Monday, July 16, 2007

National Attention!

Roller derby taking off in Canada
TORONTO (CP) - They go by names like Killah Cupcake, Knina Knuckles, or Danger Mouse, and in their ripped fishnets and short miniskirts, they look a bit like burlesque dancers gone goth.

But these women aren't putting on some suggestive dance number - they're getting ready to race around a rink on rollerskates and knock one other down to the cold, unforgiving concrete of Toronto's George Bell Arena.

The women of the Toronto Roller Derby league are enjoying wild success in their first full season of play. In 2006, they started working to bring the retro 60s-era sport back. Today there are fledgling roller derby leagues in at least nine Canadian cities, from Vancouver to Montreal.

"The growth has been huge," says Danger Mouse, who's known as Jennie Boone to her non-derby friends. She plays in a new league in Hamilton that has only two teams so far. But she says she expects the league will double in size by next year.

And the six-team Toronto league, according to one of its co-founders, has become the biggest in North America, if not the world.

"There's a whole network of derby girls and we've checked every website out there. Most leagues have two to four teams and there are very few that have grown to five. And we're the only league that has six," says Monica Mitchell, a photographer by day who goes by Monochrome on derby nights.

Just like it was in its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States, the sport is a brutal mix of bodychecks and trip-ups as players race around a track at breakneck speed, scoring points when a designated player, called a jammer, laps a pack of blockers.

Emily Simmons, who plays a Kiss-inspired character called Gene Scrimmage, says the sport is as rough as it sounds. She has seen her fair share of injuries.

"One girl from our team broke her ankle," she says. "One girl from the Death Track Dolls tore all her leg tendons... There's an old saying in roller derby: It's not if you get injured, it's when."

Simmons herself has a nasty scar on her knee, a souvenir from a practice when she fell to the ground and one of her pads got caught, causing her kneecap to scrape across a cement floor.

There's even the odd fight, according to Boone. She says one of the Hamilton teams, the Steeltown Tank Girls, was in Buffalo last week, where an opposing player made a habit of bodychecking from behind.

"She pushed one of our players into the boards head first... so there were words back and forth and eventually the ice broke," she says, adding that players even came off the benches to participate in the brawl.

"It's on YouTube," she says with a wry smile.

"There's definitely an element of spectacle (to the sport)," says Simmons, alluding not only to the violence but also to the dyed hair, spooky makeup and skimpy outfits typical of roller derby."We do play that up."

Each team operates under a chosen theme that governs how players are named. Saturday night in Toronto, the Bay Street Bruisers, a group of skaters in tight black t-shirts with paited-on ties, were taking on Chicks Ahoy, a group in mock green-and-black sailor suits.

Natasha Jesenak, a.k.a. Nasher the Smasher, is one of the Chicks. They're getting ready for their first public bout. She has a simple answer for anyone who asks about her style of play.

"Nasher's big and she hits people. I'm going to plow through everything and nothing's going to get by me... I'll just smash the shit out of them. That's my main move."

As much as roller derby is spectacular to watch, those closest to the game emphasize that it's a sport first, and a spectacle second.

Toronto League President Jennifer Capes, an elementary school teacher by day, says there are a lot of technical elements to roller derby that have to be learned, such as legal blocking and strategic skating.

She says the recent growth of the sport is a testament to how dedicated its players are. Unlike the roller derby leagues of old, which had TV contracts and big-time promoters, today's leagues are run by the skaters themselves.

"We don't have any big sponsors or promoters with billons of dollars," says Capes.

Like many modern derby girls, she says she remembers watching the sport as a kid, and was inspired to get into it through a 2006 A&E documentary series on a league in Austin, Tex.

She says a few women who knew each other through common friends got together at a bar and formed a team. After a year's hard work, they had a league up and running.

Capes says there's a lot of work ahead for women in other cities trying to get the sport to catch on. "They're learning and growing (as players) and you have to do a lot of that before you're ready to host an event."

Ottawa's Kelly McAlear says she's up to the challenge. She started a team a few months ago and is drafting players to form a team that would play against derby squads from Montreal.

She says she'd eventually like to get the sport going at the youth level, too.

"They have that in Vancouver where (they) teach the game to 12-year-olds and actually some of the daughters of the women on my team have expressed an interest."

Saturday night in Toronto, there was plenty of interest, with about 500 people showing up. Ron Wencer, who remembers going to bouts in New York in the 1960s, says he sees the spirit of roller derby living on.

"Just looking at the girls skating, and my fellow attendees here," he says, "I can tell there's the same gum-chewing attitude that there was back then."

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