They wear lipstick, tattoos and roller skates and go by tough names like “Kim Jong Kill,” “Shiv & Let Die” and “Mary Tyler Roar.” They race around in circles crashing into each other while the crowd cheers.
Women’s roller derby — a TV fixture in the 1960s and ’70s — is back. Leagues such as the Minnesota RollerGirls have sprouted up around the country. Also, opening nationwide on Friday is the movie “Whip It,” that’s directed by Drew Barrymore and stars Ellen Page (“Juno”) as a Texas teen who takes up the rough-and-tumble sport.
But this is not your mom’s roller derby. Instead of the theatrics of old-school roller derby, which could resemble pro wrestling, the new skaters bring a tough, yet feminine attitude of pride and independence.
“I can wear bright red lipstick and go out and play because I want to look good while I’m hitting somebody or while I’m taking somebody out,” said Lyndsay Trader, an education administrator who skates for the RollerGirls under the name “Mitzi Massacre.”
Trader, who wore blue eye shadow and her red hair in pigtails for a bout in the Brawl of America, a division championship, said this new edition of roller derby appeals to her because “you can be tough and still feminine.”
The Minnesota RollerGirls started in 2004 at a roller rink in suburban Minneapolis before moving a year later to Roy Wilkins Auditorium in downtown St. Paul. Tryouts are in the summer and the season starts in the fall. The RollerGirls averaged just over 3,000 fans a bout last season, RollerGirls spokeswoman (and skater) Lyndsey Lyford said.
Another Twin Cities roller derby league, the North Star Roller Girls, skates at the Minneapolis Convention Center and both leagues are part of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), which has 78 leagues in the U.S. and Canada. There are about 400 roller derby leagues worldwide.
Skaters have to be at least 21 to join the Minnesota RollerGirls, who practice three times a week and play about once a month.
Unlike the derby star Raquel Welch portrayed in 1972’s “Kansas City Bomber,” today’s skaters race on a flat track instead of a sloped one, are not paid and are not professionals.
The modern leagues are skater-owned and operated and many are nonprofit, as is the WFTDA.
‘Crowds love big hits’
Many rules are the same as the old-school game. Each team has a pack of five skaters on the track, including a “jammer” wearing a star on her helmet who laps the other skaters to score points. The players still zip around on four-wheel skates instead of modern inline skates. Although there are penalties for illegal hits, it gets physical.
“Crowds love big hits. They absolutely love them,” said RollerGirl Hanna Belle Lector. Her real name is Jennifer Plum, a 29-year-old mental health counselor from Minneapolis.
“There’s nothing like going and hitting somebody, having them hit the ground,” Plum said, slapping her hand for emphasis, “watching people stand up and scream. It’s fantastic.”
Crowds also get close to the action. At September’s Brawl of America, fans sat on the floor next to the track as the skaters whizzed by to the sounds of the Jackson 5’s “ABC” and Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances.”
“The crowd does get a jammer or skater in their lap from time to time,” Trader said.
Trader, 27, has been a figure skater since she was 4, and a member of the Minnesota RollerGirls for about 4½ years. She said she’s “really not an aggressive person” but enjoys the athleticism of roller derby.
“There’s not a lot of contact sport out there for women, and suddenly there is with roller derby,” she said.
Erin Lusti, a RollerGirls captain and jammer who skates as Suzie Smashbox, grew up playing hockey — good training for a new sport that has given the 29-year-old a fractured spine, a broken foot and pulled and torn muscles.
“It’s real like any other sport would be, that you would get a lot of injuries in. It’s tough,” Lusti said.
And while she likes the aggression of roller derby, Lusti takes pride in the team’s charity work. Since their beginning, the Minnesota RollerGirls have donated close to $38,000 that’s from some ticket revenues and various fundraisers.
“We don’t get paid to do what we do. We do it because we love it,” Lusti said.
With its freewheeling style, modern roller derby gives women a different way to express themselves, said Bob Jarvis, professor of law and popular culture at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“They’re doing it because it’s fun,” Jarvis said, “it builds camaraderie, it’s a way to work off stress, but it’s very niche.”