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Derby Girls

The underground sport of women's roller derby is on the rise and these ladies are not afraid of a few bumps and bruises
Michael P. Geffner
From the Print Edition:
Tom Berenger, July/Aug 2007

"To fill the hour, that is happiness; to fill the hour, and leave no crevice for a repentance or an approval. We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well upon them."—Ralph Waldo Emerson

It's a Sheena-and-Xena world of weekend warriors zooming around on ball bearings, where egos are never left at the door, alter egos are all but mandatory, and women of all shapes, sizes and roots bond in the name of female empowerment with hip checks, shoulder shoves, elbow swings and booty bangs. God knows why women's roller derby is suddenly back from the dead after all these years—think back to 1972 when Raquel Welch's cheesy flick Kansas City Bomber hit theaters—but for the last five years, this post-feminist Fight Club sorority has been steadily bubbling to the surface. It's been reinvented with a pinup-girl tease, retro kitsch and punk-rock edge, and is popping up everywhere from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Huntsville, Alabama, and Raleigh, North Carolina, to Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago. In New York City, the league that rules is the Gotham Girls, a self-proclaimed "rotten-to-the-core" group of four borough-repped teams—Manhattan Mayhem, Queens of Pain, Bronx Gridlock and Brooklyn Bombshells—that consists of 54 players with such over-the-top, porn-star-like names as Baby Ruthless, Surly Temple, Carmen Monoxide and Sybil Disobedience.

By day, these women hail from careers all across the spectrum: fashionistas, lawyers, artists, event planners, bartenders, accountants. But by night, on any given Friday or Saturday, dressing up in fishnets, miniskirts, wifebeaters and pounds of black eyeliner, they transform into badass derby chicks known strictly by their stage names. "I'm not sure if I know the real name of one girl," admits Lil' Miss Stuffit, a 25-year-old middle-school teacher named Laurel Woodhouse who skates for the Mayhem, voicing a common thread in this skating-on-the-fringe underworld.

It's a desperately hot, rain-damp Saturday night in late July, and a SRO crowd of over 1,500, paying between $12.50 and $25 a pop, cram into a non-air-conditioned gymnasium in the bowels of downtown Brooklyn for the third bout of the second Gotham Girls season between the Bombshells and Gridlock.

Two huge floor fans whir by an open set of giant double doors, circulating nothing but bursts of sweaty air. The speakers boom out a reverberating Van Halen: "Girl, you really got me going…" And with a sudden blast of a whistle blown by an earringed ref whose moniker, Mr. Pink, comes straight from Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, 10 women—pigtailed, tattooed, helmeted, knee-padded, mouth-guarded, hair-dyed, pierced—begin whizzing around a flat, bright-blue oval track, followed instantly by the lusty, faux angry screams of fans raising fists, clapping hands and stomping feet:

"Go, girl, go!"
"Hit her!"
"Knock that bitch down!"

To the untrained eye, the action is maddeningly jumbled and hopelessly indecipherable—a colorful but blurred strip of absolute crash-and-burn chaos. Essentially, a mishmash pack of eight players box each other out, while a couple of others search for gaps to surge through. But soon girls are flying off the track, left and right, after being clobbered with ramming shots, spinning out of control and slamming into trackside seats (since no railing keeps them from doing so), plopping to the ground with a thud or tripping over one another, occasionally forming this flailing pile of terribly tangled limbs and hooked skates.

Bashing anyone in an enemy uniform is 30-year-old Natily Blair, a.k.a. Ginger Snap, the Gridlock's flinty-eyed captain. Blair got her tag from the British term for redheads and the sound her right wrist made when it was driven into the asphalt during a practice session. (She underwent two operations for the injury and around her neck wears the metal pin that once held the fracture together.)

Blair came to the Big Apple from Phoenix with dreams of being an actress. That was until three summers ago when she experienced an epiphany at the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island and became transfixed by a bunch of girls on skates, she says, "beating each other up." She emerged almost overnight not only as the quintessential derby girl but, like so many in this game, ultimately became consumed by the entire life of it, going in the sport's parlance from a "fresh-meat" newbie to a "rotten-meat" diehard within the space of a New York minute. "You don't become a derby girl really," she once said. "You realize that you are one already—dying to come out."

At 5 feet 2 inches, 130 pounds and innocently blue-eyed, Snap is notorious for her thumping, well-timed hits, a chiseled-chip, in-your-face attitude and a lip-glossed mouth that roars at the mere drop of an askance look from an opponent. It's no wonder that on the back of her T-shirt reads "80," the atomic number of mercury. Consider it a warning label. "Ginger can really go off," says Hyper Lynx, a player for the Queens of Pain. Mr. Pink, however, makes an important distinction that applies to most of these women. "Natily is very sweet," he says, "but Ginger is argumentative."

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