The wild world of catfights on skates
Roller derby is enjoying a revival in America – but, this time, it's for women only and is much more aggressive. Marcus Warren reports
What on earth would Laura Bush say? The image of Texan womanhood that she represents - that of dutiful, demure wife and mother - seems to be under threat from a bolshy gang of cowgirls in skimpy costumes who like nothing more than to brawl, bellow and break the speed limit while being cheered on by a mob of male fans.
Battle is joined: Miss Conduct of the Holy Rollers on the floor
Welcome to the wild world of the Texas roller derby, where teams of feisty, scantily dressed young women on roller skates hurtle around a specially constructed banked track in an arena on the outskirts of Austin - and knock seven bells out of each other in the name of sport and light entertainment.
For the audience of more than 1,000 people, the spectacle - the events are even called "bouts" - has all the clammy excitement of a playground catfight as the girls offer spectators blood, sweat and tears, all of which end up spattered on the oval track.
When they are not rolling around the floor in an attempt to beat each other to a pulp, they are zooming around at a breakneck pace, with all the elegance and élan of ballet dancers.
These are no ballerinas, however. The action owes more to Rollerball than Starlight Express, while the camp costumes and over-the-top stage names have a whiff of WWF wrestling about them. Tonight's line-up includes Jail Bait, Smarty Pants, Miss Conduct, Varuca Assault, Eva Knievil and - a personal favourite in a strong field - Helena Handbasket.
And this is no Texan phenomenon, either. All-girl roller derby leagues are springing up in cities all over America, from the LA Turbo Lady Killers league in California to the Gotham Girls Roller Derby in New York.
Roller derby enjoyed a brief vogue in the early days of American television, but its golden era was short-lived. The idea of a group of men and women in polyester tunics performing endless circuits of a rink lacked a certain dynamic thrust.
But the format's dramatic flaws have been remedied in this new, improved and far more aggressive 21st-century version, a parade of sex and speed staged by latter-day female gladiators.
The game's rules do not appear to trouble the spectators unduly, but it is not quite the no-holds-barred, saloon-brawl-on-wheels that it first appears. Each bout is between two teams of five women, made up of one "pivot", or pace-setter, three "blockers" and one "jammer".
The jammer - usually a smaller, lighter, faster girl than the others - is the only person who can score, by overtaking and lapping members of the opposition, while the broader, burlier blockers attempt to stop their opponents' jammer from doing the same.
To the untrained eye, it appears that the blockers will use any trick in the book (and a few more besides) to stop the jammers, but there are laws to deter the players (though not always preventing them) from beating each other black and blue. Officially, tripping is a foul. So is "unnecessary roughness". "Unsportslady-like conduct" is penalised - but whether that includes slapping or bodyslamming is left to the referee's discretion.
Despite striking tough, grrrl-power poses, and their kick-ass professional personas, many of the competitors have perfectly normal day jobs, among them art museum registrars, marketing executives, lawyers, political consultants and teachers.
Backstage at the Austin Thunderdome, amid the gymslips, sports bras and knee pads that litter the dressing room, and before battle is joined, the atmosphere is decidedly girlish as Ashley Aretakis Fredo, 24, puts the finishing touches to her make-up.
But out on the track, as her alter ego Sister Mary Jane, Ashley is transformed into a skating demon. Dressed in stockings that are full of holes and a micro miniskirt, she embarks on a parade lap around the rink as she is introduced to the crowd - then bends over to reveal the slogan "Let it burn" scrawled on a pair of frilly knickers.
When, before the bout, both teams line up to sing Stars and Stripes Forever, hands on hearts like all good Americans, a finer picture of wholesome Texan femininity could hardly be imagined. But once the skating starts, they become ladies possessed and the kicking and cussing begins.
Like rubbernecking motorists staring at a car crash, more than 1,000 fans turn up to watch each bout. A shortage of seats at the arena means that some spectators even bring their own deck chairs.
One of the favoured local slogans is "Keep Austin Weird": many in the Lone Star State's capital, an oasis of hip eccentricity in the evangelical desert of the Bible Belt, are worried that the city is losing its surreal edge. On the evidence of the Texas roller derby and its fan base, they need not worry.
"Of course my daughter can handle herself. She lived in New York," insists Candis Mankin, mother of Dyna Dash, one of the skaters, who is in town for the bout. She has left her poodle, Grace, its fur dyed bright pink, at the hotel, "because of the noise".
One animal to have made it to the show, albeit tethered with a metal leash, is Larry da Leopard, the mascot of the Hell Cats, who is so called because his body is covered with a huge leopard tattoo. He also sports whiskers and feline ears especially for the occasion. "Aggressive women are hot, dude," he roars.
Helmets, kneepads and gum shields are de rigueur for combat. Beyond that, any sort of outfit goes. The Hell Cats wear a uniform of pink and black; their opponents, the Holy Rollers, undefeated so far this season, favour a punky, St Trinian's look made up of tartan miniskirts, studded belts and brief, knotted white tops. No love is lost between the two teams as the evening's entertainment gets under way.
"That's the difference between guys and girls," says Louisa Brinsmade, alias Hell Cat Mau Mau (named after the machete-wielding Kenyan gangs). "Girls mean it. Guys will throw the occasional punch, maybe. But girls really want to beat you up."
The list of injuries she has suffered in her short career on the track puts Jonny Wilkinson to shame: "Two fat lips, a sprained shoulder with a pinched nerve, a broken rib, track burns, lots of contusion and a haematoma." She got off lightly: the league's doctors have had to treat two broken wrists, a spiral leg break, a fractured tailbone and broken teeth. As the competitors are keen to point out, roller derby might have all the high camp of WWF, but the fights are real.
Guest of honour at the bout is Hell Cat Krissi Montet, better known as Mz Behavin', who rolls up in a wheelchair and with seven screws and a metal plate embedded in the leg she broke in a recent contest. "I love it," she insists. "I'll never quit."
After three hours of combat (roller derby fans demand their money's worth), her fellow Cats limp off the rink like wounded fleeing the field of battle, defeated. Mau Mau has escaped almost unscathed, but the whites of her eyes are shot with blood from a blow she cannot remember receiving. Golddigger lies prone on a sofa in the dressing room, clutching her knee in agony.
"These girls are physical, they're aggressive and they know what they want," says Greg Rollie, a veteran from the more staid days of roller derby in the 1970s and now a referee and coach. "They really want to make a name for themselves."
Fame and fortune might not beckon the Texas roller girls quite yet, but notoriety, at least in Austin, is assured.
"I always hear guys chanting 'Marry me, Mary Jane'," says Ashley, a 6ft tall special-needs teacher. "But then I think: if only you knew that I spent last night curled up at home with my black and white cat..."
But despite the attention from male admirers, many roller girls admit that they struggle to find a boyfriend.
"The truth is, guys are intimidated. They're afraid of us," complains Erin Dixon, 30, also known as Hades Lady. "I'd like a date, you know. I don't weigh 300lb. I'm pretty cute. Maybe I'm just a tiny bit scary."