September 4, 2008

Roller Derby Match in Ithaca Astounds Local Audience

Print More

While all the cool kids watched ESPN growing up, I watched ESPN Classic. And I’m not talking about Bird-Magic ESPN Classic, I’m talking about 6-in-the-morning ESPN Classic. I’m talking about putt-putt golf and the 1959 black-and-white series Home Run Derby. Each morning as I ate my bowl of Golden Grahams, I would hear this exchange around five times …
Stiff baseball player, forced to make unrehearsed banter while watching his opponent: “Well, that might have gone for extra bases in a real game.”
Stereotypical 1950s sports announcer: “Remember folks, on Home Run Derby it’s nothing but an out.”
It was awesome.
But more specifically — more importantly — I’m talking about roller derby.
Whether it makes me more or less of a sports fan because I largely ignored SportsCenter until high school in favor of reruns of 1970s roller derby matchups, is something haven’t yet resolved internally. Regardless, there was something about the sensationalism of roller derby that I loved. It was my childhood version of those MTV shows like Next (or even better, Gay Next), Parental Control, or My Super Sweet 16. I knew it wasn’t good, and I never planned to watch it, but I would never change the channel if it w on.
If you’ve never seen any stock footage of the 1970s version of roller derby, you’ve lived about three percent less than I have. At first glance, the knee and wrist guards remind you of shakily scooting two feet before falling on your face. Then that same wrist-guard clad arm will stick out and throw her opponent, 1970s untamed hair and all, flying over the railing and into the crowd. 1970s roller derby is like watching a brawl between all the members of Sly & the Family Stone — on roller skates!
Alas, roller derby went away. RollerGames magazine lasted one issue and the RollerGames soundtrack didn’t chart as expected. People forgot about James Caan’s career-defining roll in Rollerball — a movie set in the future where there is no war … only Rollerball! Even ESPN Classic stopped giving me my fix of staged melodrama on wheels.
It went away and I forgot about it … until I saw a sign in the Chapter House. Crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with grad students, I saw a sign advertising a roller derby match in Ithaca. The Ithaca SufferJets (only in Ithaca would we be treated to such a politically aware name) were playing the Harrisburg Fallout Femmes. I had to go.
Apparently, roller derby was back. A 2001 grass roots movement in Austin, Texas in 2001 had spawned an explosion of roller derby leagues, now numbering over 200 around the country. I guess I should have known in 2002 when LL Cool J and Rebecca Romijn remade Rollerball that roller derby was on the comeback trail.
The tone was set before the national anthem had finished — mostly because the audience was treated to the little-used drums and vocals version of both the Canadian and American anthems. It wasn’t Hendrix at Woodstock, but it was close.
At that point, I wasn’t surprised when the introductions were made: ShitzNGigglez, Bella DeRink, Chairman Meow, Snarl Marx, Christina B. Evil, Mama Dusa, to name a few.
“I think that the first-timers are sort of curious and they’re bemused,” Chairman Meow told me a few days later. “Some of them I think have that impression from the 70s, they sort of come there with that question of, ‘Well, what’s going to happen here, is it going to be like that?’ People don’t necessarily know. After they see a game, though, I think they have a completely different picture of roller derby. They see a sport that has grown and developed into its own thing. It’s stepped away from that 70s staged, WWF-type of thing.”
“It’s own thing,” would be an understatement. At the beginning, I just found everything confusing. The announcers seemed to share my sentiment during one period when the skaters just milled around, trying to sort out the referee’s (Easily Bribed was his name) decision.
“This is very confusing,” one of the announcers astutely pointed out. She was a tall woman made taller by the fact that she was inexplicably on roller skates.
“Confusing and compelling,” her partner countered. If her roller skates lacked explanation, his tuxedo button down, ruffles and all, buried beneath a red blazer with black embroidery, defied logic. He looked like a cross between a geisha and Hugh Hefner and made sure he kept the sexual tension palpable (“Sometimes it feels good to be bad,” he would say randomly).
In this case, though, his suave comment rang oddly true. I was baffled, but intrigued. I realized I didn’t even know the rules of roller derby. Apparently there was more to it than skating in circles and hitting people. I quickly picked up the basics. Five skaters on each team are broken down into four blockers and one point-scoring skater, the jammer.
“She’s got lead jammer status!” the announcers would scream every time the jammer became eligible to score points. Jammers start off each jam (creative, I know) behind the blockers. Whichever jammer makes it past the group of blockers first attains lead jammer status. Once she laps the group of blockers, she gets a point for every opponent she passes.
“Harrisburg really brought that Southeastern Pennsylvania energy with them,” the Asian Hugh Hefner said enthusiastically. “It’s angry, but it’s not really focused.”
Happy that someone had finally defined “Southeastern Pennsylvania energy” for me, I soaked it all in. The excitement of the packed house — particularly that of the nine-year-old kid in front of me with a faux-hawk and a Stone Cold Steve Austin shirt (‘CAUSE STONE COLD SAID SO!) — was somewhat infectious. Even though there were no railings to flip people over, and grabbing and clotheslining weren’t allowed, there was a fair amount of spills, tumbles and “booty blocking,” as the announcers called it.
“The first thing that any new skater learns is how to fall,” Chairman Meow explained. “We emphasize very heavily getting over your fear of falling. Then you learn to use it as a tool. Any time you’re off balance or taking a hit, you want to be able to drop to a knee really fast, or drop to both knees really fast, or do what we call a Superman, which is landing on your knees and then flying a bit with your elbows and wrist guards in contact with the floor.”
Not exactly what Soulja Boy has led our generation to think of using Superman as a verb, but I’ll take it. When half time rolled around, I wasn’t surprised to see that the entertainment, Lazy Devil, were three kids who looked barely high school age, one of whom was wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt. The trio didn’t crack a smile as they sulked through their dark, brooding instrumental set.
With “LD” setting the musical tone, I found the biographies of each skater’s alter ego posted up on the wall. Snarl Marx’s read, “With her suburban street smarts and panties exposed, she’s taking out the ruling class to make way for the roller class.”
“[The names are] just a part of the spirit of roller derby,” Chairman Meow said. “It’s a lot of fun. Creating your identity is part of the package.”
For their part, the announcers did their best to perpetuate the skater’s identities.
“When she puts on her skates, she goes out and skates,” Asian Hugh Hefner said about one skater.
“ShitzNGiggelz also served time in the late 80s,” he said later.
“Why is that important?” his somewhat more rational partner countered.
“I’m just saying, she’s used to being in prison.”
Beyond all the oddities, the feeling that I was occasionally at a sideshow for a bizzaro carnival and the uncertainty as to whether the announcers were hitting on each other (“I only hit my close friends,” she said. “I’d like to be friends,” he retorted), I enjoyed myself. I’m still smiling thinking back to that strange evening. I think our announcing friends summed it up best.
“[The SufferJets] brought the right nodo tonight.”
“You mean mojo?”
The Ithaca SufferJets practice every Tuesday and Thursday from 7:30-9:30 at Cass Park Rink. Show up if you’re interested. According to Chairman Meow, “The team is actively recruiting players as well as referees and support staff. It’s definitely open and available. We are also actively seeking alternative practice spaces besides Cass Rink. We can skate on more surfaces as long as they’re smooth. The skates don’t damage the floor. We have indoor wheels.”