Robin and Stealin, a cute brunette with black-framed glasses, has a linebacker's gleam in her eye. She skates right at me, as if we're playing chicken -- and as I pass her, just inches of space between us, she cackles in my ear.
It is early summer at Collierville's FunQuest skating rink, and the women of the Memphis Roller Derby (MRD) are playing a dangerous game. Wearing tiny skirts and shorts, fishnets or knee socks, some of the skaters are human targets, moving side to side, backwards and forwards. The rest of the women are trying to miss them.
Bam! I run into Manda Malice, a heavily tattooed and pierced young woman. We both stop dead in our skates, but neither of us fall. "You're supposed to miss me," she says teasingly as we try to regain our balance.
I skate off, still shaken, and as I come back around near Robin and Stealin, I crash into her. I apologize, but she's laughing. "That was so much fun!" she says.
If that's what she thinks, I need to get away from her. I change course, moving to the outside of the rink where there's more room to maneuver. Brooken Bones and Auntie Bactery'all are holding hands and urging girls to skate under their entwined arms. No, thanks. I avoid them but, instead, slam into league founder Tran Sam, a 30-year-old artist with an Amazonian build. I am relieved that she looks as dazed as I feel.
By the time the drill is over, Kinky Kenevil has given Robin and Stealin a black eye and Manda Malice's helmet is cracked down the middle.
"Vicki [the Victator] was looking straight down at her feet, and I was like, 'Vicki, Vicki, Vicki!'" Malice explains. "She hit me full force, full speed. We hit heads like two ramming yaks."
As we roll off the rink for water, someone lets out a whoop and yells, "You're now officially initiated into the roller derby!" Most of the other women scream in response. Together, they've endured months of twice-weekly skating practices, sprinting, falling, jumping, and now, with this weaving drill, hitting each other -- on skates.
"Roller derby is like Fight Club for women," says Hustlin' Flow, an art teacher with long, blond dreads.
The sport began as an offshoot of dance marathons in the 1930s, but its heyday came in the 1970s, with stars such as Ann Cavello and Joanie Weston of the San Francisco Bay Bombers. Most recently, the TXRD Lone Star Rollergirls -- and the reality show that followed the league, Rollergirls on A&E -- has sparked a national revival.
Each hour-long bout consists of two-minute "jams." Each team has five members on the track: a pivot, two blockers, a power blocker, and a jammer. The pivots and blockers make up the pack and begin skating before the jammers. The pack's job is to block the opposing team's jammer while helping their jammer through.
During the first lap, the jammers are vying for the position of lead jammer, which gives them the power to end the jam. During each subsequent lap, jammers get a point for every member of the opposite team they pass.
"From the time the whistle blows to the time the whistle blows again, it's a total adrenaline rush," says Tran Sam. "My objective is to play the game as hard as I can. That's all that is going through my mind: I need to block as hard as I can, knock people over, and get my jammer through safely."
The skaters don't come across as "nice girls." The look is black, with skulls and tattoos. The women are both beautifully aggressive and aggressively beautiful. Together, it's a look that seems to say, I will rip your heart out, smash it on the pavement, and yes, I will enjoy every single minute of it. Love me if you dare.
In "real life," many of the women are mothers and wives. Ranging in age from 21 to over 40 years old, they work at law offices, for insurance companies, and as teachers at area schools.
After watching Rollergirls, Tran Sam enlisted the help of two friends who would later become known as Snark Attack and the Victator. (Derby girls pick names based upon a variety of factors: their real names, physical attributes, personality traits, or things they like. Sometimes derby girls don't even know each other's real names.)
"She called me with this big idea: Let's start a roller derby team," says the Victator. "I was like, 'Okay, Sam. No problem. Let's do that.' I thought she was crazy."
The women scheduled the first practice for February 12th at the Skateland off Summer Avenue, but the rink caught fire the night before the first practice. After a frenzy of e-mails and phone calls, the women -- many of whom had never met -- held practice at the Skateland in Raleigh.
"I think 44 women showed up for our first practice, and I remember thinking to myself, Where am I going to fit in with these women with all their tattoos and piercings?" says Zell Bent, a sales and marketing representative who grew up skating at Lollipops in Southaven. "To me, they were really intimidating"
The Victator, in particular, scared a few of the potential skaters. With her long, jet-black hair, band T-shirts, and familiarity with skate gear, she looked -- and sounded -- like she'd been doing derby forever.
"The first time I met Vicki, I was a little bit intimidated by her," says Manda Malice, a former competitive roller-blader. "I was thinking she's going to kill me."
The Victator laughs about that, well aware of the impression she created. "I was excited that so many girls showed up, but in my own way, I was excited that I could intimidate so many girls," she says.
The mood was tentative that evening. None of the skaters knew exactly what to expect and spent the time just rolling around the floor, familiarizing themselves with the old-school roller skates, "quads," which the women's flat-track derby association (WFTDA) requires. Referees are allowed to wear in-line skates.
"I was real wobbly on my skates. It was like someone walking a tight rope with their arms flailing beside them," says Jill B. Nimble, now captain of the PrissKilla Prezleys.
A fan of Rollergirls, she had already decided to buy a pair of skates when she heard about MRD, but she didn't really know how to skate:
"I was always the one that on every single turn, trying to do cross-overs, I fell. I fell in every single turn. My feet would just fly out from under me and down I'd go."
But she, like many of the skaters, has come a long way since that first night. Now with two bouts scheduled before the end of the year -- one on November 18th and one on December 9th -- the only time the girls have trouble staying up is when somebody runs into them full-force.
Talk Derby To Me
"When I first heard about roller derby, I looked at some pictures online and I saw a lot of girls in really skimpy outfits," says Whorecules, a coach who wears full gladiator regalia. "And I'm a big girl, so I thought it was cool, but I didn't think it was something I could do."
In some ways, roller derby is a mischievous mix of sport and show business. The skimpy uniforms and striped socks are as much a part of derby as learning how to skate in the pack. As are the playful names.
According to WFTDA rules, no two skaters can have the same name, unless the first gives written permission. And many girls in the league found that the name they wanted was already taken. Whorecules originally wanted Alotta Fhagina, Ivana Humpalot, or Mike Hunt, but those names were all taken.
When she was interviewed for WKNO's Southern Routes, she had to be identified as her second-choice name, Shorty McShovenstuff, because Whorecules was deemed inappropriate.
All of which makes the name even better.
"It pleases me that it would be the source of little old ladies fainting and stuff like that," she says. "I think derby is kind of supposed to do that."
Despite its fun and rebellious nature, roller derby is not wrestling on skates. The outcome is not pre-determined. Fighting is not allowed. Arguing with refs is not allowed. And when a skater falls, believe me, it hurts.
"I see myself more as an athlete than a rollergirl," says Rolls Royce, a quiet apartment manager who jams for the Legion of Zoom. "To me, [Rollergirls was] like theater."
"My friends had all these preconceived notions about what it's like," she says. "They asked me, 'Do you really jump on someone and beat them up?' I had to break them of this idea that it's women swinging bats on skates and beating each other up."
Some, like Rolls Royce, played sports in high school or college. Others have no athletic background. But roller derby combines the pace of speed-skating and the brutality of rugby. It takes speed, endurance, balance, and, at times, a little luck.
Smashimi, captain of the Legion of Zoom, played soccer at White Station High and Rhodes College before blowing out her knee. "I really like team sports," she says. "Running or aerobics or anything like that is just not as fun as being part of a team."
Several years ago, before she had kids, Smashimi played for a local women's soccer league. "It was okay," she says, "but we never practiced. We just had to show up and play. For me, half the fun of being on a team is practicing."
Bruises, Abrasions, and Breaks
After a month of practices that had league members skating for eight minutes then resting for two, MRD began learning more complicated skill sets: jumping, falling, and skating together in a pack.
I remember the first time Tran Sam said we were going to fall when she blew the whistle. Hustlin' Flow demonstrated, dropping forward on her knees and hands. Tran Sam advised us to try to fall and get back up without using our hands.
"There's going to be a lot of girls out there," she says. "Using your hands is a real good way to break all of your fingers."
I'm still thinking about other skaters running over my fingers when we take the rink. I fight a rising panic, wondering how well my cheap kneepads will buffer my fall, or if I'll be able to fall at all.
I slow down and girls start dropping around me -- whomp ... whomp ... whomp, whomp, whomp -- their heavy kneepads thump on the floor. I lean forward, and as my knees hit, I slide five feet across the floor painlessly and smile.
That was fun. Most of the skaters are still resting on their knees, laughing and talking excitedly. Suddenly we are jolted back to reality. "GET BACK UP!" yells Tran Sam.
"I will never forget the sound of 60 women's knees hitting that wood floor," says Hustlin' Flow. "Now it's nothing, but for all of us doing that together ... I'll never forget it. Derby asks you to do so much sacrificing. You have to be willing to let your body fall to the ground."
Between the physical exertion, the hits, and the falls, injuries are a way of life for derby girls.
"Every time we scrimmage, I put my foot on the line and ask myself: Is today going to be the day? Because it's just a matter of time," says Zell Bent. "Then there's the part of me that's like, if I get injured, it will heal. It will hurt, but it will heal."
Most of the injuries are nothing serious: rink burns, bruises on arms and thighs. You get 10 women skating within inches of each other, and, despite calling fouls when skaters touch members of the opposite team, accidents happen.
"When I'm jamming, it all goes so fast," says Jill B. Nimble. "Vicki [the Victator] busted my lip the other day. I didn't have a clue who touched me or how it happened. [When we scrimmage] I walk away with marks all over me, and it's like, dude, how did I get that?"
Other injuries have been more serious: pulled groin muscles, broken arms, knees popping out of joint during practice, mild concussions.
For Moxie Dynamite, an easygoing artist and arts administrator, joining derby was a little out-of-character. But she could only think of one reason not to -- that she was scared -- and that simply wasn't good enough.
Even when she broke her arm very early on, she knew she couldn't quit. "I didn't want to chicken out," she says. "It was really just a freak thing. I fell and landed weird."
Whorecules began as a blocker for the Legion of Zoom. But during the first intra-team scrimmage, she tore her posterior cruciate ligament, effectively ending her derby career. Now in physical therapy, she had to wear an immobilizer for weeks and will probably need surgery one day. But she has also found a new role for herself in the derby: as a coach for her former team.
THERE ARE NO BALLS IN DERBY
A member of TXRD's Hellcats once said: "Being in the derby is like being in a cross between a sorority and a gang," and I can't think of a more apt description. Leagues are female-owned and -operated. Women spend two or three night a week together. The few men there are support staff: coaches, referees, and rink employees.
Heather Smashcraft, the head of the league's mentoring committee, says derby is both liberating and empowering.
"I like the idea of a women-run organization," she says. "I think there's a certain energy and attitude that surrounds the whole concept. It's this I-can-do-anything attitude."
And in some ways, the women have found kindred spirits in each other.
"The reason I was attracted to it was because of all the women with tattoos who live alternative lifestyles. It was like, finally, a group of women who live the same way I live, says Auntie Bactery'all. "It's like a sisterhood."
Perhaps because it is female-operated, the league seems like one big family. The four teams -- the party girls of the PrissKilla Prezleys, the metal and punk chicks of the Angels of Death, the precision-trained Women of Mass Destruction, and the easygoing Legion of Zoom -- were not just divided by skill level but by who was friends with whom.
"I feel like no matter where I was or what happened I could call someone from derby and they would help me," says Smashcraft. "This network is at our disposal. If I was stranded somewhere, someone from derby would come and get me."
But just like a sorority or a gang, those on the outside often feel left out. Skaters talk about their friends being derby and non-derby or about having hardly any non-derby friends left.
"It got to the point where I couldn't have a conversation unless it was about derby," says Zell Bent. "There was so much that needed to be done and so much excitement about it. I found that my friends didn't have the same excitement."
Husbands, boyfriends, and girlfriends probably get the worst of it. Since the league started, some of the skaters have found their relationships in trouble. Others follow "No Derby" rules at home. "It came down a couple of times to my boyfriend saying, 'It's derby or us,'" says Manda Malice.
For the Love of Quad
Despite the injuries, the physical and mental toll, and the strain it puts on relationships, the women say they can't imagine life without roller derby.
"The first time I realized it is exactly what I wanted to do was the first time we actually laid down a track," says Malice. "We got in that pack, and I had a girl run into me. I hit back, and she slid across the floor. And I thought, This is it. This is why we're here."
And skaters have found some surprising changes have occurred in their lives. They talk of being more independent, more assertive, in better physical shape, and enjoying life more since they started derby.
Hustlin' Flow drummed in a metal band for four years and, at the time, thought that was the most hard-core thing a girl could do. "I think roller derby has given me permission to be more feminine," she says. "It's like, if I can kick this much ass, it's okay to wear pink. All the parts of me that I've kept kind of tomboyish, I'm expressing that part of myself somewhere else. I've never felt sexier or more confident in my life, and I see that happening to a lot of women in derby."
"I think it brought out more of me that was there before I had kids," says Smashimi. "I was very much about being a mom, but since derby, I've had a chance to be Stacey again or this new person, Smashimi."
And then there are the women who, perhaps understandably, have found a part of themselves that is aggressive and tough.
"What I love about it now is the hitting," says Moxie Dynamite, the petite and even-tempered artist. "I crave it. It reminds me of when my brother and I would fight but there would be an element of play. I'm hitting you, but you know I like you."
"I find people in general less intimidating," she says. "I know I could just hit them with my upper arm and be done with it. [If someone's bothering me], I think, I could take his ass out."
The Angels of Death take on the Women of Mass Destruction Saturday, November 18th, at FunQuest Entertainment, 440 Highway 72 in Collierville. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Bouting begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children. Kids under 4 get in free.
"Angelina Rolie" is a member of the Legion of Zoom and an associate editor of the Memphis Flyer.