The making of a Rollergirl 

Ali Gadbow joins the rough-and-tumble ranks of Missoula's new roller derby league

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During a jam, which lasts two minutes at most, five players from each team are on the track: a jammer, three blockers, and a pivot blocker. The pivot blocker wears a stripe on her helmet and sets the pace for her team. The jammer wears a star on her helmet; she's the one who scores the points by starting behind the pack of skaters and making her way to the front. Each time the jammer laps the pack she earns points for every opposing player she passes. The first jammer to legally pass all of the blockers is known as the lead jammer. She can call off the jam by slapping her palms against her hips in a kind of rolling chicken dance.

Blockers have two jobs: to prevent the opposing team's jammer from scoring, and to assist their own jammer through the pack. Breaking through the pack is tough in any kind of race, but it's extremely hard to do on roller skates when people are trying to knock you down. A blocker's job is a lot like a lineman's in football, except both quarterbacks have the ball and they are both making a run for the end zone.

Also, players usually skate under pseudonyms, dress in funky outfits, and do quite a bit of posturing. One might think these last elements were dreamed up by today's post-punk, post-feminist skaters, but the performance is as old as the game itself.

Since its inception during the Great Depression, roller derby has always been populist entertainment. Like pro wrestling at about the same time, the sport started attracting crowds at local arenas, and the high-intensity, full-contact spectacle gained traction. Derby was coed, and the women played by the same rules and with the same intensity as the men. In fact, women were the real draw.

Bouts were broadcast on the radio as early as 1939, and the sport was—again, like pro wrestling—one of the first to be regularly televised, starting in 1948. To keep fans watching, some of the action was choreographed. It has never been clear how many of the games were fixed, but some certainly were.

Anyone born before 1970 probably remembers catching some version of roller derby on TV. My father watched it religiously in the 1950s with his octogenarian aunt Mabel, who also loved pro wrestling.

For-profit derby's parallel path with that of Gorgeous George and Andre the Giant cursed the sport with a demotion to "sports entertainment" in the public mind. Aside from a brief revival in 1989, the televised version of the game disappeared in the early 1970s when the theatrical "RollerGames" league was disbanded. Old-fashioned roller derby's last gasp was punctuated by the 1972 release of Kansas City Bomber, in which Raquel Welch battles Helena Kallianiotes (literally, with hair-pulling) for the star position on the Portland roller derby team. Coincidentally, scenes were shot at the Portland Expo Center, where I got my first taste of derby the way we play it now.

click to enlarge Teammates execute a “pace line,” a close-quarters exercise that helps skaters gain the balance—and confidence—necessary for close-proximity, full-contact skating. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Teammates execute a “pace line,” a close-quarters exercise that helps skaters gain the balance—and confidence—necessary for close-proximity, full-contact skating.

Clearly, entertainment is still central to today's derby. It would not be the same sport without the costumes, the posturing and the spunky pseudonyms, but make no mistake—the game is tough. Today's derby requires hours of practice every week, follows a standard skater-created rulebook a yard thick, and the games are never fixed. It's now played on a flat track, with the advantage that bouts can be set up just about anywhere with a minimal investment of time and money. The revived version, which was reborn in Texas and swept the nation in the early 2000s, is largely an all-women, all-amateur phenomenon with a strong DIY ethic. Derby's definitely a sport, but nobody wants to take it to the Olympics. We'd rather take it to the streets.

On December 11, 2009, I officially became a Hellgate Rollergirl. It was the night of the league's first big fundraiser, the Black and Blue Ball. The event was held at the Elks Lodge and included a singles auction. I paid my first month's dues, danced a little, toasted my new pals and egged on the bidders. Then I went home.

At that point roller derby in Missoula still had little to do with actual roller skating. During the fall, girls with skates worked on their skills in a parking lot under the Orange Street bridge, but most members didn't have skates.

Personally, I was caught up in the usual Christmas mayhem. By January the downtown landscape was crusted in uninviting layers of dirty ice, and suddenly it was February. What was up with the Hellgate Rollergirls? I had no clue. I also had no skates, except for those old-school showboaters collecting dust in the attic. I wasn't the only one wondering whether this thing was ever going to happen.

In theory, it's easier to get organized these days, what with social networks and the Internet. Facebook was certainly instrumental in getting HGRG off the ground, but cyberherding has its limitations, especially when an organization is committed to a certain level of egalitarianism. Or, to put it another way, I was on a contact list, just not the list that was used to announce that indoor practices had commenced in the multipurpose room at Target Range School.

Hannah "Hannibal Wrecker" Heimbuch happened to work at the school, and she knew that local groups often used the multipurpose room. The HGRG Housing Committee searches tirelessly for appropriate indoor spaces, but landlords are wary of the possible liability issues involved with allowing young women on skates to knock each other down in their building. Target Range, on the other hand, was blessedly open to Heimbuch's request for practice time, and it was there that I really learned to skate.

I heard about the indoor practices second or third hand, probably from a derby boyfriend, maybe from my boyfriend (he always knows what's going on). At any rate, I got fired up. Roller derby was real and I was missing it. But first, I needed to order skates.

A few days later I met my friend Katt at the Bike Doctor. Shop co-owner and founding HGRG member Marlana Kosky has trained her bike mechanics to size female feet for roller skates, and the shop offers a discount on skating gear to dues-paying HGRG members.

Katt and I stripped off our shoes and submitted our feet to careful measurements of length and width. We flipped through a skate catalogue and both decided on a mid-priced model. Or almost decided. Derby gear costs money: a beginner's initial investment in skates and safety gear is generally at least $200, and we were looking at $120 skates, not to mention knee and elbow pads, wrist guards, mouth guards and helmets.

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