The sound of skin smacking on the rink floor is loud enough to drown out the rock music coming from speakers overhead. People on the sidelines cringe. One guy laughs. And the woman who was pushed to the ground?
Well, she grimaces, then picks herself back up and rejoins the skaters who didn’t as much as pause when she fell.
Rule No. 1: There’s no crying in roller derby.
"I didn’t think fighting on roller skates would be so much fun," Denise Schubert said on Sunday as she leaned against a railing at Skateland Surfside in Tempe.
The 34-year-old Tempe resident, whose long brown hair and candy pink lipstick make her seem 10 years younger, formed the Arizona Roller Derby league in July by posting a call for competitors on www.azpunk.com.
"I probably hadn’t skated since sixth grade, so the first few practices were pretty tough," said Schubert, a painter whose rinkside nickname is Ivanna S. Pankin.
The Arizona Roller Derby League is modeled after popular roller derby bouts of the ’50s and ’60s, and joins a fledgling group of teams in Austin, Texas, and Los Angeles. Arizona’s league consists of two teams of about six women each. Schubert is captain of The Bruisers; Natti "The Brown Fury" Leos, a 22-year-old Phoenix woman with spiky black hair, leads The Smash Squad.
"I can’t remember the last time I did any physical activity," said Leos, one of the first to respond to Schubert’s online posting. "I just liked the idea of it."
A roller derby formation is led by two "pivots" — a person from each team who sets the pace for the rest of the group. Each team also has a "jammer" and three "blockers." The jammers must break through the pack of blockers and then lap them. Once that’s accomplished, the jammer scores one point for every opponent she passes.
The women push and shove, leaving behind any fear of injury. Three scrimmages into the season, Kelly "Sick Girl" Thompson strained muscles in her lower body. A few women sport bruises the size of grapefruits, and — before helmets became mandatory — Ashley "Smashley" Adams suffered a concussion.
"The doctors kind of looked at me funny when I said I was in a roller derby league and cracked my head on the rink," Adams said as she strapped on a pair of black roller skates.
The teams practice Sundays at Skateland Surfside, doing sprints and drills to build strength. Aiding the league is a group of men who act as referees and trainers, and several sponsors — local businesses that jumped at the chance to support the derby.
"The more it comes together, the more people want to get involved," said Mike Christie of Mesa, head referee. "It’s all the same kind of people we’d be hanging out with even if we weren’t doing this."
Christie is a member of local bands Electric Shock and The Shifters. Likewise, most of the skaters and derby staff, if not in a punk band, are fans of the genre. The result is a group with an unapologetic, irreverent style and culture that are as much a part of the sport as the roller skates.
The official Arizona Roller Derby T-shirts feature a caricature of a girl with tattoos, pigtails, spiked cuff bracelets and black fishnet stockings. Heather "Bam Bam" Shope, who also plays with The Shifters, is sewing cheeky uniforms for both teams.
The Bruisers will wear nurses’ outfits, and The Smash Squad will don black cheerleader skirts and tops with a skull face on the front. Most of the women have personalized their gear, littering their skateboard helmets with stickers and affixing silver studs to their skates.
Said Adams, drummer for the Tempe band The Dames, "My son came home from school and said his friends don’t believe I’m in a punk band and a roller derby league."
Roller derby terms
Pivot: Skater from each team who leads the pack during a bout. The pivot sets the pace and plans the strategy. For example, if an opponent’s jammer is known to have endurance, the pivot will encourage the blockers to skate fast in an attempt to tire out that jammer.
Jammer: Skater responsible for scoring points for the team. The jammer begins bouts at the back of the pack. When the whistle is blown, she tries to push her way through opponents who are trying to stop her from getting past them. Once she laps the group, the jammer scores one point every time she passes a skater on the opposing team.
Blockers: Pushers and shovers in charge of defense for their team. They work to keep the jammer from passing them and scoring points. They also prevent blockers on the opposing team from stopping their team’s jammer.