With her jeweled horn-rimmed glasses and red, curly hair, Colleen Bell doesn't look like a coach. But she assumes the role at least as well as any of the middle-aged men who hollered their way through the football, hockey and baseball practices of my youth.
"Bend! Your! Knees!" she yells. "Bend-yourknees! Bendyourknees! Bendyourknees!"
She's standing near the rink at Fast Forward Skate Center, urging on about 30 women who have shown up to learn about roller derby. The scene doesn't resemble the chaotic display of speed and violence roller derby fans are used to seeing at a typical Mad Rollin' Dolls bout. In fact, many of these women are pretty unsure of themselves on roller skates and Bell, whose derby name is Crackerjack, has them working on fundamental skills.
"They're so damn cute," she jokes, shedding her authoritarian persona for a second. "Like Bambi on ice."
The rookies are taking part in an open skate, a kind of clinic meant to prepare them for the league's upcoming tryouts. Crackerjack and other Dolls - Dolly Pardon Me, Pocahotass, Tommie Gunn - weave in and out, demonstrating proper form or just winking and smiling in encouragement. Some of the newbies struggle with simple drills, and Crackerjack provides reassurance.
"It just takes time, practice and experience," she says. "And trust in yourself."
That's an empowering, philosophical message that applies to most sports. But I wonder: Why is there no hitting? What about the collisions and spills?
Crackerjack admits that's a big part of the sport. But introducing contact too early is "potentially dangerous and requires a basic skill set and conditioning that these girls don't have yet. First they need to get stronger, learn how to fall right and develop their skating skills."
Entering a third year as a league of four teams, the Mad Rollin' Dolls have attracted standing-room-only crowds to their high-energy bouts at Fast Forward. The Dolls' popularity has been earned through savvy marketing and a level of athleticism that surprises fans who show up expecting professional wrestling on wheels. And it's clear from watching the open skate that derby skills are the result of thorough, and often tedious, practice.
Rebecca Magana, a supplements buyer for Whole Foods who recently moved to town from Los Angeles, handles most of Crackerjack's drills with ease. She was drawn to roller derby by a desire to meet people and stay active - not the sport's theatrical side. "I moved out of Hollywood for a reason," she says with a laugh.
"One of the first things we tell the girls at tryouts is that [roller derby] is not a reality show," says Crackerjack. "We're regular girls who just like to skate. We play our sport for an audience because it's so darn fun to watch. But we're skaters not stars, and athletes first, and we try to impress that upon all our new girls.
"Then again, the skaters get paid in local fame and glory. It's an aspect of skating that attracts interesting and zany girls to the league, and that's good for us."
A week after the open skate, Magana reports back that the tryouts went well for her, and she has gained a spot in the league, along with 26 other recruits. But there's no time to bask in her accomplishment.
"We have practices right now, three times a week for two to three hours with conditioning and skills," she says. "This will go on until September, and then they choose the teams with a draft. But there's still a lot of work, because the first bout isn't until January."
This year, for the first time, the Dolls are in the unenviable position of having to make cuts. According to Crackerjack, it's a price the league must pay for its growing popularity.
"Every single girl who showed up was awesome and would have made a stellar derby girl," she says. "We've taken pride in accepting 'challenges' onto the league in the past and turning them into skaters and team players, so it was hard for us to assess who would be best for the league based on a couple hours of skating and interviews."
As for Magana, she's "super excited" to have something healthy and fun to do over the winter. And she has already embraced her new derby moniker.
"My friend, who's in the derby, named me," she says. "She came up with this great idea of naming skaters after animals and I think that makes sense. So she named me Kildeer, like the bird. But I'm going to spell it K-i-l-d-e-a-r."