Femme brutales on the rampage

Before Saturday, I knew as much about roller derby as I did about fashion shows – which is to say that I knew women were involved and that they would be performing in some kind of entertainment capacity. I also knew that I would have no idea what was actually supposed to be happening.   But wafer-thin women strutting down a catwalk in outlandish outfits has a significantly different (read: less) appeal than roller skating teams of helmeted badasses intentionally crashing into each other for a battle of banked-track supremacy.  If you're looking for an exhilarating show of modern femininity, skip the dainty birds and check out the dirty ones. The Los Angeles Derby Dolls is a competitive roller derby league comprised of over 150 skaters representing women from every walk of life.  They are teachers, lawyers, students, businesswomen, and housewives, and range in age from Gen-Y to geriatric.  But these women, united by a hunger to compete, become something a little more ferocious – part athlete, part rock star – when it's game time at the Doll Factory.

The basic concept of roller derby is easy enough to understand:  during consecutive 60-second "jams," two "packs" of five girls each skate together on a circular, banked track.  Each pack sends a designated team member, called a "jammer", out ahead of the fray to circle around and break through the packs from behind.  The packs travel clustered together while simultaneously trying to push their jammer forward as they attempt to prevent the opposing team's jammer from getting through.  Each time the jammer breaks through the opposing team's pack, they score a point.

Basically, it's like NASCAR without the protection of a car, and yes, people come to watch the wrecks.  Forget bumping into each other or holding hands across the track, these women are out for blood.  Think shoulder checks and body blocks.   Protective gear notwithstanding, falling on a hardwood floor at high speeds looks terrifically painful – to say nothing of the skaters toppling and rolling over the fallen.   And yet, despite the combative intensity, it becomes immediately obvious that brute strength alone won't win a jam.

"[Roller derby] is a thinkin' man's game," says team co-captain and LADD all-star, Haught Wheels.  "Some [fans] are there for the social aspect, others for the spectacle, but I believe that most people come to watch roller derby because it is an intricate sport."

And an exciting one at that.  Roller derby is a very fast-paced, high-scoring sport, where the scores are so dynamic that it's impossible to determine who will win until the final whistle blows.  The thrilling pace, brute savagery, and smart strategery create a trifecta of tension that makes roller derby one of the most entertaining women's sports available.

After watching the L.A. Ri-ettes smash other women into pulp on Saturday, it's hard to imagine these women doing anything but roller derby, and yet the sport is just a voluntary part of their busy lives.  When she's not laced into skates, Haught Wheels becomes Sheila Noonen, an 11-year high school literature teacher who spends her free time book clubbing.

"We are all highly competitive," she says, "both on the track and in life."