Crouched on my hands and knees, heart racing; a bead of nervous sweat tumbles down my face, off my chin and onto the cold floor. I see my opponent next to me only in a peripheral haze, but I can hear her breathing. I quickly take in the scene before me: the crowd roars; white lights trace an oval around a smooth track; 10 women on skates, decked out in short skirts and fishnet stockings, stand poised for battle.
The first whistle blows, and I instinctively raise up into starting position: head down, eyes forward, stealthily balanced on my toe stops, ready to lunge.
The second whistle blows, and I explode.
As blaring music erupts from speakers, I sprint down the straightaway, ahead of my opponent. I can feel her close behind, but I'm focused only on what's in front of me. I take the inside corner with quick crossovers and fly up the middle of the track, gaining on the daunting pack of red and pink just 30 feet ahead of me.
And suddenly I'm upon them.
A beast in red dives to take me out, but I dodge the attack and scream by two teammates in a blur. Out of nowhere, another assailant in red flies across the track and lands a blow to my shoulder, knocking me off course ' but not down. I regain my momentum and push forward, with only one red adversary left. She furtively glides in front of me, blocking my path. I break to the right, then to the left, but she stays on me, predicting my every move.
I start to panic, thinking I'll never get by. Trying to fake her out, I deke to one side and dart to the other, but she is relentless, and I'm trapped in our dance. Suddenly, a blur of pink soars into view, slamming my red foe out of my path. I burst forward and into open air, a wave of adrenaline taking over as I hear the crowd cheer and the announcer scream:
'Harlot BrontÃ is your lead jammer!'
The Mad Rollin' Dolls, Madison's all-women flat-track roller derby league, is rolling into its third regular season, and I, along with 22 other new girls, am a 'baby doll' ' otherwise known as fresh meat ' in the league. Last November, after five exhilarating, grueling, black-and-blue months of tryouts, practices, drafts and parties, I played in my first real (albeit expo) bout, and I had the bruises and fishnet burns to prove it.
Made up of four teams ' the Quad Squad, the Reservoir Dolls, the Unholy Rollers and the Vaudeville Vixens ' the Mad Rollin' Dolls, like the more than one hundred leagues across the country, are stronger, faster, sexier and more popular than ever.
The modern resurgence of roller derby is nothing short of a social phenomenon. Boasting women from all walks of life, it has an electric effect on its players, not to mention its fanatic followers. Sure, there's plenty of fast skating, fights, short skirts, quirky costumes and wild all-nighters; but at its core, the Mad Rollin' Dolls, along with the entire culture of roller derby, are about something much deeper: community, strength, the independence and empowerment of women.
I started going to roller derby bouts in early 2006, when I first met Hell Kat, the lithe, coquettish jammer for the Vaudeville Vixens. A nonprofit veteran by day, Ms. Kat (or Kathryn to her co-workers) convinced me to go to a bout and promised to save me a seat at the 'sweet spot,' the corner where most skaters fly into the laps of the audience.
On a cold Saturday night that February, I headed to Fast Forward Skate Center. I was shocked when I pulled into the lot and discovered a line that began at the door and stretched almost all the way to Allied Drive.
When I finally got inside, the place was packed. A few fans held elaborately decorated signs, some nearly creepy, for their favorite Doll. Parents stood in line to buy their young kids cotton candy. Packs of college-age hipsters paraded around carrying six-packs of Pabst. Dozens of people ' small children, rowdy teens, grown adults ' wore face paint and costumes celebrating their favorite team.
Kat had kept her promise, and a place was reserved on the corner of the track for me. I ordered a PBR tallboy and took my place on the floor. I drank a huge, nervous swig upon realizing that I was sitting only four feet away from the track. I took another, bigger swig when I noticed the paramedics, stretcher at hand, hovering nearby.
But as soon as the whistle blew, I was hooked.
And four months later, I decided to try out.
A series of open skates were held in June as a prelude to tryouts. As I ambled shyly to the door of the rink on the day of the first open skate, I encountered a crowd of nearly 50 women waiting outside. For a second, I thought about turning around.
Having grown up in Mount Horeb, just a few miles west of Madison, I came to Fast Forward for birthday parties and Friday-night skates all the time as a kid, and I played inline hockey here as a teenager. So when I walked in on the first day of open skates, I was hit with a blast of nostalgia. Everything was familiar, from the unchanged rental counter and the ugly brown and orange skates, to the lingering smell of smoke machines and stale cotton candy.
We rented skates, pinned our names to our backs, and herded ourselves out onto the track. I saw a few people I knew, notably my former dental hygienist, and I was struck by the variety. White-collar businesswomen, cabdrivers, college kids: All were lacing up their skates.
It was clear, after a couple of laps, that some girls had been on skates before. Others had been off them for quite some time, and others had seemingly never been on a rink. As for me, I found that getting back on skates after over a decade off them was pretty easy.
Led by Colleen 'Crackerjack' Bell (a fan favorite and co-founder of the league) and Paige 'Stitch' Wilder (who captains the reigning champions the Quad Squad), the open skates brought us back to the basics. We worked on skills like balance, control and crossovers, and we began to build up strength and speed.
I went home after each round with aching back and thighs. Muscles I forgot I had were sore. After five open skates, tryouts weekend was upon us.
On a blistering June day, a crowd of potential fresh meat filed through the door. It was clear that some girls had weeded themselves out at the open skates, while a few new faces showed up. Close to 40 women were there to try out, and only around 20 would make the league.
Tryouts, in short, were a bitch. I found out quickly that the Mad Rollin' Dolls were a lot more than just sexy girls on skates. They were athletes, and they meant serious business. We sprinted, squatted, practiced pace lines and balance drills, fell down, scrambled back up, and fell down again. Captains and team representatives furiously scribbled notes as they watched the new girls roll. At the end of day one, I had a huge bruise forming on my shin, where I'd taken a skate in the leg during a pileup.
Much more terrifying than any fall or injury was the interview on day two, in which baby dolls were called one by one into a tiny room packed with over a dozen returning Dolls. When my turn came, I crept into the tiny room and sat down.
Why do you want to be a Doll? What will you bring to MRD? What's your biggest fear? They shot the questions at me, stone-faced, and my hands trembled under the table as I squeaked out my answers. I felt like I was 6 again, being interrogated by teachers after running away. But I made it through without crying or running from the room screaming. I even made a few of them laugh. And that night, after a lot of Ibuprofen and even more waiting, I got the call. I had made the cut.
Practices pressed on throughout the summer. We learned how to hit and began practicing contact. We learned the drill aptly named 'Blood and Thunder,' in which a group of girls skate around the track for two minutes and hit the hell out of each other. More than once I skated off the track with blood in my mouth guard.
By the beginning of August, the gang of baby dolls had racked up a broken leg and elbow, a cracked rib and a handful of knee injuries. But we were jamming, blocking and skating like new women. After three months of hard work, we learned that the official team draft was to occur in early September.
And then the truly unnerving news: More people would be cut from the league. Teams began scouting, more notes were scribbled at practices, and rumors flew. Who would be cut? Which team will I make? The anticipation was unbearable.
Three nights before the draft, after the longest wait of my adult life, my phone rang. Trembling, I picked up the receiver and mustered a greeting. I heard the voice of Dolly Pardon Me, captain of the Vaudeville Vixens, inviting me to come to the draft event. Four more people had been cut, and I had officially been drafted.
The night of the draft finally arrived. The league rented out the Inferno for the party, and I drove there on a Tuesday night. I got to the bar around six, and found most of the baby dolls huddled together, nervously clutching their first drink. By seven, most of us had already downed two or three. It was going to be a long night.
Suddenly the captains cleared their throats at the mike, and asked for our attention. The draft announcements began. One by one, baby dolls were snatched up and invited to join their new families. Amidst the cheers and applause, I finally heard my name: I would be a Vaudeville Vixen.
The party lasted well into the night. Our posses packed into a tiny bar on Willy street, no doubt terrorizing some of the quieter patrons. I sucked down more Jell-O shots than I can count.
And somewhere in between posing for pictures and swilling booze with our new teams, between wet-cheeked hugs and celebratory dancing, I and my band of newly drafted baby dolls began to realize with shock that after months of intense training, we had officially become part of the Mad Rollin' Dolls.
Roller derby was invented in 1932 by Leo Seltzer, who conceived of it as an endurance competition in a time when dance-a-thons were all the rage. Just as modern professional wrestlers break chairs over each others' backs, the theatrical violence and other dramatic antics of derby were added to bring in the crowds. Both men and women skated on a banked track, and it was much more about spectacle than sport.
By the 1950s, it became one of the biggest fads in America, but despite many attention-grabbing tactics, it disappeared into obscurity by the early 1970s. A futile attempt to revive it in the 1980s, the television show Roller Jam ' which included a pit of live alligators in the center of the track ' didn't last long.
The modern reincarnation of roller derby began with the Texas Rollergirls league, which formed in 2001 and established itself as a nonprofit organization in 2003. Following their lead, flat-track leagues sprouted up across the United States and Canada, with western Europe, Mexico and New Zealand hot on their trail. In the United States, the Women's Flat Track Derby Association was founded in 2004 to foster the growth of new leagues.
The new derby leagues stress a 'by the derby girls' ethic. The Mad Rollin' Dolls, and groups like them, are self-sustaining organizations that are run solely by skaters and support staff. They reinvest their profits after rink fees back into their organizations, and they also make donations to various community charities.
The Rollin' Dolls began in 2003 as the brainchild of Colleen Bell. While she was finishing her degree in anthropology at UW-Madison, she went to Texas to visit her sister, who plays for the Texas Rollergirls, and checked out her first flat-track derby bout.
'The sport was fascinating,' she says. 'It was neat to see people volunteering. It had such style and cultural resonance.' A self-proclaimed project person, Colleen came back to Madison and decided to start up her own league.
'I felt like it was the right time for women,' she says. 'I gave it a month, and figured that if others got as passionate about it as I did, it would make itself. And that's what happened. It took off.'
Perhaps the greatest allure of modern roller derby is its blend of serious athleticism and campy entertainment. The Mad Rollin' Dolls sell out the arena every Saturday night with a mix of sport, spectacle and sex.
Some skaters play up their derby personae. Princess Die (state worker Emily Savard by day) dons a sparkling tiara and blows kisses to her enemies. Dolly Pardon Me (Amy Basel to her fellow daycare workers) can often be found line-dancing on the sidelines. Vanna Whitetrash (a.k.a. Laura Merkt) is never without a black eye, ratted hair and a cigarette hanging from her lips. And Dutch Oven (Marissa Rosen, a chemist) brings in gaggles of fans holding signs describing various bodily functions.
But crowd-pleasing kitsch aside, roller derby is a fast and hard-hitting sport that requires speed, strategy, agility and strength. Practices are held three times per week, sometimes more, with an optional conditioning practice every Wednesday night. Practices are long, and usually include a mix of strength-building, conditioning and all-out scrimmaging.
And when the home season wraps up in May, the competition continues. Each summer the Mad Rollin' Dolls field an all-star team, the Dairyland Dolls, who pack up their skates and take on teams representing flat-track leagues from Seattle to Austin, Minnesota to New York. Last season, the Dolls nabbed third place among the 32 Women's Flat Track Derby Association leagues.
So if derby is such a serious sport, why the kitschy personae?
'It's more comfortable to play for a crowd when there's a wall,' Bell explains. 'If I go out there as Colleen, I think about my grandma, about my friends who might be in the audience. If I go out there as Crackerjack, I don't think about my grandma. I can swear. Exhibition is a big part of the game.'
For some observers, though, the sight of women flashing their thighs in fishnet stockings and short skirts isn't too far a cry from the kind of objectification that women have fought so hard in the past. But to the skaters, it's just the opposite.
'It's about owning what we do,' says Crackerjack. 'It's a form of expression for us. We're not being subjugated ' it's our freedom.'
She continues: 'This isn't my mom's feminism ' [derby] doesn't always fit into their scheme of what's acceptable. But we refuse to apologize. We're not here to be pretty. We're not here for you. The skaters put themselves out there in a way that they're comfortable with.'
With a smirk, she adds: 'Plus, we work really hard on our asses. It's our power to show them off.'
Women from all walks of life come out to play derby ' students, strippers, working-class single moms, white-collar professionals ' and each woman has a different story to tell. They have come together to play this sport and to make friends; and for some, to gain a sense of strength and self-esteem that they perhaps previously never had.
As the season that started last month unfolds, I find that derby has become an exciting new part of life separate from the one I've known. I've grown stronger, physically and mentally. I get to compete, perform and party with a group of intelligent, interesting and remarkable women on a regular basis.
Plus, I get to wear fishnets and insanely short skirts while kicking serious ass on roller skates. What's not to love?
If you go
Mad Rollin' Dolls roller-derby bouts take place at Fast Forward Skate Center, 4649 Verona Rd. (271-6222). Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door. Bouts sell out.
The last regular bout of the season is March 3; semifinals are March 31, and league finals April 28.
For more information, go to www.madrollindolls.com, or call 271-6222, extension 150.