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Roller derby queens: short skirts, fishnets, and full contact. Inside the lesbian underground of the Los Angeles Derby Dolls.

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My first time watching roller derby comes on May 3 in a Los Angeles warehouse packed full of beer-drinking rockabilly kids and dykes of all stripes. Tattooed girls with tree-trunk thighs fly around a dangerously sloped track, shoving each other out of the way. Spills are frequent and brutal. The players' motions are fluid, and they seem to be able to do anything four wheels will allow--zigzag, skate backward, vault fallen bodies, and strut their stuff for the appreciative crowd.

I'm hooked.

You may remember roller derby from the televised bouts of the 1960s and '70s. Then, it was a WWE-style mock sport staged by men and women wearing roller skates and full-body spandex.

Today's roller derby--documented on the recent A&E reality show Rollergirls--is a whole other animal: unscripted, underground, and all-women (though, thank goodness, still campy).

I'm not alone in my appreciation of derby's return. In the past seven months, reports out film director and die-hard derby fan Liz Lachman, the number of dykes in the crowd has swollen to the point that the games feel considerably like gay bars--"in a good way," she hastens to add.

It makes sense. First, roller derby is the ultimate expression of something lesbians have long known: Women playing sports are hot. And players get up to all kinds of sexual antics during games. One Doll loops around the track offering her ass for fans to slap (many men and women accept). Both teams pile on top of a fallen skater and playfully hump her. (Imagine for a moment this happening during a football game) It's also hard not to be sexy when you're leaning over in a short skirt pumping your legs-especially when your ass is toned by hours of roller skating every week. (In fact, the bent-over view is so risque that the Derby Dolls instituted a "panty check" for players before games.)

Derby's open sexuality stands out at a time when mainstream women's sports have an uneasy relationship with sex. Basketball and soccer players face pressure to look sexually attractive in spite of their athleticism rather than because of it. The Chicago Tribune reported that the WNBA, at this year's league-wide rookie training, taught makeup application along with jump shots. "You're a woman first," WNBA vice president Renee Brown told the Tribune. "You just happen to play sports."

For roller derby players, there's no either/or. "We feed off our hotness," says 25-year-old Kristen Adolfi, a.k.a. Krissy Krash. "There's some connection between that sports high and sexuality. When you score five points, that is hot."

That synergy is evident on the rink. Krissy is 6 feet 1 inch of sheer muscle and undeniably hot, especially when skating. Her victory laps, with her chest puffed out, send the crowd into a frenzy.

If I am a hearty appreciator of Krissy's turns, Lachman is a heartier appreciator of the laps of Mila Minute, an obscenely fast former Junior Olympic figure skater. "She kinda wiggles a little bit," explains Lachman, "like 'I'm sexy, I'm cool, I'm hot, everybody loves me.'"

But it's clear that I'm not the only one with a Krissy thing. At an after-party at a local bar, women line up to talk to her, and Krissy eats it up. She whirls by me and yells, "I've gotten, like, five numbers!" (The next day, she admits it was only three.)

Surprisingly, Krissy is one of the few openly gay girls on the team. Besides her, they include Kasey Bomber, Laura Palm-her, Laguna Beyatch, Mila Minute, and a handful of others among the 70-some members of the Derby Dolls.

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Alex Cohen, a.k.a. Axles of Evil, 35, thinks the small number is actually a reflection of the broad spectrum of people roller derby attracts: "There are girls who are out, and there are girls who are completely and utterly straight and would never kiss a girl, and I would say 90% of us probably fall somewhere between those two poles."

While that explanation may be predictably hipster in another context, it does jibe with roller derby's general eclectic feeling. Players are every age and size, and they come from every profession. "People you'd never guess--teachers, nurses, the gentlest people, the kindest people, go home from their preschool class and put on their skates and they're the hardest hitter you've ever met," says Jennifer Barbee, a.k.a. Kasey Bomber.

The firmly out lesbians in the league have created a subculture within a subculture: a club called the Vagine Regime, whose parties are known as some of the wildest at the annual Las Vegas convention RollerCon. Various gay versus straight matches are scheduled for July's convention, and the all-gay Team Vagine has recruited a full roster of members. Derby teams also participate in gay pride festivities in almost every major U.S. city.

However, there's a vibe of woman-love in derby that goes beyond gay or straight. For instance, there are derby crushes, "when one skater is smitten by another skater," explains Axles of Evil. "It could be that she thinks she's beautiful or she's a great person or she has skills on the track. It's a mark of respect." Derby crushes are fairly open and rarely lead to anything sexual. One derby crush of hers, which she broadcast on MySpace, ended (disappointingly for me but excitingly for her) in "putting together a scrimmage!"

A step beyond "derby crushes" are derby wives. Kasey Bomber, who's credited with inventing the ritual, describes the relationship as a mix of best friend and office buddy--the person to whom you vent about your "derby day." Players go so far as to get formally engaged and go through an elaborate, poufy-dressed wedding at RollerCon, exchanging rhinestone knuckles and vows, like these delivered by an Elvis impersonator:

"Dearly Beloved, Ladies and Broads, I take you to be my derby wife.... I vow to always take pictures up your skirt at after-parties. And to hold your hair back when you puke on the sidewalk. I will always be your first phone call from jail, even if I was the one who got you there in the first place. I promise to be your biggest fan ... unless we face off in a bout. Then I promise to hit you harder than anyone else on the team, because I'd never insult you by going easy."

"It thoroughly confuses people on the Las Vegas Strip," says Axles of Evil. "People come up to me and ask, 'Are they really getting married?' Which of course is illegal in Nevada. I let people stay confused for a little bit, so they have to look up the current state laws."

While not legally binding, the ceremony does seem to mean real commitment. "My wife is a retired skater now, and I'll always refer to her as my wife," says Axles of Evil. "I love having a wife and a husband."

You have to wonder how her husband feels about it. Many players say that derby takes a toll on their real spouses--men and women--whose roller derby wives can spend up to 30 hours a week training. For 28-year-old Constance Marshall, a.k.a. Laguna Beyatch, derby was almost a wedding-wrecker. She was training hard for a game while planning what she calls "the straightest gay wedding you've ever seen--white dress, a full complement of bridesmaids. Her bride-to-be told her, "You cannot get hurt ... no scrapes. If you have to go down the aisle on crutches, I'm gonna kill you." In the last practice before the game, Laguna scraped an elbow raw, and she saved her marriage ceremony only through creative makeup application. Now, she says, they make the marriage work despite derby, but it requires "a lot of give-and-take."

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Despite all the innuendo of a derby match, I notice that everyone seems to want to talk about fairly sex-free subjects, such as derby wives and work-life balance, and to evade my questions about whether there is any derby drama between players--which gives me the distinct feeling that there is some.

I finally get a whiff of it at one of the scrimmages. A player plops down on the bleachers next to me, hands me a beer, and tells me darkly that she's been benched. She mentions "a secret girlfriend on the team." Then she disappears. When I catch up with her at the next game she reveals that the benching was due to "bringing a personal beef onto the track," and announces, "I've said too much--I could jeopardize my place on the team." That was the last I heard, but I'd like to imagine that another Doll tried to steal her girl and faced the consequences on the track. This, I've learned, would violate the sacred rule of roller derby that you don't engage in personal conflicts when you skate.

Another big unsatisfied curiosity of mine is whether derby converts any supposedly straight women to the other team. Krissy mulls this. "Maybe some of them are hetero-flexible," she says, adding, "I don't think it's the roller skates as much as the short skirts and the beer."

Derby Dolls founder Demolicious (Rebecca Ninburg), who used to date men, has a more telling answer. "Well, I wasn't gay before, and now I got a girlfriend ... and she's fuckin' hot." On cue, up comes actress Lora Zane (Live Nude Girls) to smooch her on the cheek.

When Demolicious and cofounder Wendy Templeton, a.k.a. Thora Zeen, helped spark the roller derby renaissance back in 2003, Demolicious didn't know how to roller-skate. She just had a vision of resurrecting the 1970s sport--a vision that prominently featured girls in fishnets kicking ass. "I always wanted to hit people. I was always too rough," she says. "Derby is the only sport where you hit people and they high-five you."

Eerily, a similar vision--girls, fishnets, ass-kicking--was already being realized in a new Austin league. When Demolicious and Thora read about it in Bust magazine, they asked the Austin trainers to come and give roller-skating lessons--and thus the Los Angeles Derby Dolls were born. Initially made up of about 15 girls, it has blossomed into an entire league with four teams, more than 70 players, and several thousand loyal fans.

Yet something underground is preserved. The league is a nonprofit, and at the May 3 game, except for the hired security, all the staffers are volunteers: Skaters and their friends serve as DJs, announcers, refs, ticket takers, and bartenders. I learn later that the skating track was built by the team back in April 2005. (Kasey Bomber's derby wife, Evil E, tells me proudly that her blood is on panel 23.) In everything there's a sense of the homemade. Case in point: An all-women band plays the national anthem on what appear to be kazoos and pots and pans.

And the DIY aspect is a huge part of the draw. "It's everything that going to the gay bar used to be for me before it became so mainstream--before Absolut vodka showed up," says Lachman. "Derby reminds me of that kind of illegal feeling. It's counterculture."

Along with this underground vibe comes an amazing inclusivity. I'm told repeatedly that any girl can play roller derby--short or tall, big or small, athletic or sports-phobic--provided she's willing to give up 10 to 30 hours a week and the occasional tooth. The players' physiques bear this out: They range from plump to beanpole to giantess, and all use what they've got. Heavy? Flatten girls in your path. A hundred pounds? Dart through the pack.

While researching this story, I'm repeatedly encouraged to try out for the league. I cave and attend a new-girl practice, where I am like a young fawn, no sooner up than I have my legs splayed out and ass on the ground. The next day I hurt not only in my knees but in completely inexplicable places--my jaw, my wrists--like full-body whiplash. But now I yearn to be a Doll.

It's hard to know if this roller derby will be able to maintain its open-door policy and all-volunteer ethic if its popularity continues to snowball. In five years, 300 leagues have sprung up worldwide (260 in North America) with 10,000 to 15,000 participants. Now Drew Barrymore is rumored to be directing a roller derby film starring Ellen Page from a script based on the memoir of former Los Angeles Derby Doll Shauna Cross, a.k.a. Maggie Mayhem.

However, it's still underground enough that Page and Barrymore can attend the May 3 game and sit in the second row of the bleachers mostly unbothered--except by me. I go up to Page hoping that a coming-out interview will come bursting from her lips, or at the very least, she'll wrap her legs around me in friendship. Sadly, she only wants to talk about roller derby.

"I've been training for a month with the team for an upcoming movie," she confirms. Her face lights up with that infectious roller-derby glee. "It's the best sport ever!"
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Article Details
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Author:Stites, Jessica
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2008
Words:2173
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