids, but a few came in with no experience.
Flowers, who owns Holey Rollers tattoo and piercing parlor, grew up riding both skate- and snowboards, but didn't consider herself athletic.
"My family and friends said, 'Are you crazy? You're the clumsiest girl in the world.' But they're all really supportive, even my worried parents."
Derby, though, has changed her perspective.
"I never thought I could call myself an athlete. A different part of me takes over. I become an invincible cartoon character."
Flowers, who regards her 8-year-old son as her "No. 1 cheerleader," also is surprised by the amount of weight she has lost since June.
"I have a lot more self-confidence now and an incredible body image," she says. "I never thought I'd be playing sports in front of people at this time in my life. Wow, it makes me feel sexy."
Luby's experienced similar self-awareness.
"When I first came to practice, I didn't think I could do it," she says. "But halfway into it, I got out there and loved it. This has been really good for me personally, too. I'm generally a shy person. Other than this, I have a pretty quiet life."
An archetypical derby girl, it seems, is purely fictional. Mansfield says the girls need share only one simple commonality.
"To be a Derby Dame, you have to be motivated and committed to the sport. You don't have to be a great skater. You must, however, believe that derby is the greatest sport ever invented -- because it is."
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