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Boston's roller derby scene creates a one-rink circus

Posted by Alex Pearlman  November 11, 2011 08:35 AM

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IA dorkus maximus.jpgBy Vanessa Formato

“The name my mother gave me is Leigh Ann Pond. I'm 29 years old and work as an Estate Planning and Elder Law Attorney in Southborough, Mass.”: This is the first level of truth, the identity of which her clients, hairdressers, and cordial neighbors are most aware. But when Pond gets off from work, she is Gwen Animalsattack of Mass Attack Roller Derby (M.A.R.D.)'s Cutcakes -- and she will wreck you.

Here's a brief history lesson: Roller derby has been around as an organized sport since 1935, when Leo Seltzer formed the Transcontinental Roller Derby to simulate cross-country roller races on an oval, banked track. In its early days, roller derby morphed from a purely endurance-focused sport to a contact one, highlighting hard hits and even harder falls for entertainment value. Through the early 1970s, the sport that sprung out of the Depression remained wildly popular -- and then suddenly vanished from American television screens and arenas. Later, revival efforts included over-the-top theatrics, like more steeply banked figure-eight tracks, alligator pits, and WWE-esque storylines.

Nowadays, derby is steeped in punk rock, do-it-yourself, third-wave feminist aesthetics, and the players are as armed and dangerous as ever. Animalsattack, also part of M.A.R.D.'s All-Star team, is just one of many young women who became enamored with today’s steadily growing flat-track derby culture from the moment she saw it.

wk swoop.jpg“Roller derby is a seriously fun, hard-hitting (literally), strategic sport,” said Lynn “Bootiful Banshee” Kingsley of M.A.R.D.’s Bleeding Hearts and All-Star teams. “It's not a hair-pulling, elbow-throwing catfight as portrayed on T.V. in the 1970s.”

Massachusetts has a number of roller derby leagues, including M.A.R.D., the Boston Derby Dames, Central Mass Roller Derby, and Pioneer Valley Roller Derby, just to name a few. Whatever your geographical location, there's a team: The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association lists 124 teams in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, as well as 76 "apprentice leagues" waiting to join the ranks.*

The skyrocketing number of derby players can be credited not only to the fact that the sport creates such close familial bonds between teammates, but that it’s a culture that "brings together people from different walks of life who may never have met elsewhere," Banshee said. "The camaraderie was unexpected. I suddenly became part of a derby family.” Derby leagues welcome women of all sizes and orientations, and though most players are in their 20s and 30s, many leagues, like M.A.R.D., find plenty of women in their 40s and 50s eagerly signing up.

And, okay, Hollywood may have helped a little bit. “The movie Whip It! put roller derby in the spotlight again, but I don't think that's the reason [it's so popular],” Banshee said.

“Roller Derby is a challenge. You have to be prepared for the commitment that comes along with it," said Nicole Noia, who goes by the name Candy Savage (yes, like Randy Savage) when she’s on the track with the Bleeding Hearts or M.A.R.D.’s All-Stars. "As hard as it can be, it is also equally rewarding. You learn that you are much tougher, emotionally and physically, than you ever imagined. Part of that reward is also working with a group of women in a positive way as team, building communication, trust, and confidence."

wk jam dizzle.jpgA big part of roller derby’s importance is its subversive nature: It’s a truly feminist sport in a country that wants to sell modified versions of “real” sports to women without them noticing that they’re being patronized.

“[Roller derby is] a sport dominated by women that lets us play to our highest potential,” Animalsattack said. “We are not subjected to a ‘female version’ of the sport. Who decided females have to play baseball with bigger balls and throw underhand pitches? Who decided that female lacrosse should have more rules against contact than male lacrosse? Quit being so paternalistic and let me be the athlete I want to be!”

Derby players own their femininity, using it to their advantage in everything from their playful names -- from the sexually-charged Anita Bangher and Sugar Hits to witty pop culture references like Maya Mangleyou and Badonkey Kong -- to their “boutfits.” At your average derby bout, you’ll see plenty of fishnets, short skirts, hot pants, and red lipstick. These uniforms play with the male gaze in a way that other sexualized sports (*cough* lingerie football *cough*) don’t. Instead of conforming, they’re co-opting.

“Want to see me in fishnets? Fine. But they're going to have track burn holes in them and [show off] bruises the size of my fist,” Animalsattack said.

“Boutfits are a fun way to express our individuality,” Banshee said. “I think derby empowers women to challenge themselves, and if that is considered feminist, so be it. To me, derby's about having fun while pushing myself physically.”

Derby builds strength and confidence in one’s identity, all while forging strong interpersonal bonds. As women, we're all pitted against society’s expectations of what it means to be a woman, and it's time that we decide who we want to be. Derby encourages just the kind of freedom that women need to make those decisions.

“I think the fact that it is a full-contact sport makes it different from most female-dominated sports,” Savage said. “It really just depends on what your definition of feminist is. I think everyone in the league is pretty [tough] and talented. If we all persist on this road, continuing to challenge ourselves and growing as individuals, then that's all that really matters.”

Clarification: The Boston Derby Dames are the area's only WFTDA-sanctioned team.

Photos courtesy of M.A.R.D., by Ian Ameche (top) and Wendy Knight (middle and bottom)

About Vanessa -- Vanessa Formato is a 22-year-old Clark University graduate, freelance journalist, vegan cupcake enthusiast and video game aficionado. She blogs about body image and tweets about puppies. So awesome, even John Stamos is impressed.

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