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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

(continued from page 2)

Balboa has recovered from a derby-caused posterior cruciate ligament tear, which kept her out of several bouts during the 2006 season. She still exhibits long, jagged scars all over her left elbow, left knee and right forearm. Not to mention having that dubious black eye that she swears she got from a flagrant elbow flush to the socket. "Are you kidding?" says the fashion designer by day, revealing a pierced tongue while giving a guided tour of her body bruises. "This is nothing. Just look at this," as she points to battle wounds of varying severity. She shakes her head and sighs. "I'm a mess."

It all comes with the bump-and-grind turf: assorted aches and pains, split lips, bloody noses, floor burns, scrapes, sprained ankles, strained and ripped ligaments, pulled muscles, cracked ribs, dislocated shoulders and hematomas the size of grapefruits in glorious shades of black, blue, purple and brown. "If you can walk away from it," says the Bombshells' Penny Larceny, "it's a badge of honor. In fact, if it's a really good bruise, we'll have somebody snap a picture of it." To which her team's captain, the stunning, long-legged Anne Phetamean, chimes in: "That's what is so empowering. When somebody hits you and you fall to the ground and you can just shake it off and say, 'I'm fine,' it's an amazing feeling. That you can keep on going, that you learn that your body can take almost anything."

Inspired by a gimmicky skate marathon during the Depression, roller derby peaked somewhere between the late 1940s and early 1970s, becoming a pop culture phenomenon. Bouts were televised and drew as many as 40,000 fans, with one match at Chicago's Comiskey Park in 1972 attracting more than 50,000 spectators. Tracks were banked and enclosed within a metal railing and players were nothing less than household names, such as Ann "Banana Nose" Calvello, "the meanest mama on skates," who dyed her hair purple before Dennis Rodman was even born, and Judy "The Blonde Bomber" Arnold and Loretta "Little Iodine" Behrens and Joanie "The Golden Girl" Weston.

Then, just like that, roller derby was all but dead and without a smidgen of public outcry or an official burial. And that's the way things stayed until 2001, when, on a whimsical prayer, four women in Austin, Texas, who called themselves Bad Girl Good Woman Productions were determined to revive the game but with the inclusion of rock and roll acts. "We were a bunch of chicks who booked bands and worked in bars," Heather Burdick, one of the quartet, once said. "We were building it from the ground up." They found a rink and a figure-skating trainer, began to study old derby footage, then practiced and raised money. It wasn't long before this morphed into a league of its own, the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls, from which came the since-cancelled A&E reality series, "Rollergirls," that immediately put women's roller derby back on the American landscape and smack into the national psyche.

The gospel of derby queendom began spreading. Flyers began circulating in dive bars, coffee houses and rock clubs. There were newspaper ads recruiting wannabe derbyites and a buzz on the Internet, especially on the ubiquitous MySpace. Before long, a slew of organized, all-girl amateur leagues were forming not just in the United States, but also in Canada, Japan, France and even the exotically remote Cayman Islands. "I think the novelty of it, the sense of nostalgia, the appeal to the average woman, the grassroots heart and the fact that it's a genuinely exciting game all factored into derby growing so much and so quickly," says Lefty Leibowitz, who cofounded the Gotham Girls.

Penny Larceny, who doubles as Megan Gerrity, a 31-year-old production editor for a major book publisher, first read about roller derby in a magazine article. Soon afterwards she spotted a flyer for a Gotham Girls fund-raiser and figured it'd be something fun and different to do. An odd little hipster escape, if not a wonderful talk piece at parties. "I joined for the mischief" is the way she puts it.

Though she'd taken up martial arts and kickboxing in the past, something about derby intimidated her to no end. "I had the impression that these were a bunch of really tough chicks and I wouldn't be cool enough," the bookwormish and bespectacled Gerrity says. "That I'd be like the high school geek always off in the corner who didn't know what she was doing." Even her mom said, just short of pleadingly, "Wouldn't you rather do something else?"

But Penny trained with that Do It Yourself ethos that seems to permeate this derby incarnation. She honed her skills by doing such creative things as weaving speedily through holes in the morning subway crowd heading to work, and within time, evolved into a fearless player wearing skull and crossbones on her helmet and having complete tunnel vision. "This weird thing happens when I'm skating," she says. "I lose all sounds. I don't remember girls yelling at me or people cheering."

Despite the Bombshell fans' Beastie Boys rallying cry of "No Sleep Til Brooklyn," the seemingly faster, stronger Gridlock are dominating so thoroughly that its players start mugging a bit for the crowd after nearly every score: the freckled, spit-curled Brigitte Barhot sticks out her ample tongue, Gene Simmons style; Beyonsláy, grinning widely, her cheeks forming the shape of bubbles, wiggles that much-hyped bootylicious butt that seconds before had sent rail-thin opponent Leggs Luthor flying.

"Beyon-slay!…Beyon-slay!…Beyon-slay!" comes the chant rolling down from high in the stands, compelling the Round Mound of Takedown to softly blow kisses to her admirers as Iggy Pop's "Search & Destroy" blares.

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