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A Sport for the Well-Wheeled 

Pain may not be the name of the game, but it's definitely a side dish when you're talking roller derby. I'm in the car with three Big Easy Rollergirls, on my way to Skate Country on the West Bank to watch a practice, and the first thing we discuss is injuries.

"We've had one busted kneecap so far, one busted elbow," says Jaws, a skater whose bruises match the lipstick she's applying in the car. "She never came back."

"We had one girl completely break her kneecap, but she kept coming back," says Marquee de Squad, a team captain and interleague coordinator for the league. "She must have been crazy. ... We try to train in how to control falling."

"It's really intense and fast brain activity," explains Marquee. "It takes a lot of stamina and endurance."

Almost a year and a half -- and one hurricane -- after they're inception, the Big Easy Rollergirls finally got a bout. I'm almost sold -- until I meet Smasher, the league's publicist, who is on crutches.

"I tore a ligament during practice," she explains. "I'll be on them six or seven more weeks, so I probably won't be bouting till Christmas."

Roller Derby itself began as a competitive sport in the late '30s, with co-ed teams. The sport grew well into the early '70s ­ about the time of the release of Jim Croce's immortal song "Roller Derby Queen" ­ when the original league was sold to an organization called the Los Angeles Roller Games. In the '80s, the sport was reintroduced, professional wrestling-style, with elaborate, staged attractions like alligator pits on the track or "Walls of Death." Around 2000, that league, called "Roller Jam," was discontinued, but around the same time, women's roller derby as we know it today developed in Austin and San Antonio, Texas: tough punk-rock-looking girls in cool outfits slamming each other on flat tracks (as opposed to the banked track of the derby of yore) with rock bands playing at halftime. As a trend, it exploded; now there are dozens of teams in multiple leagues in cities across America, all under the umbrella of the governing body Women's Flat-Track Derby Association. There was even a reality series shot in Texas that aired for a season in 2005 called Rollergirls. The Big Easy Rollergirls themselves formed for the first time in the spring of 2005, but were derailed by Katrina. Marquee de Squad estimates the storm blew away 80 percent of the team. Its inaugural bout had been scheduled for October 2005. After beginning tryouts and practices in February 2006, not to mention toughing it through a derby boot camp taught by two members of Las Vegas' Sin City Rollergirls in July, they're ready to hit the track almost exactly a year later.

Because of the low post-Katrina numbers in the league, the 32 players currently skating are divided into only two teams that will battle each other during intraleague play for most of the 2006-2007 season, although a few interleague bouts are scheduled with teams from out of town. The two local teams currently are the 'Aints -- dressed in familiar black and gold with fleur-de-lis logo -- and the Hor-Nots, who wear teal.

That's another part of the appeal of derby -- the outfits are great. One of the 'Aints is skating in gold hot pants; another wears a pleated black-and-gold drum majorette's skirt with a cutoff Saints jersey (with the team name modified, of course.) The names and numbers they skate under are also hilarious. As announcer Ian McNulty calls out each team member for a practice introductory lap, I hear some great ones: Bruise Springsteen, Crusty McKnuckle, Scabigail and Little Miss Ruffit. Some good numbers too: Cheap Thrill, #40-ounce; Li'l Innocent, #4:20; Cherry Pi, #3.14, and Sophie Nuke 'Em, #1886, who would be my favorite except for the all-time greatest New Orleans-specific stage name ever: Pontchartrain Beeyatch.

Who wants to be a roller derby girl? The demographics are surprising. "The average age is probably early 30s," says Smasher ('Aints #727). "Mostly professionals. We have a lot of architects, lawyers, bankers ... and a LOT of Tulane alumnae. I'd say one-third of us are alumnae, or there now. I can think of three who are at Tulane law right now ... Let's see, she's a lawyer," Smasher says, pointing at Illegally Blonde ('Aints #54) as she laps the track. "She came to us from an all-moms league in Texas," indicating another skater. "And Shay-Bay (Hor-nots #12) is a youth leader in her church. We call her the Holy Roller. She's not someone to mess with on the track."

Although flat-track derby is a serious competitive sport with national guidelines -- and the Big Easy Rollergirls have passed a national accreditation -- few of the participants were serious athletes or even skaters before joining up. They often begin as referees until they're ready to get on the track. The three weekly practices mandated by the WFTA help skaters get bout-ready, as do pickup practices in parks and neighborhood streets on the weekends.

"We had a high turnover," says Marquee de Squad (Hor-Nots, #138), one of the few skaters still in the league from the pre-Katrina roster. "Some quit because we get all serious on them; we've established bylaws and rules of conduct. But most of the girls who joined since the storm are different. They're dedicated, they show up to practice, take it upon themselves to skate and exercise outside of practice. It's really because of them that this is happening."

It takes a lot to run a derby team. Weekly practices at rented rinks aren't cheap. The Rollergirls -- a limited liability corporation -- pays $250 three times a week for space rental, not to mention the startup costs of the bout; renting out Mardi Gras World, chairs, concessions, program printing and other miscellaneous expenses add up. So besides the practice schedule -- already taxing for a full-time jobholder, not to mention working moms -- there's planning and coordination for the many fundraiser rock shows and car washes the team has held. And it's a tight ship. At the pre-practice meeting, league manager and LLC president Kate Parker calls out jobs for the upcoming bout with a special caveat: "If you do not show up by 10, I will have security escort you out. I mean it. We all work too hard."

The rules of roller derby are not any more baffling than those of football, soccer, or racecar driving. The positions include pivot, blocker and jammer. The action of the game looks, to the untrained eye, like it consists of skating around and around a regulation-size flat track with occasional and inexplicable pileups, but what actually is happening is this: Two players, identifiable by the stripes on their helmets, lead the circling pack and set the pace. Jammers are skaters who are charged with skating their way through the pack and past the pivots, and back around again. Once they meet up with the rear of the pack and start skating through it, one point is scored for each member of the opposing team they pass. Inside the pack are blockers, who work to impede the jammers' progress. Twenty-minute periods are divided into jams, which last up to two minutes each, but a lead jammer -- the first jammer to bust through the pack -- can stop the jam and the potential to score points at any time by putting her hands on her hips. During the bout, five players per team skate at any given time: one pivot, three blockers and one jammer. There are penalties for things like swinging your elbows, intentionally falling in front of another player to cause a pileup, excessive skating out of bounds, and fighting -- hitting, kicking, biting, tripping, choking and "bitch-slapping."

"It's the petite ones that are just demons," says Smasher. "All of our most aggressive skaters are under 5-foot-5." For some skaters, the necessary aggression has to be practiced. "I grew up with brothers on a farm, so it's easy for me," she says. "But at practice, Kate has to keep yelling, 'If you knock someone down don't stop, don't apologize.' That's had to be learned, but some of us are just naturally aggressive, and looking for an outlet." Frighteningly, there do exist teams for whom the regular violence levels permitted by the WFTA are not enough. "There's a rogue league I've heard about that plays really dirty," Smasher says. "They're offering teams like $1,000 just to skate with them."

"The only problem with this is there's not enough blood," says the derby fan standing behind me at the premier bout Sept. 16. I turn to look; he's a young, mild-mannered-looking guy in a white T-shirt and jeans talking to his date, who looks equally fresh-faced and like a casual, young professional in her tank top and ponytail. They both have the kind of crazy eyes and loopy grins you see on ringside spectators at boxing matches. They're trained on the center of the track, where the 'Aints and the Hor-Nots are gearing up for round two of jams after a halftime set by the all-girl hard rock act Manwitch and Ninth Ward rapper MC Trachiotomy. The energy inside Mardi Gras World is phenomenal -- the sold-out crowd gives off an excited, ambient buzz, and the music is just right to jack up a thousand-plus gang of punk rock "sports" fans: Iggy Pop, the Ramones and the New York Dolls. Even before the jam begins, the 30-odd girls in the middle of the track are in constant, back-and-forth motion, like drag racers warming their tires on the asphalt.

During the second part of the game, the crowd goes wild. Bessie Smithereens (Hor-Nots #54) is getting some notice from the announcer for going around the pack a lot. Then, Cherry Pi ('Aints #3.14) breaks through, but ends the jam. When time is called, it becomes clear what the fuss was about -- the 'Aints, who have been trailing the Hor-Nots for the whole game, have rallied and tied the score at the very end of the final period. Since WFTA rules allow for a tie-breaking extra jam, around they go again. The final score is 128-123 in favor of the Hor-Nots, and pandemonium erupts briefly until the teams break from their celebratory huddles with friends and family to start taking down their own rented chairs and marking tape to be out of Mardi Gras World by the agreed hour.

"Just coming back and tying the score was enough for me," says Vandal O'Riley ('Aints #C8H18), sitting at the bar of the Whirling Dervish during an afterparty. "I really do feel great."

Victoria von Doom skates by on her way to the bar. "I have, like, a perpetual smile," she says. "It was the most amazing ... the girls, the crowd. I'm just blissed out."

Correction

In the Fall Neighborhood Restaurant Guide (Oct. 10), some hours and information were listed incorrectly. Uptown, Ignatius is open Thursday through Monday, and Dick & Jenny's does not accept reservations. In River Ridge, Mimi's Italian Restaurant is not open for lunch. On the Northshore, Juniper is not open for Sunday brunch, and the phone number for Vic & Nat'ly's is (985) 898-0667. Gambit Weekly regrets the errors.

click to enlarge The 'Aints and Hor-nots take to the track with a vengeance. - PHIL MAY
  • Phil May
  • The 'Aints and Hor-nots take to the track with a vengeance.
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