By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
It happened about a year ago. They had been dating off and on for a decade, ever since high school. She'd been gaining weight and he'd been treating her like shit. She cheated on him and used the self-esteem boost to dump him. When he found out why, he called her a whore. And that was that.
But it only got worse. He started dating one of her ex-bridesmaids, a friend she'd had since middle school. And guess what? That bridesmaid got pregnant and became his new fiancée, not three months after he and Heather had split. That was supposed to have been Heather's life, but it was gone, and it hadn't fled far.
"After we broke up I lost all hope," she says. "I became the most irresponsible person in the world. It was just bad. I was pretty much at my lowest point."
Heather lost half her friends, threw away a few more and starting drinking a lot. She began a series of questionable, short-lived relationships. And it's not like her home life offered a lot of pick-me-ups: Her parents were deceased, her grandmother diagnosed with throat cancer, and her grandfather not really there.
But one night at Fitzgerald's she learned about an upstart roller derby league. A couple of women were getting together skaters, hoping to create an all-female league on par with one in Austin. Heather had been a dedicated ice-skater when she was a kid, but a broken hip took her out of the game and jump-started her weight problems. Roller derby, she figured, could be a good way to shed some pounds while shaking off her problems. Plus it had that whole hipster retro thing going on. She signed up.
Heather's always been a tomboy, a guy's gal. When she considered checking herself into a mental hospital after finding out her ex-bridesmaid was pregnant, it was a man, the owner of Montrose Skate Shop, who talked her out of it. But it was a woman, another skater who goes by the name Pseudo Punk, who took care of her, nursed her back to health.
And that's when Heather, a.k.a. Rippin' Red, became complete. That's when she became a rollergirl.
Mention roller derby to the average person, and odds are you'll hear "Oh, you mean like wrestling?" But derby began as an endurance contest. When Chicago promoter Leo Seltzer invented the sport in the 1930s, he was trying to draw people away from dance marathons. He had coed teams skate thousands of miles around a large track, traveling roughly the distance between New York and Los Angeles, and a map on the wall showed their progress.
A few years later Seltzer noticed fans got most excited when the participants crashed into each other -- you can blame this learning curve on NASCAR not yet being invented -- and that's when derby became a full-contact sport. Seltzer shrank the track and changed the rules to up the carnage: Now eight skaters, four from each team, circled in a pack while two "jammers" sprinted around, trying to pass as many opposing players as possible (see "The Deal"). The sport took off and Seltzer eventually passed the league down to his son.
Over the years, roller derby did become more and more "like wrestling." Fights were commonplace (and faker than fake), and just about every bout went down to the wire. In other words, the fans loved it. But high overhead costs gutted the league by the early '70s, and several attempts to revive the sport were short-lived.
That is, until 2000, when a group of women in Austin got together and stripped the sport down, making the track flat and the matches real. Originally called Bad Girl, Good Woman Productions, the Austin league was filled with women who were the antitheses of the rollergirls of yesteryear. Gone were the tans, jumpsuits and Farrah Fawcett feathering of the past; in were the tattoos, fishnets and Bettie Page bangs of riot grrrls. They'd come a long way, baby.
Jen "Ellis Dee" Loving, spokeswoman for the Texas Rollergirls, a group that split from BGGW Productions in 2003 to form its own league, is a big fan of flat-track. One, she says, you can skate flat-track anywhere there's good flooring. And two, "Spectators sit all along the track and never know when a rollergirl might come flying into their laps."
The Austin skaters are the vanguard of a slew of all-female, DIY leagues, including ones in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Madison, Atlanta, San Antonio and now Houston.
Sprint around the rink. Slide on your knees. Do 25 push-ups. Hop up. Sprint again. Only three more rounds to go. You can do it.
Red's getting tired. She goes down crooked on a knee-slide and drags her thigh across the polished floor, the dull screech silencing the cheers of "Go, Heather. Go, Red." She stares at the Snoopy flags hanging from the rink's ceiling, grimaces, flips over and pushes up.
Only two more rounds to go.
It's early October. After nine months of laps and drills and laps and drills, the women of Houston Roller Derby are weeks away from their first exhibition bout. The knee-slide exercise complete, they're all sitting along the wall of Dairy Ashford Roller Rink, listening to their coach while taking deep breaths of the Frito- and feet-tinged air.
"I know y'all are tired," says Patsy Crime, a former Texas Rollergirl who's been training the Houston women since the beginning (and who, like several other skaters, wants only her derby name used). "And I know y'all are stressed. But you've all come so far. I can remember when a lot of you were wall-walking."
Back in January and February, many of them looked like newborn foals on wheels, their knees buckling and their butts bruising. Some hadn't skated since middle school, when rolling around the rink was secondary to holding hands and having your first kiss. But by the end of the summer things had started to click: Most had mastered turnaround stops and almost all had learned to take a hit without falling over.
Just about every revival derby league in the nation has seen a democratic revolt, and Houston is no different. This league was originally called Space City Roller Girls, but the two women who created it wouldn't cede control to the skaters, resulting in a coup when the duo tried to fire the coed training team. A vote was held, the league sided with the trainers, and Houston Roller Derby, a skater-run enterprise, was born.
"It was a dumb thing for them to be so bold as to kick the trainers off, because it was their death," says Red. "And we were like, 'Fuck it. We're moving on without you.' "
Some of the skaters quit immediately after the revolt -- "They didn't want to be in the mixture of that chaos," she says -- and others dropped out when they realized how much work this new democracy required.
"It seemed like for a long time all they would do is create committees, but nobody would ever do anything," says a skater who left mid-summer. "Some girls quit because it's too hard, and some girls quit because it's too hard to deal with the politics. I realized why I don't have a lot of girlfriends."
Other women quit for work and family -- driving out to Dairy Ashford three times a week can be a real time-sucker -- but their skates have been filled by newcomers, keeping the league at about 50 members. There are four teams: the Machete Betties, the Bayou City Bosses, the Psych Ward Sirens and the Burlesque Brawlers, whose rosters are filled with teachers, bartenders, homemakers, graphic designers and lawyers. The oldest skater is 49, the youngest 21.
Along the way they've picked up some sponsors (including the Houston Press) and had some fund-raising concerts and bikini car washes.
They've also picked up some serious injuries: broken arms, legs, ankles and elbows, not to mention countless bruises, scratches and strains. Some of the scrapes happened during the push-and-shove of regular practices, but others were the result of skating drunk at night, a guilty pleasure for many of the women.
Amy Dinn, an attorney who skates as the Prosecutor, went down hard on her leg at the end of April, breaking it in two places. Doctors inserted a metal rod and four screws, but she stayed off the rink for only two months. Come July, she was skating extra laps with the rod still intact.
Back when Houston Roller Derby's first exhibition bout was scheduled, no one would've predicted the Astros were going to make the World Series -- no one save for the most die-hard of hometown masochists. But the "miracle" happened, and Game One of the World Series un-miraculously fell on the same day as the women's first bout.
The 600 or so friends, family members and random World Wrestling Entertainment fans who showed up at the Pasadena Convention Center weren't sure what they were there to see, except that it wasn't the 'Stros. Handheld radios, tuned to the game, were in full effect, as were hand-made signs, showing support for this Bettie or that Brawler. After an opening set by psychobilly band Zipperneck, the spectators took their seats, many of them on the floor right by the track. Occasional chatter from the announcers was all that rose above the din of anticipation.
Showtime. The opening chords of Carl Orff's "Oh Fortuna" exploded from the loudspeakers as the Bayou City Bosses took the rink. The tune soon changed to the Dean Martin version of "That's Amore," and each skater clobbered a Machete Bettie doll as she was introduced. Up next were the Betties, who rolled out to the Mission: Impossible theme and lined up facing each other, crossing machetes (after a bit of confusion) and skating underneath. The Betties then presented a gift to the Bosses: a fake severed horse head on a pillow.
Five women from each team lined up against each other. The eight-woman pack took off after the first whistle. Seconds later two more whistles sent Cady Crasher and Cindi Slaughter, the two jammers, sprinting after the pack. Slaughter made it through first, gaining the lead role, but the jam ended when Crasher shoved her off the track.
The spectators looked confused, unsure of what exactly was happening, but it all made sense when a pissed-off Slaughter rolled up to a smiling Crasher and dragged her to the ground. The women rolled around in a flurry of fishnet and body blows, and the crowd went freakin' wild.
"This is better than foxy boxing," yelled out one spectator.
After ten months of practices, meetings and fund-raisers, Houston Roller Derby had finally arrived. The women regrouped for the next jam, and Red floored a Bettie near the back of the pack. "That size will get you every time," says Patsy Crime, who had her own troubles staying upright when the Burlesque Brawlers squared off in the next round against the Psych Ward Sirens. "I'm pretty quick-footed," she says, "but when someone catches me, forget it."
Perhaps none of the women had progressed more than the Prosecutor, who, with the metal rod still in her leg, barely left the rink that night, skating for both the Betties and the Brawlers. She busted ass all the way to the last jam, although Mistilla "the Killa" bested her in the finale.
Both bouts ended up being blowouts, with one team taking the lead and rolling with it -- a far cry from the preplanned last-minute victories of derbies past. But that doesn't mean camp wasn't queen: Each team had set up a Day of the Dead altar on the sidelines, complete with tributes to fallen gangsters and soldiers, and on-rink disputes were settled by a dominatrix duo, the Miss Fortune Madames. When Mistilla got in a fight with Becky Booty, a large die was rolled and it was determined -- Lord knows how -- that whoever won a knee-slide race would get the point. Both skaters sprinted and hit the floor: Booty in a regular slide, Mistilla with her butt in the air, panties showing. The Killa won, hands down.
For many skaters, being a rollergirl means more than circling around a track and kicking ass in a skimpy outfit. It also means serious drinking. A large group of skaters and their fans went to the Mezzanine Lounge after the bout, taking over the bar, unaware how intimidating their tats and 'tudes can be. When Red arrived, they greeted her with hugs and drunken cheers.
"I was totally badass," she says. "It's the biggest accomplishment since my ice-skating years."
Ask Red how she feels about her ex now, and she'll tell you she's over the whole damn thing. "When you have your world torn down," she says, "it really can be built back up when you have all these girls screaming your name." Now she's taking things slow, casually dating here and there, but devoting most of her energies to derby and friends.
"All these women have really blossomed into themselves," she says. "They didn't know who they really were. They were married, ready to have kids. But when they started roller derby, they realized they wanted more and now they're telling their husbands, 'I'm sorry, but you're going to have to put the kids to bed tonight, because I've been doing it for the past five years.' "
Says Patsy Crime, "I can't even tell you how many of the girls who came to Houston Roller Derby didn't think squat about themselves, didn't think about opening up their mouths."
The sight of women rolling around in short skirts and fishnets might not immediately bring to mind thoughts of empowerment, but Alison Piepmeier, director of women's and gender studies at the College of Charleston and co-editor of Catching a Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21st Century, sees traces of third-wave feminism all over derby.
"Any kind of women's sport, I see as a positive thing, because it's showing us women's bodies not just on display as sex objects, but women's bodies doing something, women being powerful," she says.
Third-wave feminism, as you might have guessed, didn't come from nowhere. The first-wavers were the suffragists, women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who campaigned for the abolition of slavery before fighting for their own rights. The second-wavers were the bra-burners of the '60s and '70s, activists such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, who made great strides but typically remained focused on the needs of middle-class white women. And the third wave, according to Piepmeier, is what's happening right now, when women "have come to consciousness in an era when a lot of feminist ideas were already kind of in place."
Piepmeier sees the campy, performative side of derby, like the sexy outfits and the spankings, as particularly third-wave. "They're playing with this cultural material that has been, in the past, used to keep women in their place or has been used to perpetuate a lower status for women," she says. " 'We're going to take the sexy nurse icon, but rather than having that be something that's keeping us objectified, we're using it. We're going to have fun with it. It's going to be something we're in control of.' "
Derby also brings together women who hate the cattiness typical in many female relationships. "Are we going to prove to Houston that we're a bunch of dumb bitches who can't fucking get along?" asks Crime. "Or are we going to show them we are 60 broads who are not going to let a bunch of petty bullshit get in the way?"
These personal relationships are classic examples of the micro-activism of the third wave. "It's not like there's one source of oppression in our society today that we have to challenge," says Piepmeier. "I think there's a lot to be said for a million people marching on Washington, but that may not be the emblematic activism of the 21st century."
Seeing their mothers in powerful, feminine roles will probably have a larger effect on the next generation than hearing their grandmothers tell stories about the crazy '60s for the 10,000th time.
Or as the 14-year-old daughter of one Houston rollergirl says, "It's cool seeing your mom beat up other people."