Hell on wheels

Providence roller derby — fast action, big fun, and grrrl power on skates
By MARION DAVIS  |  October 14, 2009



There are rules. No hands, no feet, no heads. No tripping, no hitting from the back -- just thighs, hips, upper arms and torso, from the side or front. And no points for passing opponents if you fall out of bounds along the way.

But beyond that, anything goes. And if you've ever experienced roller derby, you know what that means: 10 women skating around a rink with a vengeance, each team's "jammer" racing to lap the other team, her opponents doing whatever it takes to block or slow her.

It's fast, it's violent, and seriously athletic. It's also a spectacle.

The players wear miniskirts and fishnets with their knee pads, helmets, and mouth guards. They go by names like Jetta von Diesel, Rhode Kill, and Sass E. McNasty, and called their last home-team bout CarniMaul 2009. There are brawls from time to time, and the music and announcers are loud and raucous.

Yet the audience is as much suburban families as punks, artists, and hipsters. A Girl Scout troop came to cheer for a team at a recent bout. Rhode Island Monthly's "Best of Rhode Island" issue featured Providence Roller Derby not only as a great game, but as the best role model for young girls.

And now, with Drew Barrymore's directorial debut, Whip It, showcasing roller derby as fun, sexy female empowerment, a whole new audience may be about to discover the sport.

Roller derby is both new and old. The term goes back more than a century, though Roller Derby the cultural phenomenon was born in the 1930s, created by promoter Leo Seltzer, who trademarked the name and took a troupe of professional skaters to compete all across the country.

Over time, the sport grew more aggressive but also more structured, with teams playing to sold-out arenas and bouts broadcast on the radio and even national TV. But in 1973, Roller Derby went off the air, and despite small revivals here or there, the sport faded from popular culture.

Then, starting around 2001, a whole new generation began to discover the sport -- mostly women too young to have ever seen it live, but thrilled by the notion of a high-energy, female contact sport. They formed small, all-amateur leagues in a few scattered cities, teaching themselves and even making their own gear.

Sarah "Doom" Kingan, a 2002 Brown University graduate, joined one of those early leagues in Tucson, Arizona, while working in that city. In 2004, after returning to Providence, she connected with other local skating fans, including one woman who'd done roller derby in Madison, Wisconsin, and they formed Providence Roller Derby, the first league of its kind in New England.

Unlike the girls in Whip It, who use banked tracks like those in previous incarnations of the sport, the Providence league skates on flat tracks. And while Bliss, the protagonist of Whip It, is just 17, the Providence team has women from their 20s to their 40s -- Barrymore's Smashley Simpson would fit right in.

"There are women from all walks of life," says Hellcat Lucy, aka Donna Lee Gennaro, a member of the Sakonnet River Roller Rats, the 2009 home-team champions. "We have students, artists, architects, moms. That, to me, is what makes this so great."

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