It all began beneath the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
In 2004 around a half-dozen women—musicians, fashion designers, and other adventurous souls—assembled at Union and Meeker Streets in Williamsburg for the first-ever public appearance of Gotham Girls Roller Derby. There wasn't exactly a big-league vibe.
“Gotham Girls was [a handful of] girls who couldn't roller-skate who used to practice in the South Bronx,” says Suzy Hotrod, who was there on day one and has become a legend in the roller derby universe. “It was just crazy chicks. We had a full-contact street race on the blacktop. We took illegal bets from people, and there might have been some fan nudity.”
Summing it up after her team's 2014 opening-night victory, she says, “It was pretty different then.”
One thing was obvious at the outset, though—people were drawn to roller derby. Even for the first makeshift event, hundreds of spectators showed up.
That was the first step toward a league with four borough-based teams (the Brooklyn Bombshells, Manhattan Mayhem, Bronx Gridlock and Queens of Pain); a traveling all-star squad that dominates competition from around the country in the Women's Flat Track Roller Derby Association; and nights like Saturday, March 29, at Long Island University's Arnold and Marie Schwartz Athletic Center, where a sold-out crowd paid $20 a pop to watch Brooklyn take on Suzy Hotrod's Queens team, defending champions of the best women's flat-track roller derby league in the world.
The Arnold and Marie Schwartz Athletic Center at Long Island University started life in 1928 as the Paramount Theatre, which hosted movies and performances by the likes of Ginger Rogers, Little Richard and Bing Crosby—you can still see the rococo architectural details throughout, and most fans face the location where the stage once stood. LIU basketball moved here in 1963 and stayed until the school built a new arena in 2006.
The showmanship on display Saturday night would have given Richard Wayne Penniman (aka Little Richard) himself a run for his money.
Fans screamed their throats raw and held signs made with glitter, glue and markers, which were available at the entrance. Big Toot, the Bombshells' mascot—a bearded half-man, half-steamboat hybrid—precariously spun around on his skates. “It's the season opener,” he said, “so I just got the barnacles scraped.” So-called jeerleaders shouted encouragement to their teams and tossed candy into the stands.
And all of that paled in comparison to what happened on the track.
Roller derby can be confusing for a first-time spectator, but the basic rules are fairly simple:
Two teams of five skate around the track. Each team has one designated skater, the “jammer” (indicated by a star on her helmet), who is eligible to score points by passing and then lapping the members of the other team—she'll receive one point each time she laps an opponent.
The other skaters are blockers, and their job is to prevent the other team's jammer from passing them, and to clear the way for their own jammer. The “pivot,” a captain of the blockers, wears a white stripe on her helmet and calls plays for her teammates.
Not a rule, but important: the skaters and referees all have nicknames. Stage names, really, like Anne Phetamean (Brooklyn), Pippi Strongsocking (Queens) and Ref in Peace (referee).
The action is fast and furious, and it immediately becomes apparent to the first-time spectator that it's a demanding sport.
“The first thing [new fans] want to do,” says Queens blocker Celtic Thunder, “is associate [roller derby] with the movie Whip It.” She says that's a good starting point, but it's not quite the same. The bouts are physical, but “you're not allowed to punch someone, purposely trip them or really be violent. It's beyond the fishnet stockings, beyond the cute little outfits. It's a real sport and takes a lot of hard work.”
Suzy Hotrod agrees. In the beginning of Gotham Girls, she says, “I was a piece of crap. I wanted to just drink and stay out late.” Now, gesturing at her bottle after the bout, she says, “I'm not drinking vodka or anything like that. No—water. NYC water, straight from the tap.”
Can't Beat the Wheel Thing
The Gotham Girls' athleticism and skill are readily apparent when jammers like Hyper Lynx (Queens) and Miss Tea Maven (Brooklyn)—MVPs of their respective teams in Saturday's match—speed around the track and use strength and fancy footwork to stay inbounds as blockers try to hold them back and knock them off course. The match is physical but not gratuitously so; any hits are aimed at obstructing an opponent's jammer or clearing the way for one's own, and referees are serious about maintaining order and safety.
Miss Tea Maven, who this year joined the league's four-time world champion travel team, practices four days a week with her team and hits the gym for another two days. The skaters pour money into travel and equipment when they go to compete in cities like Denver and Seattle because they're still amateurs. And since the league is run by the skaters on a volunteer basis, they all put in hours of work to create fliers, secure sponsorship and do PR outreach.
And that's not to mention the broken noses, bruises and other assorted injuries they wear like badges of honor.
“I get upset when people say, oh, it's a hobby,” says Maven. “This is my way of life. I get a job and earn money so I can play derby, travel and buy gear.”
That commitment pays off when Gotham Girls takes on teams from other cities. Celtic Thunder isn't alone when she says she always aspired to join Gotham Girls when she was starting out in another league: “Gotham was always a dream of mine,” she says. “Their level of training and competition was a benchmark that I wanted to get to.”
The fans have grown with the league, understanding the sport just like followers of any game would—during a second-half rally that fell short, Brooklyn backers roared as Suzy Hotrod of Queens was knocked off her feet, preventing her from becoming the lead jammer.
At halftime of the bout, there was a junior derby match for girls ages 11–17. Like little leaguers meeting their favorite Yankees, the young derby girls beamed as they posed for photos with the stars of Brooklyn and Queens after the bout ended in a 198–151 Queens win. The future of roller derby in New York City looks strong.
Gotham Girls has come a long way from the BQE to packed college gyms, but its skaters have even bigger ambitions for the future.
“Everyone should know that New York City has the best female roller derby team in the world. That's amazing,” says Miss Tea Maven. “I would really like to eventually sell out the Barclays Center or something.”
Why not? If Gotham Girls can get Suzy Hotrod to switch from vodka to water, anything is possible.
Gotham Girls Roller Derby has upcoming meets on April 12, May 3, June 7, July 19, August 2, August 23 and September 13. For more information on how to catch them in person and on television, visit gothamgirlsrollerderby.com.