The Hellcats, in pink, take on the Cherry Bombs, in green, at the Palmer Evvents Center in Austin.

What better way to escape the winter doldrums than to watch outrageously dressed athletes on roller-skates race around a track, shoving and hitting each other along the way?

Texas Roller Derby

The Texas Roller Derby league season starts January 24 at the Palmer Events Center in Austin. The Texas Rollergirls league seasons starts February 18 at the Austin Sports Center.

Texas is home to at least 19 roller derby leagues across the state. Here’s a list of them. Let us know if we missed any and we’ll add them to the list:

Women’s Leagues

Alamo City Roller Girls, San Antonio

Assassination City Roller Derby, Dallas

Cen Tex Roller Girls, Temple

Cowboy Capital Roller Girls, Stephenville

Dallas Derby Devils

East Texas Bombers Roller Derby, Nacogdoches

El Paso Roller Derby

Houston Roller Derby

Hurricane Alley Roller Derby, Corpus Christi

North Texas Roller Derby, Denton

Rockin City Roller Girls, Round Rock

South Texas Rolleristas, McAllen

Spindletop Roller Girls, Beaumont

Texas Rollergirls, Austin

Texas Roller Derby, Austin

West Texas Roller Dollz, Lubbock

Yellow Rose Derby Girls, Houston

Men’s Leagues

Austin Anarchy Roller Derby

Texas Mens Roller Derby, Dallas

Roller derby leagues across Texas start their seasons with the new year, featuring energetic “bouts,” live rock bands, food and beer, and hundreds of fans—some dressed in crazy costumes—cheering on the skaters.

More than 15 roller derby leagues—most of them made up of women—call Texas home, from Beaumont to Stephenville and Austin, where a group of women revived the sport in the early 2000s and sparked a national trend with a cult following. The thrill of watching roller-skaters compete against one another, along with gravity and speed, attracts fans to the sport.

“For me it’s a lifestyle, it’s a family, it’s a sport,” says 26-year-old Kelsie Harlow, alias “Roxxi Revolver,” captain of the Hellcats in the Austin-based Texas Roller Derby league.

Texas Roller Derby bouts take place on a banked wooden track inside Austin’s Palmer Events Center, just south of downtown near Lady Bird Lake. The competitors—all women from age 21 to 40—dress theatrically in fishnet tights, short shorts, skimpy tops, and bold costume makeup.

Reflecting the sport’s irreverent attitude, the players compete under pseudonyms. Kate Robinson, who derived her “Hermione Danger” nickname from the Harry Potter book series, skates for the Holy Rollers in Texas Roller Derby. She took up derby after playing tennis at the University of Oklahoma.

“I thought, ‘Oh, how hard can it be to hit people on roller-skates?’ Little did I know that it was extremely hard,” Robinson says.

Each bout consists of two 30-minute halves with a 20-minute intermission. Five skaters from each of the two teams compete against one another in short “jams” that last 60 seconds. Players start on two lines—one for the “blockers” and another for the “jammers,” who score points by lapping the opposition on the track. Whether banked or flat, the oval tracks extend about 160 feet long. Eight referees assign penalties and eject aggressive rules violators.

No one wearing skates escapes bruises or rink rash during the bouts. Kate Tweedy, a retired skater also known as “Kate or Dye,” still competes occasionally for all-star bouts, but says her mother has never understood her roller derby obsession. Serious injuries often occur; Tweedy once broke her humerus—the bone between the shoulder and elbow.

Roller derby traces its roots to 1935, when Portland, Oregon, resident Leo Seltzer started the Transcontinental Roller Derby, a series of grueling, 3,000-mile races on an oval track with two-person, co-ed teams that raced
all day.

In 1960, Seltzer’s son, Jerry Seltzer, took over the sport, which had developed into a contact sport on a banked track, and broadcast the games on TV stations across the United States and Canada. Jerry Seltzer still attends Rollercon, the annual roller-derby convention held every July in Las Vegas.

“The concept of the ‘jam’ came about when a skater would want to pick up distance on another skater and would suddenly break from the pack, and come around the track to gain a lap on the others,” Jerry explains in a phone interview.

Roller derby had fallen off the map by the 1970s. Television shows in the 1980s and ’90s attempted to revive the sport, but it didn’t last. Then in 2001, a group of Austin women began practicing the sport at Austin’s Skateworld, followed by bouts at Playland Skate Center.

By 2003, Austin had become known as the home of resurrected roller derby, this time as a predominately female sport. In that year, the Austin skaters split into two leagues, Texas Rollergirls and Texas Roller Derby, citing “philosophical differences.” Texas Roller Derby raised funds to buy a banked track, while the Texas Rollergirls competed on a flat track. Both leagues have thrived ever since.

The Austin revival has contributed to a global count of more than 1,500 roller derby leagues and 35,000 teams in 40 countries, according to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association and the Roller Derby Coalition of Leagues. Primarily self-owned and operated, most of the leagues compete on flat tracks because it’s more expensive to build and maintain a banked track.

Films, documentaries, and books have all contributed to roller derby’s mystique. In 2006, A&E Network broadcast the reality TV show Rollergirls, chronicling the Texas Rollergirls league; and in 2007, former Texas Rollergirl Melissa “Melicious” Joulwan published Rollergirl: Totally True Tales from the Track. Hollywood took notice in 2009 with the film Whip It, a fictional Texas roller derby tale directed by Drew Barrymore and starring herself, Ellen Page, and Kristen Wiig.

At the Palmer Events Center, the Texas Roller Derby league delivers the sport in a bawdy spectacle that might best be rated as “PG-13.” Cross-dressing male cheerleaders called “The Flamers” cheer on the skaters, and a “penalty mistress” spins a wheel for penalized players with punishments such as “arm wrestle,” “long jump,” “judge’s choice,” “two-lap duel,” and “pillow fight.”

“I really pulled from drag queen culture, and some of the other girls pulled from punk rock cultures,” says April Ritzenthaler, aka “La Muerta,” one of the Austinites who revived the sport in 2001 and helped shape
its image.

At the Texas Roller Derby league bouts, fans sit in portable bleachers and folding chairs or stand along the track’s periphery. Two announcers call play-by-play over a public-address system as large monitors display the action.

Nicole Foree, aka “Mardi Brawl,” a play-by-play announcer who also skates for the Holy Rollers, warns that roller derby can be habit-forming for fans and athletes alike. “Once you start skating, it’s kind of addictive,” she says. “It’s an incredible workout, and there’s so much strategy to it.”

From the January 2017 issue

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