Special thanks for photos to Curt Allan - http://www.curtallan.com
On certain Friday nights in downtown Providence the Bank of America Skating Center is strewn with dazzling rainbows of lycra, fist-pumping fans, and sweat-soaked, bruised bodies. This isn't a rock 'n roll accident, nor another kickball spectacle − indeed, compare this scene to the Kickball League only if you're wearing skates and can roll out a speedy retreat − this was the Providence Roller Derby engaged in a home bout.
"We've had some pretty good injuries, like broken wrists, broken ankles; I had a severe hematoma that's still present," says Wicked Stella, an experienced derby player who now manages the Sakonnet River Roller Rats. "Our knees click when we walk down stairs."
Stella may click, but she also smiles while twisting to examine her flank where the epic bruise blossomed last season; derby girls are proud, and fierce. Despite my experience riding a mountain bike into trees and my ability to sit through almost an entire UFC fight, I had to avert my eyes once or twice when watching my first derby bout. The amazing speed with which these women maneuver, the force of their hits, and the ever-present risk of a major pileup make for some serious drama on the track, and when viewers aren’t covering their faces in awe, they're hollering like crazy.
A summer night spent watching the speed and showmanship is a great time — bouts are accompanied by color commentators, food, drink and merch tables, and often feature live bands.
"Roller Derby is even more fun once you go a bunch of times," says fan and graphic designer James Re, "so you actually know what's going on and can follow the action on the track."
Providence Roller Derby (PRD) is one of the oldest such groups in the country. Established in 2004, PRD is a member of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), a nationwide organization of derby leagues that establishes the rules (an incredibly hefty document that the refs study intensely), and determines league rankings.
Derby girls have worked hard to distinguish their sport from the choreographed, professional wrestling-style brawling-on-wheels that went by the same name in the 1970s and 80s. In Women's Flat Track Derby, every hit and fall is real. The players wear helmets and kneepads and use them to the fullest. These athletes train and cross train, practice up to five times a week, and adhere to strict attendance and no-drinking policies in preparation for an event. Though their outfits and personas suggest sass and frivolity, Derby girls work hard. Really hard.
That is not to suggest that derby lacks a sense of humor. Adhering to Providence's spirit of larger-than-life performance, the five PRD teams carry themes relevant to local history and powerful chicks. The Sakonnet River Roller Rats, The Killah Bees, The Mob Squad, The Old Money Honeys and an all-star traveling team called The Rhode Island Riveters even produce an amazingly photographed calendar every year, showing the teams in an array of elaborately constructed and costumed scenarios.
Selecting a derby name is one of the most important moments in a derby girl's career, occurring when she finishes rigorous initial training and graduates to bout-ready status. Fans develop strong loyalties to their favorite stars of the flat track, like Craisy Dukes, Rhode Kill, Lotta Pain, and F'Shizzy Borden (Bloody Cianci, perhaps the most aptly named of all Providence players, has retired). Derby girls rarely if ever address each other by their civilian names.
And if, after watching a bout, you think you're ready to adopt a new name and put your skin (that around the thighs is especially susceptible to rink burn) on the line? You don't need to be a skilled skater to join Providence Roller Derby, and they'll train anyone during recruitment season.
But be prepared; the time commitment to practices, bouts, fundraisers, and league meetings is intense.
"If your girlfriend is a derby girl, we have a name for you." says Wicked Stella. "You're a 'Derby Widow!'"
To find a bout schedule and more info, visit http://www.providencerollerderby.com.