Many friends cringe when I mention my secret shame of roller derby infatuation. The sport’s close association with ’70s wrestling leaves them believing it’s nothing more than a stage show that’s at best undignified and at worst trashy. The attraction for them is elusive.
Roller derby is as much entertainment as sport, but the same could be said of the NBA or NASCAR. Derby athletes are trained to take a hit and fall with grace, just like boxers and hockey players, but they do it wearing fishnet stockings and short skirts, and that’s the rub.
Whether you love it or hate it, whether you believe penalties that include public spankings make it misogynistic or that the permission for women to behave aggressively makes it feminist, roller derby is growing in popularity across the country and in Arkansas. Those involved say they dream of the day the sport will be on par with boys’ football in Arkansas.
While that’s not likely to happen any time soon, derby has touched a nerve in women who were tired of the wimpy sports available to them. They’ve been empowered by eight wheels and an alter ego. Some are skating away from bad marriages and others are just looking for something in their lives that doesn’t feel ordinary, but all have found an identity they say exists nowhere else.
“Derby makes you feel young,” says Christi Coffey, aka Good Golly Miss Molly, captain of the “Red” team of the River Valley Roller Girls League in Fort Smith. When not on the track, the 32-year-old mother of four homeschools her children and describes herself as “almost 6 feet tall with a good chunk of weight on me.”
Originally a sport for both sexes, the latest incarnation of roller derby is dominated by women. A game, or bout, is played between two teams for three 20-minute periods on a flat circular track in a skating rink. Jammers score points by lapping the pack of skaters during the two-minute jams; one point is scored for every player on the opposite team that she passes after one lap through. Blockers help their jammer get through the pack; pivots skate in front and control pack speed.
“The sport is essentially going around in circles, so there has to be a crowd-pleasing aspect with trying to promote it,” Michelle Obana of the NWA Rollergirls in Fayetteville. That’s where the salty names and sexy fishnet stockings, costumes and skirts come in. Obana defends Arkansas’s standards as more family-friendly than those of some leagues in other states (“cheerleaders wear less than we do”), but there is no getting around it: Sexy performances are part of the sport.
“I think if you were a pastor’s wife, it would probably be a little harder to get away with,” Obana said.
Whatever it is the Rollergirls are doing, they’re doing right. A January bout in the generally conservative town of Springdale drew more than 1,000 people, Obana said, and had to be moved from the Rollergirls’ practice rink, Razorback Roller Rink in Rogers, to the All Star Sports Arena to accommodate the crowd.
Each of the three Arkansas leagues have decided for themselves how much raunch they’re willing to accept. The Central Arkansas League doesn’t use a “spank alley” penalty. (The penalty requires a skater to skate through a line of men who spank her as she goes by.)
When River Valley skaters are charged with a penalty, they spin the wheel of punishment where spank alley could come up. But River Valley rules don’t allow names that would offend the community. Other leagues in the state don’t mind what you call yourself.
Obana says roller derby is the “rock star of sports. There’s a culture that follows roller derby. It’s almost like skateboarding. First there was the sport, and then there were clothes and hair cuts.” She cited MAC Cosmetics’ lip color called “Roller Derby” as the first of many products to come. But don’t let the company’s frosted soft peach description of the lipstick fool you into believing there is anything soft about this sport.
Bumped, bruised and occasionally broken, these women fill their practice breaks with tips on which muscle creams are most effective and discussions about whether an ankle is too sprained to skate on.
“Remember, it’s not if you get hurt, it’s when you get hurt,” declared Kristi Belknap, captain of the Rockin’ Renegades of the Central Arkansas League. Her blonde hair, pale skin and soft voice contradict her track name, Southern Hostility. Coffey warns new recruits when they come to practice at Wheels in Motion in Van Buren that it takes “a lot of time, money and commitment to skate.”
“Part of that commitment is to the pain. Thankfully, no one’s lost fingers or eyeballs, but that’s happened in other places. Fortunately, bones heal.”
About the time and money: The women must pay dues and buy their own equipment. Including skates, knee and elbow pads, helmets, mouth guards, uniforms and fishnet stockings, the initial start up costs can be about $500. In an effort to give and get their best in the world of bumps and bruises, all of the Arkansas leagues practice two or three times a week for two hours. The practices are designed both for endurance and for skill development.
“I couldn’t get them to hit each other there for awhile,” says Rick Langston, who played ice hockey before Jacksonville’s Skateworld owners asked him to coach the Central Arkansas League.
He says the strong relationships that the women have developed make them less aggressive with each other at times. “But we got a couple of new girls who aren’t afraid of that and the first practice with them we had some girls on the floor. They’ll learn.”
During practice, he acts as part big brother, part ringmaster and part disciplinarian as he chatters from the middle of rink at the skaters over the Top 40 radio music and air conditioner rattling. “I told them, I’ll make you better skaters than any other team. I’ll teach you how to fall, how to take a hit and how to outrun girls who want to hit you. You’ll be the best-conditioned team out there, and the rest will take care of itself.”
The National Women’s Flat Track Derby Association was formed in 2004. Since that time, 124 teams in 35 member leagues have sprouted up around the country. Arkansas’s three women’s roller derby leagues formed within the past 12 months. The NWA Rollergirls’ teams, the Hardwood Harlots and Twisted Sisters, kick off their second season in April. The River Valley Roller Girls’ teams — the Red and the Black for now — had their first live scrimmage in February and are finalizing the schedule for their inaugural season. The Rockin’ Renegades team of the Central Arkansas Roller Derby League is making plans for its first live scrimmage at the end of the summer. Each league says they hope to attract enough girls for three to four teams per league, which would reduce the amount of travel necessary to compete.
Because of the travel, tough practice schedules and overall time commitment, there are quite a few washouts in roller derby. “Some girls come in thinking it’s going to be so kick ass, and then they realize it’s hard. It’s a sport, and you have to train. Or they get pregnant,” said Amber Stevens, the almost waifish mother of two who uses Tara Nippleoff as her Derby moniker for the Rockin’ Renegades.
The ones who stay profess to love the sport, but for different reasons. Most of the women interviewed say they felt like something was missing before they joined the roller derby, and the sport fills that need.
Melissa Barnett — or B. Malicious — of the Rockin’ Renegades says she doesn’t want to be what people think of as a typical mom. “You go to work, take care of the kids, and join the Junior League. I want to prove them wrong … I’m not a stiletto-wearing, hors d’oeuvres eating, tea-sipping, know-the-right-fork kind of girl.”
They may not be making Emily Post proud, but most say they have a sense of pride about their team and their personal improvement as athletes. Coffey, who’s passed up four job promotions because it would interfere with practice schedules or bouts, said, “You either go in with your whole heart, or you go home.” When Obana interviewed for her current job as a graphic artist, she told them about her derby schedule to be sure that there would be no conflict.
Most of the skaters have jobs, children and lives they must balance with their derby obsession. I met women in the medical and insurance fields, even some accountants. There are also stay-at-home moms who get out of the home to skate. They don’t feel a need to explain why they like roller derby and the alter egos they take on. They don’t think it’s odd to wear penny loafers to work and roller skates at night.
Still, there is unmistakable light in their eyes when they talk about the shock factor of derby.
“I never played sports growing up,” said Obana. “I don’t know what it’s like to be on a basketball team, but I can’t imagine it’s like this.”
The women of Arkansas roller derby see their futures slightly differently. Some want roller derby to be part of the X Games. Some want their teams to go to the association championship. Some just want more girls to participate so there will be more teams for intrastate bouts. But all feel like they are just on the cusp of something big.
“One of these days, I want to turn on the news and hear that Arkansas beat whoever, followed by the derby bout scores,” says Obana with an almost defiant laugh. “You never know, it could happen.”