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Love Hurts

Roller derby at the Rainbow Rink in North Tonawanda. (photo by Jim Bush)

The Queen City Roller Girls do it for love of the game

Roller derby is getting hotter every season, and it’s not because the skirts are getting shorter. With the Queen City Roller Girls’ admission last year to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, or WFTDA, what started as a fledgling, grassroots idea has grown over just four years into a 120-member, DIY juggernaut. The Queen City Roller Girls have become a major regional force in derby, and now other teams are riding their coattails—or, rather, holding onto the strings of their frayed stockings—into international competition.

The local league has been following the WFTDA’s marketing lead and gradually shifting away from the initially kitschy roots of the sport and more toward its serious athleticism. There’s controversy within member leagues, but for example, this year they got rid of themed bouts. They don’t have titles anymore, like last year’s Valentine’s Day Massacre; they’re just games. Gone too are the cutesy posed theme photos on their posters; taking their place are action shots.

It’s not that the skaters don’t go in for kitsch anymore, but rather that the sport as a whole is more focused on the game and less on the atmosphere. Some leagues and some skaters have even ditched their pseudonyms entirely, and others downplay them, although the overwhelming majority still use and love them. This season the Queen City Roller Girls are trying to play higher-ranked opponents to gain a reputation in the international standings (WFTDA is international, and now has member leagues in Canada, the UK, and Europe, and apprentice leagues in Australia and New Zealand.) They’re also trying to play bouts against WFTDA apprentice leagues in the area, such as Rochester, who needs sponsorship in order to be accepted.

So they’ve got aspirations, but are also bringing others up with them. That’s how derby works.

When QCRG was founded in 2006, it consisted of three teams and approximately 30 players. A bout back then was well attended, but not the standing-room-only scene that was last Saturday’s match, a very close game between the Nickel City Knockouts and Devil Dollies. (The Knockouts prevailed, eventually.) And the mood at the rink has, if not entirely changed, become more focused on the game. At earlier bouts, spectators seemed content to ogle the players, drink beer, and crowd-watch, many confused as to the actual rules of the sport. Not so now. Attendees consult rulebooks, cheer favorite players, and jostle for a birds’-eye view of the rink—not so much to look up anyone’s skirt, although there will probably always be that element, but to count passes, watch for fouls, and yell really, really loud. Just like in any other sport.

The legitimacy of roller derby as a sport should no longer be up for debate. But roller girls fight battles both on and off the rink. Players have been conditioned to be on the defensive, with barbs being thrown from all camps—feminist critiques, put-downs from professional sports commentators, even casual disses from film critics(There were some major objections launched through the blogosphere a couple years ago after a film reviewer, AV’s own M. Faust, threw off what many considered a presumptuous opinion of the sport in his review of the movie Whip It.) Yes, derby is an amateur sport (anyone seen amateur golf, amateur boxing, the Olympics?); yes, the uniforms can be embellished (anyone remember Dennis Rodman?); yes, the players have nicknames (anyone think the birth certificate really read “Babe Ruth”?), but to suggest that the players are encouraging female stereotypes, or that derby is easy because it looks fun, or that its theatrical elements somehow diminish its athleticism, is to be either a knee-jerk reactionary or totally uninformed. Roller derby has been compared to everything from cheerleading to mud-wrestling to the WWF, which is actually derby’s complete opposite: In WWF it’s all theater, and the “players” get paid. What could be further from the unpaid but highly ethical, rule-driven WFTDA?

In no other sport must players discuss their choice of dress, their in-play personae, how much time they spend in practice, or the social implications of their existence. One blogger—the infamous Spinster Aunt, “Twisty” of—goes so far as to call it “proto-porn,” “kindergarden burlesque,” and a “two-dimensional, stereotypical, and bogus picture of female sexuality generated from an amorphous plasma of cultural misogyny.”

Whoa, Twisty, them’s fighting words.

This kind of ranting vastly annoys this writer and likely makes roller girls murderous, although many would prefer not to dignify such opinions by repeating them. But it begs the question: Why would any feminist criticize a group of women who are strong and committed to an activity that, by all accounts, boosts self-esteem, furthers “grrl power,” and is undeniably a commercial and cultural success? Why should a feminist blogger affiliated with no particular community have anything to say about the way roller derby players dress or the validity of the game that they’ve developed?

To Twisty, and to a handful of others, the fact that derby is both enjoyed and taken seriously by the players matters not at all because, alas, men seem to enjoy it too. And if men enjoy it, then it must be at women’s expense, right? Hmmm. If being a dedicated feminist means decrying anything that men like, well, that’s just sad. Forget football, then; apparently, we can’t even watch Dancing With the Stars.

Go to a bout and it becomes clear that if there’s one thing derby does not do, it’s pander to men or to the audience in general. The league is entirely run by the players, and each decides individually what to call herself and what to wear. Printed in the rulebook, a guide called “How to Watch Roller Derby,” is this directive to fans: “Do Not Annoy the Roller Girls,” and that is a rule you are well advised to follow. At the last bout a group of frat brothers (they were sporting the Greek letters to prove it— no profiling here) cheered wildly but respectfully, their equal in numbers being only a posse of 10- and 11-year-old boys who had commandeered some prime real estate next to the rink and who followed the game like talent scouts. Bouts are crowded enough that one can overhear random conversation, and while some fans might discuss the players’ relative athletic merits, no one comments on team members’ butts or bra sizes. Mud-wrestling this certainly isn’t.

Not to say it isn’t kind of a conundrum. Roller derby presents a contradiction in stereotypes that takes some people out of their comfort zones. It merges an activity widely perceived as masculine—playing an aggressive, competitive, organized sport—with perceived feminine qualities like sisterhood, parity among members, and yes, makeup and frills. And roller derby takes this contradiction in images and applies it to the game itself: In no other sport do you have individuals playing offense and defense at the same time. The relationship between players and the audience is also unique. Skaters are accessible due to the size of the rink, the fact that they skate around the crowd during halftime, and that they encourage fans to attend the after-party with a discount on admission if you show your derby ticket.

But perhaps most remarkable is the way in which team members merge their sports and personal lives. The players’ significant others are highly involved, not because the “girls” need them to be but because, unlike in professional organized sports, they are allowed to be. The refs—many of whom are players’ husbands, boyfriends, and brothers—make up the male presence on the rink; they are not relegated to the sidelines like cheerleaders, to be there but not there. And, although they’d probably attend bouts anyway, a lot of husbands/boyfriends are actively involved in some other way, unlike, say, football players’ wives whose attendance at games is mandatory for appearance’s sake but otherwise totally unnecessary. No one is there to hold his or her girl’s hand, or make sure she doesn’t take too hard a hit, or get catcalled by rowdy guys. They are there, it is obvious, because they are as into the sport as the players themselves.

It’s not hard to see why. If you haven’t been to a bout, it’s kind of hard to explain, but despite the aforementioned focus on athletics and away from atmosphere and kitsch, there is still a feel at the rink that is infectious and addictive beyond the adrenalin and fun. There are punk rock babies there, skaters’ moms who look like Betty Crocker, and some of the wildest hairstyles and best t-shirts around (example: “My Girlfriend Is A Lesbian,” worn by a big biker dude). But it’s more than the crowds and the costumes and the fast-paced, kick-ass spirit of competition. Maybe it is because it’s an all-female sport, but only inasmuch as derby allows and encourages someone’s mom to be “manning” the merch counter; someone’s husband to be running the scoreboard; someone’s kid brother or son to bring all his friends to cheer her on. Whatever it is, it feels kind of like love, and it’s definitely in the air in there.

The Queen City Roller Girls travel team, the Lake Effect Furies, goes to Maine this Saturday (Feb. 12) to compete against Portland’s Port Authorities. Then it’s back to the Rainbow Rink on February 19 for a QCRG bout between the Devil Dollies and the Alley Kats. Visit for all season and ticket information.


Love Stories

Matches made in heaven: the skaters and their derby wives

Being part of the Queen City Roller Girls takes real commitment not only from the players but from their partners. More than in any other amateur sport, roller derby seems to command a level of dedication that borders on obsession: It’s not a hobby, it’s not a job, but it comes with such a full-time, extracurricular workload that the players’ husbands/boyfriends/girlfriends must be of the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mentality. Whether they are tired of competing with the derby for their wives’ or girlfriends’ attention or they are simply caught up in the infectious spirit of the sport, within the league you’ll find these so-called “derby wives” making up a large portion of the behind-the-scenes activity. Either that or they’re visibly on the scene, volunteering as refs. And if they didn’t do these things? Well, then they might be called “derby widows”.

Photographs by Destiny Rogowski.

B-17 (skater for the Nickel City Knockouts, photography coordinator) and Z (scoreboard operator for the QCRG)

AV: How did you two meet?

B-17: One of my housemates in college was Z’s former roommate. We met in 2001 when Z came up to visit, to steal our couch since we were all moving out of that house and nobody wanted it. It was a great couch, though, and I couldn’t stand to let it go, so when I graduated in ’02 I came down to Jersey and moved in with it. (I also figured it’d be easier to find a job in NYC than in my hometown of Troy. I was wrong, but the search was fun.) Eventually Z got homesick for Buffalo and moved out here so I came with, ’cuz I liked WNY too. We still have that couch…

AV: What are the best and worst parts about working together?

B-17: Well, Z joined the league because he figured he’d never see me otherwise. Derby eats your life. Now I can’t retire from derby, because otherwise I’ll never see him again. His job with the scoreboard is more important than mine. We’ve had a lot of fun roadtripping and strategizing and watching the sport and the league grow. We’ve also worked our butts off. I think my favorite time ever was when Z came to the Knockouts’ bout in London, Ontario, as our mascot, the “Kockout,” wearing a chicken suit. He never gets to watch my games when we play at home in Buffalo, because he’s the scoreboard operator and has a job to do. So he can only cheer for me at away games, which I rarely play, since the Knockouts are a home team.

AV: Do you have any plans for Valentine’s Day?

B-17: It’s a Monday night, so I don’t have practice, so we might do something. We might not, though. Restaurants are nuts that night, so we’ll probably stay in and cook something nice for each other. Or, hot dogs and Kraft Dinner, ’cuz we party like we’re nine. I mean, it’s our ninth Valentine’s Day together (I had to count on my fingers twice to figure it out), so it’s not like we have to make a big impression on each other.

AV: Have you ever had a fight about roller derby?

B-17: No, not directly. Once a bout was going badly for my team, and I came over at halftime to complain to Z, who shut me out because as an official, he couldn’t be seen talking to me. That upset me at the time but made sense in hindsight. We argue over stuff that’s indirectly derby, though; he sits at home working on the scoreboard until he can’t see straight, and I’m out every other night skating until I’m exhausted, so whose job is it to do those dishes I wasn’t home to get dirty, but he doesn’t have time to wash either?

AV: What do you want for Valentine’s Day?

B-17: We don’t really buy presents for each other. I’ve learned that the best way to get what I want is to buy it myself. I ordered a pair of white stockings with little red hearts and red lace garter tops. They’ll be here by Monday. Maybe if he’s lucky I’ll let him see them.

Shockher (head referee for the Queen City Roller Girls) and Mama Chops (director of events for QCRG)

AV: How did you two meet?

Mama Chops: We met via the Internet and then found we had mutual friends. He was my #13 after a lot of unsuccessful dating!

AV: What are the best and worst parts about working together?

Shockher: The best is that it gives us a common interest together that we both truly love. Because she knows all the girls, and they know her, I goof off and have a blast with them all, and she trusts me and the girls to not question things. A lot of the goofy things I do are Mama Chops’ ideas in the first place. She likes to have fun with the girls also at my expense, not that I’ve ever complained. Can’t think of any “worst” things about working together. Having way too much fun.

Mama: The best is when “Shockher” gets announced at the bouts, I try to get everyone around me to do the shocker hand sign with me and scream “Shockher!” Plus, I can bounce ideas off him and he will give me great feedback. The worst? Getting him to talk about something other than derby…yep, he’s worse than me!

AV: Do you have any plans for Valentine’s Day?

Mama: A nice dinner and then a special dessert, if you know what I mean…

Shockher: Oh I’m sure she has plans for me, written down on a piece of paper somewhere are instructions on how to be romantic and what to say.

AV: Have you ever had a fight about roller derby?

Shockher: It’s hard to fight when I’m always right. But after she and the rest of the girls read this I’ll have to think of something quick, even though I’m still right.

Mama: Fight? Yes, of course, ’cuz he thinks he’s always right but I know I’m right.

AV: What do you want for Valentine’s Day?

Shockher: Beer, sex, and a blanket.

Mama: Shockher on a silver platter!

NForceHer (captain of the Alley Kats) and Harvey WallbangHer (coach of the Alley Kats)

AV: How did you two meet?

NForceHer: Harvey was dating a girl I worked with at Bennigan’s in Miami Florida. He came in to visit her at work and I was the hostess that met him at the door. He always said it was love at first sight! She moved away and we started working together. He has such a beautifully warm smile, not to mention a hot bod, how could I resist?

AV: What are the best and worst parts about working together?

NForceHer: The best part of working together is spending time together doing something we are passionate about. The worst part is that sometimes we have disagreements about what we think we should be doing with the team.

AV: Do you have any plans for Valentine’s Day?

NForceHer: Probably just make a nice family dinner and kick back with my husband and son.

AV: Have you ever had a fight about roller derby?

NForceHer: There has been some resentment about the amount of time I commit to roller derby and some disagreements about strategy and such, but no full-blown fights that would have any impact on our relationship because he knows I’ll win.

AV: What do you want for Valentine’s Day?

NForceHer: I want a CD of all the romantic songs my husband used to sing to me over the 12 years we have been together. Then I want him to sing them to me all over again. Sure would love to hear some R. Kelly, Barry White, Heatwave, Isley Brothers, Luther Vandross, and whatever else my husband wants to serenade me with.

Pepper Stix (Devil Dollie/Furie) and Mr. Stix (director of production)

AV: How did you two meet?

Pepper Stix: We met at Essex Street Pub.

AV: What are the best and worst parts about working together?

Pepper Stix: It’s all good!

AV: Do you have any plans for Valentine’s Day?

Pepper Stix: We don’t really do Valentine’s Day. But there might be a little candy involved.

AV: Have you ever had a fight about roller derby?

Mr. Stix: Only when we’re running late to get to the rink and realize I forgot to get something for the bout.

Fetishly Divine and Brutali-Tease, co-coach for the Devil Dollies and skater for the Devil Dollies.

AV: How did you two meet?

Fetishly Divine: We met at Tease’s boot camp her first year.

AV: What are the best and worst parts about working together?

Fetishly Divine: The best part is the time we get to spend together doing what we enjoy. The worst part is dealing with the stress of derby being a huge part of our life.

AV: Do you have any plans for Valentine’s Day?

Fetishly Divine: No plans.

AV: Have you ever had a fight about roller derby?

Fetishly Divine: Yes, we have had “long discussions” about roller derby.

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