A GROUP OF WOMEN gathers in a huddle. They wear matching pinstripe skirts and serious expressions. One of them holds a clipboard and gives instructions to the others. "Theyíre a little worried about violence," she warns. "So I mean if youíre falling and stuff thatís fine, but no pushing each other just yet. íCause itís the beginning of the night and theyíll shut us down."
These women also happen to be on roller skates.
This is the Mob Squad, the first team in Providenceís all-new, all-girl roller derby league. The speaker is the teamís manager, Madame Donna Fukwitme, a.k.a. 27-year-old Marcella A. Kroll. The Mob Squad is gathered in East Providence at the United Skates of America, an indoor roller rink and entertainment park, complete with a ring of video games and a black light laser tag space station. A dozen little kids with skates slung over their shoulders empty out of the rink as strange eerie music wafts from loudspeakers in the laser tag area, and the Mob Squad prepares for speed trials. Tonight, team members will race one another in heats, competing for the title of Providenceís fastest roller girl. The event is a fundraiser, and a crowd of about 100 people ó mostly art punks and hipster types ó has amassed to watch them race.
The Mob Squad name is a nod to Providenceís mafioso heritage, and as is customary in derby, each girl has taken an alias. The racers tonight include the Godmother, Maria Goomatta, Cementa Boots, Tammy Guns, DaSilva Bullet, Amanda Hugandkill, and Rhoda Perdition. With the teamís tough name and bad-girl attitude, maybe the rink officials are right to be worried.
For the uninitiated, roller derby is competitive team roller-skating. Each team of five has one offensive skater, a "jammer," whose job is to break through the pack of defensive skaters and lap them as they skate around the rink. Every time a jammer passes one of her opponents, she scores a point. The pack of defensive skaters is made up of blockers, who, as the name suggests, try to prevent jammers from getting through the pack, and pivots, who set the pace for the bout.
To the untrained eye, roller derby might look like a bunch of girls skating around in circles. But Sarah Kingan ("Sarah Doom"), the 25-year-old founder of the Providence league, says thereís actually a lot of strategy and team collaboration involved. The pack, for instance, can help their jammer by grabbing her arm and whipping her up in front of the pack for some extra speed. The pivots can change the pace to confuse the jammers, or to make it harder for them to catch up and lap the pack. "Itís good to have a good jammer," says Kingan, talking in a lexicon not unlike that of professional athletes. "But if you donít have a good pack thatís looking out for the jammer, itís hard to score any points."
Not for nothing does roller derby has a reputation for being rough and tumble. Blockers will sometimes use a well-placed shoulder jab to clear the way for their jammer, or to prevent the other teamís jammer from getting through. But the rules of physical contact are very specific, and Kingan says, "Not that much dirty stuff is allowed." Pushing is forbidden. So is tripping, pulling an opponentís hair, or grabbing her from behind. Kingan describes normal conduct as "rough, but fair," adding, however, that sometimes "people fall and break bones."
But for all its toughness and athleticism, roller derby has a distinct element of art-school theatricality, which the ladies of the Providence league have heartily embraced. The speed trials in East Providence are being called by commentators Jed Arkley, owner of the coffee shop White Electric, and Brian Oakley, manager of the West Side restaurant Julianís, and owner of local music label Corleone Records. Dressed in í70s-style tuxedos, Oakley and Arkley banter back and forth like commentators on a Saturday Night Live version of Monday Night Football, hamming it up for the crowd, and taking cues from the team by adapting their own personas. Oakley is "Tom Morrow," a former child prodigy of the menís derby league. Arkley is "Billy Steel," a recovering drug and disco addict. Not coincidentally, in 2002 Arkley helped found the Providence Kickball League, which has provided another outlet in which indie-minded folks appropriate what was once the province of high school jocks, but more on this later.page 1 page 2
Issue Date: December 31, 2004 - January 6, 2004
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