Last Saturday I went with friends Ned, Paul and Joel to see the Rose City Rollers, Portland’s local roller derby league. Roller derby was apparently invented in Chicago in the 1950s, but its two inventors were both native Portlanders. So the spirit evidently lives on. It had the violence-on-skates of a hockey game but the campiness of a gay-pride parade.
When we arrived at the Expo Center, the stands were already packed with rabid fans cheering on the four teams: the Heartless Heathers, Guns ’N Rollers, Break Neck Betties and High Rollers. Before the action could start, however, there was a surprisingly lengthy amount of pomp and circumstance.
Over the course of a few minutes, the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers marched into the arena to their beat, circled the roller derby track, and lined up for a five-minute extended performance. Then, still drumming, they marched out of the arena, their beat heard for another couple of minutes. This was repeated after halftime.
Then, after the national anthem, two enthusiastic announcers thanked sponsors and went through a lengthy explanation of roller derby rules. Basically, two teams of five circle the track, and one “pivot” player from each team – indicated by a star on her helmet – tries to make it through the pack and lap the others. But opposing team members try to muscle the pivots from getting through.
Each young lady competing had a sort of stage name. The captain of the Heartless Heathers is called “Vominatrix”. She wears number 21, but the word “barely” was hand-scribbled above. The Heathers, incidentally, were my favorites—not because they enjoy the league’s best record at 5-0, but because of their campy ballerina outfits and sense of fun. Other Heartless Heathers team members included “Firecrotch”, “Sharin Hate”, and “Apocalipstick”. I particularly liked how much Vominatrix egged on the crowd.
By the end of the evening, my ears were ringing from the drummers and the announcers, the latter of whom felt the frustrating need to be talking at every moment. They especially seemed to favor growling into the mic, “Give it up!” But the roller derby action was lots of fun – just the right mix of true competition and frivolous fun. The crowd seemed to cheer the loudest when one of the competitors was knocked off her feet and sent tumbling. There was also a none-too-small element of male leering gong on at young women getting violent with each other in skimpy outfits. But the competitors seemed to relish these sexy alter-egos. Some even seemed to have made some personal modifications to their uniforms.
The announcers often repeated the message that roller derby is a serious sport. They even appealed for ESPN to start covering their competitions. But the charm of the Rose City Rollers is its charmingly bush-league character. I would hate to see players like “Cock Blocker” and “Slaymate CherriPi” face censorship so a cable network could attract the family demographic. That said, I think the Rollers league is more than an ongoing gag.