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Photo: Joe Putrock

A Smashing Sisterhood

Roller derby leagues in troy and albany provide women the opportunity to become roller-rink badasses—and be part of a national trend

By Kirsten Ferguson

It’s a Saturday evening in April at Albany’s Washington Avenue Armory, and the Albany All Stars roller derby league is taking on another all-female amateur roller derby league from Manchester, N.H. Fans, filling the Armory stands and stoked by the halftime entertainment of dodgeball, draft beer and local bands, wave homemade signs for Trixie Firecracker and Scarlet O’Hackya, star players on one of Albany’s two teams, the Department of Public Hurts.

A male announcer with frizzy hair and a slick white suit paces the sidelines, narrating the action for newfound derby fans still figuring out the sport’s myriad rules for how penalties are assessed and points scored (each team has an offensive player, called a jammer, who must lap the pack of skaters once before scoring a point each time she weaves her way past an opposing blocker).

To cheers from the crowd, Albany jammer Trixie Firecracker—a petite brunette flashing silver shorts, orange fishnet stockings and the team’s blue gas-station- attendant-shirt uniform—survives a vicious bump, breaks through a group of skaters and speeds to the front of the pack, racking up points for the home team, who end up routing their opponents, the ManchVegas Roller Girls.

The following week, members of the Albany All Stars take time before one of their practices at the Armory to talk about how women’s flat-track roller derby—a craze catching on all over the country—has lit a fire here in the Capital Region, with separate skater-run leagues now operating in both Albany and Troy.

“It was tough in the beginning,” explains Sin & Tonic, a friendly redhead whom you would not want to mess with in a darkly lit alley. Recruited by other local skaters through a MySpace message that read, “Hey, you look like you’re badass, come join us,” Sin & Tonic helped members of the fledging Albany derby league turn the parking lot of Clifton Park’s Northern Lights nightclub into a makeshift track for the sport’s local debut back in 2007. “People were like, ‘Roller derby—what’s that?’ ”

“And then we had a line around the block,” adds Dixie Stampede, explaining how the popularity of local roller derby exploded at matches soon after.

“When I started, it was six or seven of us in rental skates,” Sin & Tonic says. The players picked up on roller derby techniques by doing practice swaps with other teams, watching matches on YouTube and going to see New York City’s experienced Gotham Girls.

The Albany league now has 45 women split among two teams: Empire Skate Troopers and Department of Public Hurts. “To see where we’ve come now,” Sin & Tonic says, “we’re literally running a business in our spare time. Making sure we have insurance and bills are paid.” Players divvy up the tasks needed to keep the league running, from lining up bouts to fundraising and promotion.

An avid mountain biker and former soccer player with a day job as a nurse paramedic, Dixie Stampede talks about the personal appeal of derby, both for the athleticism involved and for the intense camaraderie it generates among players, who often socialize together outside the team and collaborate on community fundraisers and team-building activities like potlucks and Take Back the Night anti-violence demonstrations.

“For me, it’s the athletic outlet and being on a team again,” Dixie says. “But it really is a lot of fun to weave in and out of people and knock them down and make them mad. That’s my less politically correct answer.”

The sport attracts all kinds of women, ranging in age from 20s to 40s. “We literally come from all walks of life,” Dixie explains. “There are a lot of teachers and librarians—I’m not sure what that says.”

“We all come from different backgrounds, but we have similar personalities,” Sin & Tonic adds. “We’re a lot of very driven women who aren’t afraid to speak our minds.”

“Individuality is embraced here; that’s really nice,” says Erin Go Brutal, who values the team in part as an outlet for her creative skills, which she puts to work designing bout posters and customizing her own blue-and-orange uniform.

Despite its previous incarnation in the 1970s as a staged form of entertainment run by men and held on banked tracks where women threw punches and pulled each other’s hair, modern roller derby is a demanding, albeit still unabashedly aggressive, sport with well-defined rules for how and where you can body check members of the opposing team.

The players are well-padded, but injuries—from serious ones like broken legs and noses to less serious ones like strains and bruises—are commonplace. Sin & Tonic’s most recent bout was her first one back after losing her footing in practice and snapping her ankle in two places. The ankle is now held together by a plate, nine screws and a pin. “It was exhilarating to be back in front of a crowd,” she says.

“Boy, is it fun when you hear the crowd calling your name,” nods skater Jenny Rotten.

Across the Hudson River, members of the Hellions of Troy—dressed in hot pink team T-shirts and fluorescent green kneesocks—skate in a circle around the Frear Park hockey rink that serves as their practice space and home stadium. Outside the air is cool for an evening in early May, but it’s still much warmer outdoors than it is inside the frigid ice rink. The low-slung building, nicknamed the “thunderdome” by players, has a vaulted metallic ceiling and an airport-hangar feel.

As team member Flexi Wheeler blows a whistle, the skaters drop to one padded knee on the rough concrete floor before hopping back up quickly and continuing on in a circle. “Speed is not the issue, control is the issue,” Flexi intones as she leads the players through their drills at the start of practice.

Flexi is the Hellions’ “unofficial” head coach and also one of the league’s most visible personalities. Once a competitive figure roller skater at Rollarama skating rink in Schenectady, and now a fixture at Gold’s Gym in Clifton Park, Flexi takes her name from “old school” professional body builder Flex Wheeler. She likes to show off her well-defined form, posing in camped-up, muscle-baring photos on her MySpace page.

Although she describes herself as the “love child of the Incredible Hulk and a burlesque performer,” Flexi takes on a solicitous role toward the younger players at practice, and talks about wanting to “get girls working out” by landing a gym sponsorship for the team.

“I’m so much older than everyone else, I saw original roller derby,” Flexi says. “I’m all about the athletics. The athletics are rigorous. A lot of the girls on the team have really transformed themselves. It’s a full contact sport for women. We have to learn how to really hit and not be like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ ”

Flexi got hooked on roller derby shortly after reading an Albany Times Union article on the sport written by Hellions skater the Beirut Bombshell, who doubles as a journalist. “When I saw that article, I went nuts,” Flexi says. “I still love it to this day. There was an e-mail address at the end of the article. I contacted the team and I was like, ‘I’m in.’ I showed up two days later with all my gear.”

Members of both the Albany and Troy leagues cite a 2006 A&E TV show called Rollergirls as an early inspiration. The short-lived reality series followed members of the Austin, Texas, Lonestar Rollergirls, who formed the first modern-era, skater-owned and -operated women’s roller-derby league in 2001.

“I lived in Austin in the ’90s,” says the Beirut Bombshell, who formed the Hellions in fall 2008 along with about 10 other players who originally skated for the Albany league. “I used to go back to visit friends and I saw [roller derby] going on. I knew as a kid I was going to be in roller derby when I grew up.”

The Hellions embarked on their first full season this month, and have upcoming bouts scheduled into the coming summer and fall. The team is working toward inclusion in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, a governing body that maintains team rankings and official rules for the sport. Gaining entrance into WFTDA requires adherence to a lot of requirements, from physical minimums for skaters to the obtaining of recommendations from other teams.

Whether or not to strive for WFTDA certification was a factor in the split last year that found players leaving the Albany league to form their own skater-run league in Troy. “Going forward, a lot of people had different ideas about how to do things,” Bombshell says. “But there’s a concept in business of critical mass: What we do for derby is good for them. It’s great for derby fans in the Capital District because now they can go to two or three bouts a month.”

Since the start of modern roller derby in Austin, close to 400 women’s roller-derby leagues have sprouted up across the country. “Now there are all these companies that will sell you roller-derby packages and all these roller-derby- related fashion lines,” Bombshell says. “We take it really seriously. We practice several hours a week. We’ll train anyone. We get a lot of girls that haven’t been on skates since 6th grade. If you have dedication and a little bit of athleticism, anyone can do this. That’s what’s great about it. It’s like a punk-rock sorority.”

Both the Albany and Troy leagues are seeking to expand their rosters, and hold recruitment nights to attract new players. Sam Antixxx, a “native Troy girl,” saw the Albany team play last year and then attended a recent recruitment night held by the Hellions. “I’ve never belonged to a team,” she says. “Hadn’t skated since junior high. When I met the women on the team, I was sold. I thought, these are my sisters. I could use a bit of sisterhood.”

For “newbies,” or “fresh meat” as new skaters often are called, there can be a steep learning curve involved in getting used to the sport. “Feeling secure on your skates is the hardest part,” Sam Antixxx says. “Getting your balance, learning how to skate with people really close to you. It’s a lot more physically challenging than I realized. It’s terrifying and exhilarating and challenging. But the experienced skaters are so helpful. There are no flashbacks to high school when you were the uncoordinated kid and people made fun of you. It’s so amazingly supportive. That’s what keeps me coming back.”

A few days after the team’s practice, the Frear Park rink is transformed by concession stands, live blues music, and pink and green balloons into the venue for the Hellions’ first bout of the season, a match against their “sister team,” the Utica Rollergirls. An announcer warns spectators sitting up close in metal folding chairs, the “suicide seats,” that they may “end up with a dirty girl” in their laps. When the announcer reminds the crowd that no punching or fighting is allowed, the crowd boos.

A Hellion named Point and Shoot skates by with a white fur Mohawk affixed to her helmet. Shockratease, one of several Troy players who alternate wearing the star-emblazoned helmet cover of a jammer, blazes to the front of the pack to score. Then a Utica jammer takes the lead and is about to clear the pack as Flexi—with a gleam in her eye and a green streamer flying from the back of her rhinestone-studded helmet—hits the Utica player with a massive hip block, knocking her off the track. The Hellions end up winning the closely matched bout by a score of 166 to 159, and a young boy standing alongside the track yells, “I love you Flexi.”

Albany’s Empire Skate Troopers (albanyallstars.com) take on the Coal City Rollers of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on May 16 at the Washington Avenue Armory. The Hellions of Troy (hellionsoftroyrollerderby.com) hold their next home bout on June 6 at Frear Park against Assault City from Syracuse.


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