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Merrily the Atlanta Rollergirls roll along, knocking the socks off each other, their fans, and the idea that they’re just a campy group of retro roller vixens.
“Hollis, it’s me,” she said, as she ascended. “It’s me, Katy Hinman . . . Bat L. Royale.”
Like I needed to be told who she was. Of course this was Bat L. Royale, the infamous blocker for the Toxic Shocks, one of the four teams in the Atlanta Rollergirls league. Bat L. Royale, who skates like a freight train on the flat track, blocking opponents to create openings so her teammates can score. No wonder she could climb the audience like it was a deserted staircase. This was Bat L. Royale! The Rollergirl who, at the commencement of a regional bout last year, when it was discovered that the recording of the national anthem was missing, got up and burst into song, leading the crowd in a rousing a cappella version. They’ve never resorted to a recording since. Of course this was Bat L. Royale.
In fact, we’d come specifically to meet Royale—ahem, Hinman—a once-timid professor and theologian turned church pastor and Rollergirl crowd favorite. It was because of her I finally began attending the matches in the Yaarab Shrine Center’s auditorium on Ponce, where ARG sets up its roller rink for home bouts. I say “finally” because my friends had harangued me for years to go, but I usually had an obligation that involved motherhood in some capacity. And I say this knowing that the friends haranguing me were often mothers themselves—but whatever. When they told me about Bat L. Royale, I became intrigued. I sought her out and asked her to meet me, but really I wanted my daughter to meet Hinman, whose path to reach us, by the way, could not have been better if it were planned.
“Look! Look!” I said to my girl excitedly. “Bat L. Royale!”
My daughter sat transfixed, gazing upon Hinman’s visage. We’d been watching her exploits on YouTube for a while, and my girl’s reaction to Hinman was even more reverent than it was when I was able to finagle her a face-to-face with the Jonas Brothers.
Finally she reached us. “Hi, Mae,” Hinman said to my daughter. “Do you skate?”
Five years ago I found a couple of old pairs of roller skates at a Grant Park garage sale. At the time, we were living in the nearby Telephone Factory, a renovated deco building with giant loading docks, elevator bays, and other expanses begging to be explored recreationally, including wide hallways of polished concrete. It was in these hallways where you could find us nearly every night after that, noisily rolling along, my girl padded up like a hockey goalie, playfully pushing and shoving her way past me, and me just rolling behind, ready to catch her if she fell. We laughed so loud it’s a wonder my neighbors didn’t throw open their doors and demand that we behave like proper little ladies.
But they didn’t. And proper behavior is subjective, anyway, especially for little ladies. When I was my girl’s age, my mother thought it would be best to teach me to sit quietly with my hands folded in my lap. But sometimes, proper behavior does not call for sitting quietly with folded hands. Sometimes it calls for pushing and shoving.
This is why the Atlanta Rollergirls are more than just a campy group of retro roller vixens out to put on a good show. First, not all of the Rollergirls fit into what is conventionally considered “vixen” territory, what with ages that range anywhere between early twenties and early forties. Second, these girls are less about being arousing than they are about encouraging healthy female aggression and kicking some good-time competitive ass.
“I think girls who watch the Rollergirls get the message loud and clear that they can be strong and competitive and still be real women,” says Hinman, thirty-six. “I also think the diversity in Rollergirls is a great example—there are women of all shapes and sizes, all ethnicities, all occupations, and all backgrounds playing together.”
Hinman herself is a walking model of diversity, which explains her attraction to the sport. She has a B.A. and M.A. in biology, a Ph.D. in ecology and evolution, and presently (when not trying to knock the badunkadunk out of opposing derby girls) she coordinates the regional program for Georgia Interfaith Power & Light and is a pastoral scholar at her church. In 2007 she saw signs advertising the Rollergirls near her Little Five Points office and decided to attend that year’s championship bout. She was hooked. “I loved to skate as a kid—Xanadu was one of my favorite movies—and I’d seen a lot of old-school, kitschy roller derby on TV back in the day,” Hinman recalls. “But seeing hard-core flat track for the first time, I fell in love. Great athleticism and full contact, but everyone looked like they were having so much fun.” She attended a Rollergirl recruitment skate the next weekend, and bought skates and pads later that day.
“Of course, people have an idea that all Rollergirls are hard-partying, tattooed biker chicks, which I am not,” says Hinman. “And being in ministry, I was worried that people would think this was weird or inappropriate.” Instead, members of her church show up at bouts to cheer her on, and her senior pastor introduces her as a “roller derby queen” at church functions. “I think I get more raised eyebrows in derby circles when I bring up the fact that I’m in ministry than vice versa.”
People also have the impression that roller derby isn’t a tough sport—and they’d be wrong. The game consists of a series of two-minute races, or jams, between two teams. The jammer on each team scores points by lapping opponents on the track, hence the blockers’ attempts to stop the opposing jammer while propelling their own jammer forward. Each team also has a pivot, whose purpose is to pace the pack’s speed while monitoring the jammers. A team scores once their jammer is able to pass the opposing team’s pivot, which enables them to chalk up points for every rival team member they sail by on the track after that.
The pushing and shoving does take its toll. Hinman’s worst derby injury was a sprained ankle, but only because it kept her off skates for four weeks. The rampant bruises you see on the girls—some bigger than their heads, all of which would stop most people from even getting out of bed—are generally considered inconsequential. The girls strap on their skates and bare the black-and-blue patches proudly.
“Any time a girl gets the crap knocked out of her and the medics rush in, only to have her return to the track minutes later, it blows me away,” says Lucky Yates, the co-announcer for ARG bouts. “I would last two seconds out there.”
“One of the first things I learned at my very first ARG workshop was how to fall and get right back up,” recalls Hinman. “A major part of the sport is being able to power through when girls are slamming into you, to take hits, and to give back as good as—or better than—you get.”
In November the Atlanta Rollergirls will mark their sixth year since founder Angela Ward—a Cartoon Network web designer who skated as Tanya Hyde until her “retirement” last year—first cast the net for enough girls to create a local league. Today the ARG bouts regularly sell out, and the crowd is nothing like what you’d expect to find at a traditional sporting event. The drinking is there, as well as the festival food and tailgating, but the fans themselves are an earthy mix of retro-evangelistic, rockabilly, sideburned, and bustiered revelers who are as much fun to watch as the action on the flat track. But there are surprises, too, like the ones we spotted at the final bout of the season last August among the morass of vibrant fans: my daughter’s elementary school principal and several of her teachers. My normally tomboy nine-year-old was dressed in neon pink and black tights, a short orange scooter skirt, and boots. I bought her a necklace made out of a polished skate-wheel bearing at one of the tables in the venue’s courtyard, which vend everything from big bauble jewelry to kitsch clothes to, of course, ARG memorabilia. And the kids! There are so many of them, yet the bouts still resist devolving into pasteurized family-picnic scenarios.
“The audience blows my mind because it’s so diverse,” says Yates. “I know that sounds hokey, but there’s everything from tiny kids to old grandmas out there. It’s people who aren’t afraid of tattoos or punk rock. It’s a fearless crowd.”
Dave Cook, the ARG’s official graphic artist, played off the rock-concert-like diversity of the bouts in a now-iconic ARG poster. In Cook’s design, each team—the Apocolypstix, the Denim Demons, the Sake Tuyas, and the Toxic Shocks—is represented by a growling cartoon rollergirl made up like a different member of KISS. Now it’s common to see audience members come to bouts painted up likewise in support of their favorite teams.
Another crowd-pleaser? Some of the girls have a habit of printing messages to fans on the backsides of their pettipants. Which, because of the hunkered stance of the sport, are constantly visible. “[It] sounds a lot more perverse than it is,” says Yates, “but the practice does a lot toward encouraging superfans that, more times than not, end up becoming mascots or jeer leaders. The more outrageous you behave, the more you seem to get rewarded.
At an ARG skate party in Stone Mountain, Rollergirls take to the rink for fun alongside the local skating laymen. They glide by in their individual renditions of their uniforms—some in push-up bras and plunging jerseys, tights and short zippered jumpers on others—all identified by a common color scheme. Names such as “Thunder Enlightenin’,” “Bullie Jean King,” “Amelia Scareheart,” “Scarbie Doll,” and “Regreta Garbo” are emblazoned on their backs. I see “Sk8 Outta Compton” wheel by and realize I just saw her on the big screen, playing rapper Eve’s stunt double in Whip It. Many of the other Rollergirls have their small kids in tow, teaching them how to skate. The kids, as kids will do, fall often, and their mothers tell them to get back up and try again.
This image almost perfectly encapsulates what separates the resurgence of modern roller derby from its grim past, when movies such as Kansas City Bomber portrayed rollergirls (probably correctly) as tough cutthroats who rigged their shows like professional wrestlers on wheels. These days ARG has eliminated fixed games and ramped up the camp factor. Also, with each league owned and operated by the skaters themselves, there is no team owner hovering nearby demanding blood on the rink.
So what we have here is a sports team owned by women, many of them mothers, and all of them barely turning a profit, though supporters pay $15 a ticket in droves to see them. Most of that money goes back into maintaining the team and renting the venues, while the skaters themselves are content with the nonmonetary perks.
“I love to skate,” says Hinman. “I love the sport. I love the fact that I have sixty sisters that I would probably never have met otherwise, much less gotten the chance to play with and grow with.”
Back at the bleachers at the Yaarab Shrine Center, Hinman sits next to us and cheers the other girls on the track, who are often her competitors on other days. But today she is a spectator. Today she is supporting her Rollergirl comrades. Today she is climbing on people and being climbed upon, she is supporting people and being supported, she is yelling and laughing and fist-pumping and so full of life the energy radiates from her with almost-visible warmth. When someone on the track falls, she calls to them to get back up. And Hinman’s is not the only voice I hear.
“Get up!” I hear my girl hollering. “Get up! Get up!”
And it occurs to me right then why the Rollergirls have become so popular lately. They are the scrappy personification of persistence. And who doesn’t need that right now? Who doesn’t need to release some safe aggression in an atmosphere that is so diverse your child’s school principal is right there in the front row sitting next to a man with an entire toolbox of body piercings embedded in his head? These times are tough, and they are calling for something. Maybe it has to do with the difference between aggression and violence, the difference between plain competition and the cutthroat variety, the difference between falling down and bouncing back, and falling down and staying there like you’re broken. The difference between regular girls and Rollergirls, and the fact that there doesn’t have to be much difference at all. Times are tough, but you take your knocks. You fall down. You get back up. You roll through it with a smile on your face and a bruise on your butt.
“Get up!” We are all yelling now. “Get up! Get up!”