- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 20, 2006

They use names like Shevil Knevil, Coach Ballbricker and Ivana E. Chabrains. Many of them have loud personalities and tattoos covering whole body parts. All of them wear skimpy garb and love roller-skating.

They’re the recently formed Charm City Roller Girls, Baltimore’s own all-woman roller-derby league, one of the latest additions in a rapidly growing sport.

“This is so great, and the turnout’s amazing,” said an all-smiles Edie Bemben, 29, a member of the Junkyard Dolls, one of four teams in the Baltimore league, at the league’s inaugural bout a few weeks ago at Putty Hill Skateland, a rink in Baltimore County.

Ms. Bemben, whose roller-derby name is Coach Ballbricker, is wearing what once were gray Dickies mechanics overalls. They’re still gray, but they’re cut off high on the thigh, and they’re sleeveless. Oh, and they’re lined with pink lace ruffles. A fusion of self-mockery and “take-this”? In any case, the outfit meshes well with the team name.

Roaring from the loudspeakers at the bout are tunes by the Rolling Stones, Snoop Dog and various speed-metal bands. Roaring from the stands are applause and cheers from more than 1,000 spectators who have come to watch the Junkyard Dolls take on the Speed Regime and the Mobtown Mods fight it out against the Night Terrors. All teams belong to the Charm City Roller Girls league.

“From what I heard, it was a pretty interesting bout to watch, the fighting and all,” says Ms. Bemben, who spent several minutes in the penalty box: a polka-dot baby pool in the middle of the rink.

Roller derby is a contact sport. Ms. Bemben likens it to football on skates. Each team has five skaters on the rink at one time. One skater on each team is designated as the jammer, the skater who scores points. The team scores when the jammer is able to circle and pass the pack of other skaters at least twice.

The defensive players — the blockers — try to prevent the jammer from scoring. This is when the fighting happens — skaters were flying into the rows of spectators at Skateland during the inaugural fight — sorry — bout.

“There can definitely be hard feelings at the end of a bout,” says Caroline Donaghy, 27, team captain of the Mobtown Mods. Miss Donaghy, unable to play after tearing her anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, in a scuffle during an intense scrimmage a few weeks earlier, cheered on her team from the sidelines, a giant brace hugging her leg.

“But in the end we all get over it,” says Miss Donaghy, who helped form the league last year. “We all get along — we have to — we work together on the events.”

The roller-derby leagues, of which there are about 80 nationally with at least 40 players each, are all run by the female amateur players, which is very different from the roller derby of yesteryear, which consisted of professional players who made their livelihood skating.

The original roller derby started in 1935 as an antidote to Depression-era gloom and a scarcity of entertainment.

“People loved to come in for a dime and be entertained for hours,” says Jerry Seltzer, whose late father, Leo Seltzer, a Chicago-area sports promoter, invented the sport. “The skaters were athletic and entertaining.”

However, it was completely different from the contact team sport it later became. In the 1930s, the teams consisted of a pair — one woman and one man — who were trying to be the first team of several to skate about 4,000 miles, or 57,000 laps, around a banked track. They would trade off to allow for rest, to entertain the audience and to cheer on their teammate.

“It was an extension of the walkathons and dance marathons that were so popular back then,” says Mr. Seltzer, who took over from his father as a promoter and manager of the sport in the ‘50s, a role he held until the early ‘70s, when he says the sport fell out of favor and money.

During the younger Mr. Seltzer’s tutelage, however, the sport achieved such popularity that for a while, bouts were shown on at least 120 television stations nationwide, he says.

Early on, roller derby changed from the two-member teams to five-member teams. Over time, the game also became more theatrical and collision-heavy. Nevertheless, skaters say that none of the fighting is planned or staged.

“There is no way you could do that,” Miss Donaghy says. “There are too many people involved to stage an entire jam. … The fighting is real.”

In fact, part of the appeal is the fighting, the contact, Ms. Bemben says.

“Can you think of any other contact sport for women? How many women’s football leagues are there? I can’t think of any.”

During the inaugural bout, one woman dislocated her shoulder and several came away with severe bruises.

“The bruises are horrifying, and they wear them like a badge of courage,” says Mr. Seltzer, who lives in California.

When the sport was resurrected a few years ago (after a couple of decades of little attention and few active roller-derby skaters) it came back as an all-woman — or as the skaters might say, “all-girls” — sport.

“I don’t know why we refer to each other as ‘girls,’ but everyone does,” Ms. Bemben says. “I guess we don’t feel our age. We’re having fun, and we feel young.”

Mr. Seltzer says he’s a fan of the current incarnation of roller derby.

“Is it the same? No, it’s not. The skill level is very different. … But in my own way I love it,” he says. “These women are having a great time. It’s about women’s empowerment. It’s about exercise. It’s about dressing up — it’s like they’re having Halloween once a week — but more than anything, it’s about having fun,” he says.

One of the early leagues in the resurrection of roller derby, formed in 2001, was the TXRD Lonestar Girls from Austin, Texas, which was profiled briefly earlier this year in a reality show on the A&E; Television Network. Though the show drew attention to the sport, Mr. Seltzer says he isn’t sure it was the right kind of attention, and neither is Ms. Bemben.

“It was all about the drinking, partying and who was stealing whose boyfriend,” she says. “I don’t even drink. … I wish it had been more about the sport.”

Mr. Seltzer agrees and calls it the “Jerry Springer approach” to roller derby.

“I think if anything, it hurt the sport,” he says.

Other misconceptions about the sport are that most of the women are homosexual and that many work as bartenders or exotic dancers.

“That’s not true,” says Ms. Bemben, who has a school-age son and works as a designer-seamstress. “Although, I do design clothes for exotic dancers,” she says and smiles.

Then she quickly gets serious and says, “We have all kinds of people in our league — no exotic dancers, though. We have a paramedic, a crisis counselor, scientists. All walks of life.”

The DC Rollergirls, a league that is forming in the District and trying to find a permanent practice rink, is a perfect example of the “all walks of life” aspect of roller derby.

There’s a law student, a special-education teacher and DC Rollergirls co-founder Ginger Park, 25, of Rockville, who studies government and politics at the University of Maryland at College Park.

Miss Park says her interest in roller derby is threefold: It’s a good way to meet other professional women and develop strong female friendships, it’s a way to get exercise, and finally, it’s a stress release.

“In fact, my road rage has diminished since we started the league,” she says.

Ms. Bemben echoes those positives.

“I have a lot more muscle mass and endurance,” Ms. Bemben says. “Mentally … I’m definitely in a better mood after skating. I don’t know what that’s from …”

The bruises inflicted, perhaps?

Ms. Bemben and her league mates will take their show on the road in late July and August as Las Vegas hosts RollerCon, a mega-bout that will enable dozens of teams from all over the country to lock elbows and skates.

“It’s going to be awesome,” Ms. Bemben says. “A year ago, we were barely a league. Now look at us.”

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