Crusin’ for a Bruisin

Maybe it’s the volatile mix of short skirts, fishnet stockings, and naked aggression. Maybe it’s the cosmic hoot of rooting for stars with names like miss mayhem and dirty pirate hooker.Whatever the reason, women’s Roller Derby is knockin’ ’em dead in the Garden State.

Annette Melillo doesn’t look intimidating at 4 feet 9 inches and 95 pounds. But when she flexes her biceps, she puts Popeye to shame.

By day, Melillo, 41, is a mild-mannered sales representative for a heating and air-conditioning company. She lives in North Plainfield, where she grows vegetables in her backyard. But three nights a week she changes her identity as surely as Clark Kent did ducking into phone booths.Donning the black top and flame-trimmed miniskirt of the New Brunswick-based Hub City Hellrazors, slapping on her knee and elbow pads, and lacing up her four-wheeled skates, Melillo stands revealed as A Bomb—the Hellrazors’ tough, snarky, cheetah-fast captain.

For the next couple of hours she plays a fast, bruising sport that is something like rugby on skates. The provocative costumes and tongue-in-cheek player nicknames (Ova Dose, Miss Mayhem, Busty Yorneekaps) suggest a testosterone-free version of pro wrestling’s gonzo spectacle. Though a skater “may be dressed in a short skirt and fishnets,” says Chris Manzella, founder of the Morristown Madams of the New Jersey Dirty Dames Roller Derby league, “she’s riddled with bruises and hitting the chick next to her.”

Played in small, wood-floored roller rinks—with only a line of adhesive tape separating the  in-bounds oval from the spectators—the new women’s Roller Derby has a certain seat-of-the-pants  appeal, not only because the spectators usually sit cross-legged on the floor.

“People love the underground feel of it, the nightclub atmosphere,” says Dale Rio, publisher of Blood & Thunder magazine, which bills itself as “celebrating the world of all-girl Roller Derby.”

“Sex appeal may draw people in initially, especially guys, but then they really like it for the sport,” Rio adds. “It’s a good combination of campiness and authentic competition.”  Melillo craves the latter. A former long-distance in-line skater, she grew up in Whitehouse watching old-fashioned Roller Derby on TV with her mother. She was actually searching for gardening information on craigslist when she came across a post soliciting players for the Dirty Dames league.

“I’d wanted to do it my entire life,” she says of Roller Derby, “although my parents think it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever done.”

The Hellrazors kicked off their debut season earlier this year on their home floor, Kendall Park Roller Rink in Kendall Park, against the Hissy Fits, a new team from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania.

The bout (as a roller derby match is called) attracted about 600 spectators, who paid $10 to $20 a ticket. In contrast to the raucous fans of decades past, who were known for heckling  players and screaming at refs, these folks were well-behaved.

They were a diverse bunch, too. A gray-haired grandmother sat in a portable nylon camp chair. A father cooed to his infant son in a stroller. An elderly gent in a khaki jacket and white sneakers walked around getting autographs. A short, tattooed young woman posed for a snapshot in her  rhinestone-studded cat-eye glasses.

The emcee—Ginger Snap, a player for New York City’s Gotham Girls—wore a midriff-baring western shirt and denim miniskirt, with red fishnet stockings and a cowboy hat. She skated around the rink, working the crowd, warning them to stay behind the out-of-bounds line.

“If you are sitting near the line,” she shouted with a grin, “you will get a Roller Derby girl in your lap!”

Worse fates can be imagined. Few spectators moved back. Some did become human crash cushions for skaters flung out of bounds in the fast-moving scrum.

Like the diminutive but dauntless A Bomb, Hellrazors Shermaine Tank (Maureen Meara), Big Bad Wolfe (Sara Leah Wolfe), Jammy (Helen Jamison), and Carmen Monoxide (Dina Fiasconaro) play the glamour position of jammer. They are the ones who score the points (see “Roller Derby 101”, page 101). When a buxom Hissy Fit player hit A Bomb with a hard hip check, she managed to stay on her feet and remain in bounds. The crowd cheered.

“A Bomb will not go down!” shouted Ginger Snap. “She’s a monster—a very tiny monster!”

In the night’s only over-the-top bad-girl display, a Hissy Fit player by the name of Moxie Heart (Allyson Peters) naughtily flipped up her skirt and flashed her underwear at the crowd. Perhaps the Hissies were feeling a bit cocky. They decisively defeated the home team, 113–97.

But there was no moping in Mudville. In fact, the ’Razors, sweaty and winded, were all smiles. “It was awesome,” declared Melillo. “I’ve never seen any of us play any better than tonight.” She was, presumably, referring to practice sessions, since it was the team’s first bout.

“It was a clean game,” commented player/coach Bone Crawford (Kim Sever). “You have to see it to understand it’s not just cockfighting in fishnets.”

The Dirty Dames league is now in its third season. “Over the past two years [fan interest] has exploded,” claims Zoe O’Reilly, a director of the volunteer-run Women’s Flat Track Derby Association and captain of a team based in Tucson, Arizona. “Women are building it from the ground up. There’s no man behind the curtain.”

Itself three years old, the WFTDA extensively vets prospective member leagues and players. It grew from a handful of leagues in 2005 to 30 in 2006 and 43 in 2007. Teams have sprung up in Morristown, New Brunswick, Jersey City, and Long Beach Island. As a beginning-level organization, the Dirty Dames are not a member league yet (though they do play by WFTDA rules). To become a league member, the team has to complete the WFTDA application process, which includes submitting information about the team’s skating season, a business plan, letters of reference from three WFTDA-member leagues, and other requirements. Today’s leagues are player owned and operated. Team members are expected to pitch in on recruitment, public relations, fund- raising, and selling team merchandise.

When Manzella watched the sport on television, she decided to form the Dirty Dames league; she quit her job as an advertising executive and set up the league as a limited liability corporation (LLC), a nonprofit structure. She supports herself working as a waitress at the Sushi Lounge restaurant in Morristown.

“It’s a different mind-set when it’s yours,” she says. “You have to run it like a company.” After paying for rink rental and other expenses, the team gets any net profits. Some teams have sponsors; others prefer not to be beholden to anyone.

The skaters are unpaid, so most have day jobs. Their monthly dues, usually $30 to $40, help cover rink rentals, which run $100 or more per hour. Players are on their own for uniforms, health insurance, and travel.

If not exactly gory, Roller Derby can be bloody—and a doctor is not always present to deal with emergencies. Section 9.4, paragraph 2, of the Standard Flat Track Roller Derby Rules of the WFTDA, which most leagues follow, stipulates, “If a skater is bleeding, she may not participate in a jam until the bleeding has stopped.”

Fighting is prohibited. Or dirty fighting, anyway. WFTDA rules specifically outlaw biting, choking (by grabbing helmet straps, for example), or jumping “onto or into a pile of fighting skaters.”

“Some girls ham it up, but we don’t fake-fight,” says Melanie Galoardi, aka Darth Hater of the Philly Roller Girls, whose league recently moved its venue from Camden to the Sportsplex in Feasterville, Pennsylvania. “All the practicing we do makes us feel like athletes, not actresses.”

Two decades after Madonna turned underwear into outerwear, rollergirl garb even at its raciest is a long way from controversial. Manzella says the draw for players is the chance to break out of nine-to-five job mode and inhabit a polar-opposite,  in-your-face character.

“This is your opportunity to wear a new skin at night,” says Alix Zimmermann, who, as Layla Smackdown, co-captains the Jersey City Bridge & Pummel team. Zimmerman has a day job in real estate marketing and sales. She likes the idea that “you never know who’s behind that professional façade.”

 Here are a few other surprising transformations: Sabrina Casa, an investigator with the New Jersey Division of Taxation in Trenton, becomes Rollin’ Rican of the Pennsylvania-New Jersey She-Devils. Kim Sever, a Bloomberg analyst in Princeton and mother of a twelve-year-old son, turns into the aforementioned Bone Crawford of the Hellrazors. Ashley Rosa of Englishtown, a graphic designer, becomes Miss Mayhem of the Hellrazors (and president of the Dirty Dames league). Rachael Hutchens, a visual-effects artist in East Orange, releases her alter-ego, Yvel St. Laurent of the Morristown Madams.

Annamarie Pinkavitch, a veterinary technician in Cherry Hill, re-emerges as  Miss Hap of the She-Devils. (“I’m super-quiet,” she says, “until I get on the track.”) Hairdresser Heather DeForrest morphs into Dirty Pirate Hooker of the newly minted LBI Hurricane Honeys. Allison Pavlosky of Lake Hopatcong, who is studying for a master’s degree in biomedical science at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, unleashes herself as Betty Brawl, captain of the Northern Nightmares of the Garden State Roller Girls league.

Players choose their own nicknames, and names cannot be duplicated. There’s a national registry of noms de guerre on twoevils.org/rollergirls. The naming process, says Zimmermann, whose league skates at United Skates of America in Newark’s Branch Brook Park, gives women the opportunity to create an “exaggerated version” of themselves.

Dina Garai, who skates for the Hellrazors as Liz Unphair, is a 30-year-old software engineer from Highland Park. She is in a Rutgers pre-med program. “Being on the team gave me more confidence,” she says, “and that helped me make my decision to go back to school.”

The personal heroine of many women competing today is Ann Calvello, nicknamed the “Meanest Mama on Skates.” Calvello spray-painted her hair in wild colors, wore gaudy makeup, had a perpetual deep tan, and flaunted tattoos. She died in 2006 after six decades on roller skates.  The new generation reveres her skating prowess and individuality; they don’t see her image as pandering to sexist expectations.

Another legend of the old-style banked oval is Judy Sowinski, known as the Polish Ace. The She-Devils were delighted when Sowinski (along with Arnold “Skip” Schoen, a veteran of the coed roller derby) volunteered to help coach the team. Sowinski planned to pitch in “once in a while,” but before long she was coaching nearly every practice. Now in her 60s, she says the activity “keeps me young.” Sowinski will run behind the slower skaters verbally prodding them. “Do you wanna play derby or tiddlywinks?” she shouts.

“I torture them,” she says good-naturedly. As one of the bad girls of 1960s roller derby, Sowinski loved to taunt the crowd, pick fights, and bad-mouth the referees. Today, she is unfailingly charming and polite.

Sowinski respects the new breed because, for one thing, the flat track is harder to negotiate than a banked track and is less forgiving. “Falling hurts more today,” she says. “These girls are taking a beating.”

Banked tracks are easier to skate  because players don’t have to slow down at the corners. But they are expensive to set up and maintain. Only a handful are still in existence, in Texas and California. There are none in New Jersey.

Anyone who joins for the glamour soon realizes that skating is hard work. Injuries, some debilitating, are common. Helen Jamison, 38, of Jackson (Jammy of the Hellrazors), was sidelined for nearly seven months after an injured knee required surgery. Most teams skate and practice at least three nights a week for two hours. Coach Sever of the Hellrazors leads her team around the track at high speed for 30 minutes or more without stop.

Manzella—known on the rink as Dee Licious, captain of the Morristown Madams—lets no one slack off. “Hydrate or get back skating!” she yells to players catching a breath on the bench.

 The women pride themselves on their toughness. Melanie Galoardi of the Philly Roller Girls, a married mother of two, sports arm tattoos. “I was always a tomboy,” she says. “Growing up in South Philly, I played sports with the boys on the street.” She later became a ballet dancer. At a recent Roller Girls ceremony, she won the award for Biggest Mouth. “I’m loud,” she says.

Men are not an unusual sight at bouts and workouts. Husbands, dads, sons, brothers, and boyfriends are the teams’ biggest fans, and most referees are male. Tim Spann, whose wife, Stephanie, drives from her Woodbridge home to Bensalem, Pennsylvania, to skate with the She-Devils, calls himself a “derby husband.” The Madams practice against male friends to improve their skills in hard checking.

Most women say their teammates have become family. When Galoardi and her boss, who owns a clothing company in Camden, joined the Philly Roller Girls, “we had no clue what we were getting ourselves into. But I met a whole group I would have never met otherwise. I would have missed out, not knowing them.”

Liz Profy of the She-Devils says that Roller Derby fills her with a great sense of accomplishment. “I am the poster child for ‘If you want to do it, you can do it.’”

Contributing Writer Nancy Erickson Prefers Ice Skates Over Roller Skates.

 

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