Music Feature

Roller Derby Redux

by Roy Burton
The rebirth of one of the most popular sports of the 70s is happening in our own backyard

The sport of roller derby is in the midst of a worldwide revival, and a large part of that renaissance is occurring each month on the campus of Temple University.

The Liacouras Center is the new home for the Philly Roller Girls, a skater-owned and operated league with the tagline: "Derby is back in the City of Sisterly Shove." Since its inception seven years ago, PRG has grown to more than 50 members, and the organization now boasts three home teams (the Broad Street Butchers, the Philthy Britches and the Heavy Metal Hookers) and two travel teams (the Independence Dolls and the Liberty Belles).

Why is roller derby becoming popular once again? Well, besides the family-friendly atmosphere and the popularity of the movie "Whip It", the answer may be as simple as this: "The sport is the speed of hockey and the impact and violence of football, but with girls," says Adrienne Klein (aka "Rollanya Asse") of the Independence Dolls.

A simple Google search will yield a basic understanding of roller derby, but a few paragraphs on a Wikipedia page can't adequately capture the true essence of the sport. "The description really doesn't do it justice," says Arianne Masten (aka "Masten"), one of the stars of the Independence Dolls. "You have to see it in person."

And to see it in person, all you need to do is to head to the Liacouras Center where the Philly Roller Girls host a doubleheader on the second Saturday of every month. Back on July 14, the Independence Dolls christened their new home arena with a 144-109 victory over the Texas Rollergirls' Honky Tonk Heartbreakers (who were led by talented jammer "Flash Gorgeous").

A description of how the Dolls scored their 144 points would be more than a little complex (and almost irrelevant, given that the bout was just flat-out enjoyable to watch). Between the jammers, the pivots, and the overall frenetic pace, it's difficult for most people to fully understand what's happening out on the track.

To their credit, the Philly Roller Girls do a masterful job of breaking down the sport in layman's terms. Before each bout, the rules are explained during a simulated game played at half-speed, and during the matches, skaters from other clubs roam the stands, passing out information sheets and answering any questions that the spectators may have.

Of course, there are those who require a bit more education than others. "Once in a while, you get the infamous 'Where's the ball?' question," says Klein, who's currently studying veterinary technology. "And I'm always like 'My hips are the ball!'"

The Philly Roller Girls are a member of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), the parent organization that governs more than 200 roller derby leagues across the country. WFTDA is primarily responsible for creating uniform rules and guidelines that make the sport far safer than it was some 40 to 50 years ago.

That said, many of the conventions from the '60s and '70s still exist today. But don't be fooled by the rainbow-colored socks and the... interesting team names: Roller derby is serious business.

And in case you were wondering just how physical it gets out on the track, let's just say that the sport isn't for the faint of heart. While the WFTDA has strict rules outlawing certain types of contact, torn ligaments and broken appendages come with the territory. "Playing a game is pretty much the equivalent of being in a car accident," says Klein.

"The very first bout that I saw, I saw a couple of girls get taken out on stretchers," said Masten, a nuclear operator by trade. "Fortunately, that was a particularly rough bout and that doesn't usually happen."

What usually does happen is an intense, spirited competition that appeals to fans of all ages. When asked how she would sell the sport to a novice, Masten summed it up perfectly.

"Amazing, hard-hitting action... Chicks on skates beating each other up... A whole lot of fun for everybody."

All images ©2012 Tyler Shaw.

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