Hell on Wheels

By Danielle Komis Palmer

The purr of wheels on slick wood.
The sound of flesh smearing across the floor.
“OHHHH ... nice block! Get her, pigtails!”

While other people sit down to peaceful Sunday dinners, women with names like Tura Terror, Hell Razor and Bloodshed Bonnie race in circles in a Huntsville skating rink packed to the dingy carpet walls with a hundred screaming roller derby fans.

The rollergirls — ages 18 to 45 — are decked out in fishnet stockings, striped knee-high socks, plaid skirts and dark, dramatic makeup. On this recent Sunday evening, some of the crowd curiously watches this rough ’n’ tough underground sport for the first time, while other roller derby vets are there to support their moms, wives and girlfriends.

Off the rink, the members of three-year-old Huntsville roller derby teams the Thrill Killers and the Red Hot Riots are ordinary women who are massage therapists, nurses, professors and moms.

But on the rink, they transform into hellbenders on wheels who throw elbows and knock opposing team members to the skids and don’t look back. As roller derby makes its comeback nationwide, more and more women are clamoring to be a part of the sport for the camaraderie and empowerment it offers.

A growing sport

Just one year ago, Huntsville’s Dixie Derby Girls roller derby team — comprised of intra-league teams the Thrill Killers and the Red Hot Riots — was struggling for members. Rather than holding tryouts, women typically joined throughout the year, many who had never skated. But this year, determined team members posted fliers, appeared on TV and radio and recruited more than 15 women for their first tryouts.

“I think one of the big attractions for derby is it’s different,” said Jennifer “Jenn Diesel” Devine, a first-season Dixie Derby member. Jenn Diesel is Devine’s roller derby name and alter ego.

“It’s a women’s sport, and it’s a contact sport, and it’s still got a little bit of sexiness to it,” she said.

For contact sport fans, roller derby is also a refreshing addition.

“There’s always the hope of bloodshed,” said Dude Gibbs, a senior at Ardmore High School attending a bout for the first time. “It’s like a wrestling match. You want to see somebody get their lip busted.”

Drew Bolling, also a senior at Ardmore High, agreed with Gibbs and added his own theory for the sport’s comeback.
“People like to look at women run around in tight clothing,” he said. “I know I do.”

Because Derby is out of the ordinary — a stiletto-wearing girly-girl would probably balk at joining the sweaty contact sport— it stirs up a proud, in-your-face attitude in its members. In this environment, that tough attitude is necessary.
Roller derby girls take hard falls, fly into audience members at bouts and endure two, two-hour practices each week.

They leave practice with bruised legs, hips and butts and sweaty helmet hair. Fishnet burns on their legs is also common. But the women don’t complain about these burns and bruises; they show them off as badges of honor, signs of empowered women not afraid to sacrifice their bodies for their sport.

Roller derby’s evolution

While roller derby was once a theatrical sport designed more for shock than sporting value, today it has evolved into a (somewhat) serious sport, with standardized rules and fewer theatrics.

“The competition is more real,” said rollergirl DeLourdes “Bama Brewser” Booker. “I’m glad it’s not just theatrics like it used to be. It’s very empowering.”

The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association has governed all-women flat track leagues since 2004. Since 2006, eight new leagues have joined the 38-member WFTDA. The Tragic City Rollers from Birmingham and the Memphis Roller Derby are the nearest roller derby competitors.

‘A rebirth’

For Dixie Derby girl CC “Lola Piranha” Green, derby has become her refuge during her two years on the team. A single mother of two girls and full-time server, she eagerly joined after old friends she used to skate with told her about it.

The sport has relieved some of her pent-up aggression and offered her a sisterhood of like-minded women who she can confide in and have fun with.

“Getting older, I’m almost 40, unless you’re in a church group or quilting or Bunko, you don’t have that kind of camaraderie,” Green said. “You sort of lose those friendships along the way and this has been like almost a rebirth.”
It can be a rebirth for self-esteem, too, as women reinvent themselves, create new personas and shock people who know them only as nurses, hair stylists or moms.

“We have a lot of girls attracted to (Derby) because they have a certain image (in mind),” said Monique “Tura Terror” Given, one of the team’s founding members.

“We get a lot of girls who try out who, in their normal lives, have never been really tough but when they come here they’ve got this persona.”

For Janet “Punk Tart” Syltie, that was true. The petite, sweet-faced blonde said her husband’s work colleagues found it hard to believe she’s a roller derby girl — one who broke her tailbone during a bout last season.

“They’re always like, ‘Janet? No ...’ ” she said.

The end of the night

After the Thrill Killers barely edge the Red Hot Riots at the bout, the two teams split (one rejoicing, one feeling the agony of defeat) and meet up moments later for the after-party at Crossroads Music Hall in downtown Huntsville.
Team members and coaches spill in and out of a small VIP room bursting with chips and dip, brownies, Italian bread and cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

The air is soon thick with cigarette smoke, as the teams chat and laugh and drink together, the stress of the bout slowly melting away. A few players break away from the pack to hang out with their boyfriends and husbands, but most stick together, enjoying the time outside the rink with their “sisters.”

For many of them, this time is golden and something they captured only by becoming a Dixie Derby rollergirl.

“Quite frankly, I needed it,” said “Jenn Diesel” Devine. “I needed something to relieve stress that wasn’t illegal and was fun.”


SIDEBAR: Derby’s inner workings

In a roller derby bout, two teams of five line up on a track. When the bout starts, three “blockers” and one “pivot” from each team skate around the rink in a pack. When the second whistle sounds, the “jammer” from each team takes off and tries to fight to the front of the pack.

Once a jammer makes it through the pack, she may lap the pack as many times as she chooses in a jam to score points for her team. Points are earned each time the jammer laps a member of the opposing team. The first jammer to legally make it through the pack becomes the “lead jammer” and can call off the bout any time during the two minute jam.

Rules of the game

A roller derby bout is 60 minutes long, made up of numerous “jams” — races between the two teams to score points. There is no limit to the number of jams allowed each period and jams may last up to two minutes. The team with the most points at the end of the bout wins.