Sunday, April 22, 2012

Not Your Mother’s Roller Derby

Like a lot of kids growing up during the 1960s, I was raised on roller derby. Saturday afternoons found me glued to the TV, cheering on our local women’s team, the Bay Bombers, as they elbowed and eye-gouged their opponents in grainy broadcasts on Channel 2. Roller derby was a part of life back then, with its spectacle of ponytailed Amazons in their hot pants, shoving each other over the railing. But even as a kid, I knew that roller derby was more theater than sport: The skaters scowled for the cameras, and some of the moves were obviously choreographed, like when teammates “accidentally” punched each other, or when they flattened the entire opposing team with a crack-the-whip clothesline.

So on a recent Saturday night, when a friend suggested we go see one of Medford's roller derby teams, the Sis-Q Rollerz, I pictured a watered-down production with a few local women skating badly, overacting, and throwing each other into the railing now and then.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

For starters, there was no railing for the skaters to throw each other into; there was only (gulp) us, the crowd, who were separated from the action by just a taped-off line marking the edge of the track in the awkwardly named Venue Community Civic Center. As we took our seats in the front row, watching the skaters hurtle past us during their warm-ups, I whispered to my friend, “Is this safe?” As it turned out, it wasn’t, exactly—and that was part of the fun.

The Venue—with its slick concrete floor, bare-bones concession stand, and obscure location in a part of Medford that seemed like an ideal place to dump a body—made it all feel a bit like a middle-school volleyball meet. But the comparison ended there. These athletes were not kids, and the first clue was their uniforms. Our local Rollerz were decked out in teal-and-black jerseys, torn fishnet stockings, and various kinds (and colors) of miniskirts, microshorts, and—I don’t know how else to describe it—underpants worn over their stockings. Their beaten, scratched helmets come in all colors, too, and some skaters wear elaborate face paint. (Two sported the black-goggled look of Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner.)

And once the match began, it was clear that the theater of old-fashioned roller derby was also, thankfully, gone—these women were in it to win it, and the shoving, hip-checking, and flailing limbs were simply part of the game. They all had menacing nicknames stenciled on their uniforms—Killer Taco, Swerve & Protect, Chip ’er Bones—but they had no trouble living up to them.

The game itself, where one player from each team—the two “jammers”—have to elbow their way from the back of the pack to the front, then lap the pack and do it again, means that bodies collide and people get shoved out of the way. Some players were vicious about it; others got tired fast and looked like they were doubting whether this was a good idea. It made for a brawl of personalities—all the triumphs and frustrations of any sport—that was thrillling to watch. I shouted myself hoarse cheering on the jammer as she threaded her way through the pack, bounced off several bodies,  and miraculously emerged alone at the front. I let out an occasional boo for an opposing player, but it felt wrong to be hard on them because they were working their asses off too, and some of them were extremely talented. (Too talented—the visitors, the Sick City Dis-Orderlies from Corvallis,  blew out our beloved Rollerz in a lopsided rout.)

One unexpected delight was seeing women of all shapes, sizes, and ages doing this sport, showing a lot of skin, and looking comfortable with their bodies. A few were young and wispy, but most of the “blockers” —the ones who try to prevent the jammers from getting through—were large women, skating their hearts out in their miniskirts, battered helmets, and gnarled fishnets, their size an advantage in this game of momentum and physics. And the officials, many of whom were astoundingly good skaters, wore outfits right out of a fetish magazine—too-short shorts, black bustiers, and even one Little Bo Peep costume. Add to that the visiting team, decked out in olive green like some nightmarish army platoon, and the atmosphere was campy and slightly naughty, somewhere between Mad Max and the Folsom Street Fair. The crowd, mostly families and teenagers, ate it up.

I liked the message that this new roller derby delivers: that woman of all kinds can get out and compete in a crazy-difficult sport, express their strength, speed, and guts in a positive, supportive environment, and have a good time doing it. And at $8 ($10 at the door), it’s bargain entertainment.

The best place find out about upcoming Sis-Q Rollerz matches is their Facebook page and website. And they’re not the only derby in town—Medford also proudly sports a second team, the Southern Oregon Rollergirls.

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