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Niki at Nite: Exploring the depths of "fan-archy" with Roller Derby superfans

When the chicks hit the fans: AZ Derby Dames take a hands-on approach.
Andy Hartmark

"Seriously, it's like soft porn on wheels!"

That is how my friend Joker describes roller derby to me before a recent AZ Derby Dames doubleheader bout at Castle Mega Sports. It's the first live roller derby event I've attended, and Joker — so-named because of her huge, mischievous, toothy grin — is thrilled that she's accompanying a "derby virgin."

Joker is a huge roller derby fan. If levels of fandom were comparable to the size of vehicles, Joker would be the 18-wheeler Mack truck of roller derby fans. She's been to dozens of bouts, both for the Derby Dames and the other local league, the Arizona Roller Derby (AZRD). She has cameos in all the Derby Dames' video footage (often with her face painted and always screaming so loud you can almost see her tonsils), and she's even had coffee with a couple of the skaters.

I'm all hyped up, because Joker's been going on and on about roller derby all day. "Roller derby is so intense," she tells me, as we take a seat behind one of the team's benches. "These girls skate hard. There was this one derby girl in Arizona Roller Derby named Denise Lightning, and she used to throw up right on the rink because of all the exertion.

"You know what I miss?" Joker continues. "The Arizona Roller Derby girls used to do this thing called 'The Wheel of Misfortune,' and whenever one of the girls got a penalty, they had to spin the wheel. And one of the things on the wheel was a spanking from the audience. So you know I got my own custom paddle made for this. I just loved whacking them on the ass. I wish Derby Dames would do something like that."

The audience for the bouts tonight consists of about 300 people, and it's one of the most diverse, mixed-gender crowds I've seen anywhere. Tickets cost just $8 in advance and $10 at the door, and children age 12 and younger are admitted free, so there are a lot of families with kids here. But there are also a lot of 20-something punk-types and 30-something yuppie-types, as well as a handful of middle-aged people and senior citizens.

And then there's Joker. Once the first bout starts, she presses against the wall behind the bench for the Schoolyard Scrappers team, red-faced and screaming.

"Whooooo! C'mon, Ed Ible!" she yells, thumping her fist on the wall ledge. Then she turns to me. "Hey, did you see what Ed Ible had written on her ass? It says 'EAT ME.'"

As tempted as I am to study Ed Ible's butt, I can't tear my eyes away from the carnage coming around every corner. The women are whizzing around the track in torn fishnets, neon green tops decorated with skulls and crossbones, blue plaid miniskirts, multicolored ruffle-butt underwear, and ghoulie-punk makeup. I wasn't sure what to expect at my first roller derby bout, but this sure as hell ain't Xanadu.

While Joker continues her spiel about how hot the derby girls are, I survey the homemade jerseys on the skaters. Some of these names crack me up — Gwen Steponya, Tara Limzov, Necro Ophilia, Fawn Del Mee, Dirty Martini. Hell, even the refs have names like Howie Feltersnatch.

I agree with Joker — most of these derby girls are hot. There's just something about tattooed women with fit figures and firm breasts rolling around on the floor together that never loses its appeal.

Joker doesn't have one favorite roller girl (she loves them all), but tonight, she's wearing a button with the image of Schoolyard Scrappers skater Chuck Berrings on it. However, she's also wearing a button with the logo of the Coffin Draggers, the team the Scrappers are taking on tonight. She also has a little coffin-shaped pill box that she bought from the Coffin Draggers' merchandise stand a couple of seasons ago, and two huge roller derby stickers affixed to the front window of her Volkswagen convertible (VWs and derby girls are her two big passions). Joker's only 27 years old, but she's been doing the derby since it started in Phoenix five years ago. Until she switched jobs last year from part-time masseuse to full-time restaurant manager, she rarely missed a bout. Now she works longer hours and misses an event here and there, but she's never stopped trying to talk me into attending a bout with her since I met her via MySpace about a year and a half ago.

But Joker isn't the only superfan here tonight. The line to get into Castle Mega Sports was winding down the sidewalk a half-hour before the doors opened. Several fans are here with face paint, signs, and props, and they all raced down to the rink when the doors opened to get prime seats on the floor, in the "crash zone" (inches from the track).

 

Each team playing tonight has its own superfans. In the Coffin Draggers section, there's a guy dressed up like Elvis (complete with extra-greasy pompadour), who gave Joker and me quite a laugh when we saw him heading into the men's room (insert "Elvis is in the shitter" jokes here). The Runaway Brides fans include a really tall dude with long hair, decked-out in full bridal regalia. And the Schoolyard Scrappers' section is filled with fans carrying newspapers, which they hold up in front of their faces in unison when the Scrappers' opponents are being introduced.

The enthusiasm is contagious.

I can't stop hanging over the wall to try and see everything. But there's so much fast action all over the rink — punctuated by a sickening thump and a unified "Whooooa!" or "Oh!" from the crowd — that I always miss something somewhere.

If Joker hadn't explained the rules of the game to me beforehand, I'd think the point was to brutally take down as many skaters as possible and then beat the crap out of them while they're down. But the bouts actually have structure — each team has a "jammer," one skater with a star on her helmet whose goal is to make it through the "pack" as many times as possible while skating around the track. The eight-person "pack" consists of four players from each team (one "pivot" and three "blockers"). Each team in the pack tries to help get their jammer through while preventing the opposing team's jammer from passing. Once a jammer has made it through the pack the first time, she can score a point for her team with each opponent she passes. But the blocking methods can be brutal — players can do everything but grab skaters from opposing teams with their hands, trip them, or throw elbows. Fighting is also against the rules, but a brawl seems to break out every other jam. When the bout started, I began to count the fistfights but lost track somewhere around six.

The bouts tonight have been heated. The doubleheader pits the Bombshells against a new team, the Runaway Brides, and the Coffin Draggers against the Schoolyard Scrappers. Everything leading up to the final 15-minute quarter of the Draggers/Scrappers bout (which the Scrappers ended up winning) has been dramatic.

There was a mini-dogpile in the first quarter of the Draggers/Scrappers match when four skaters careened into the audience, eliciting cheers from the maimed superfans, who seemed thrilled to suddenly have some half-dressed hot chicks landing in their laps. Then, there was the last half of the Bombshells/Runaway Brides match, which had to be stopped due to an injury.

The injured skater is one of the Bombshells and, unfortunately, also one of the women Joker's had coffee with. She's a cute redhead who goes by the name Hippie's Revenge. In the last two minutes of the Bombshells/Brides bout, I hear a huge splat to my left and look over to see a large crowd gathered around a body on the floor. I climb up onto the bench and see that it's Hippie lying there.

Joker is freaked-out. "No, no, that's not Hippie! Tell me that's not Hippie!"

"Joker, it's Hippie. I can see her orange ruffle-butt underwear from here."

Hippie's teammates scream for someone to get her an ice pack, and the announcers call out for an EMT over the PA (the Derby Dames wisely offer free admission for EMTs). Some firefighters make their way down to Hippie and lead her off the rink. The bout is stopped and declared a victory for the Runaway Brides, who were burying the Bombshells in points anyway. Joker has tears in her eyes.

Before we leave for Hazelwood's on Indian School Road (the Dames' official afterparty spot), the Coffin Draggers' Suzy Homewrecker — also one of the founders of AZ Derby Dames, also the hottest rockabilly-goth-punk-art chick I've ever seen — recognizes Joker from other bouts and comes up to say hello.

Joker is literally bouncing up and down in her car seat on the way to the bar. "Oh, my God. Suzy Homewrecker talked to me! Suzy Homewrecker. I think I'm a little wet. I need to take the top down and get some air."

When we arrive at Hazelwood's around 11:30, the inside of the sports bar is filled with frat guys drinking vodka/Red Bulls and singing karaoke. The patio is filled with derby girls and fans drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon and singing along to local artist G.K. Mack's acoustic covers of Sublime and the Violent Femmes.

Hippie's Revenge is one of the first skaters I see, and she grabs my hand right away. "I'm really dizzy," she tells me, as I lead her out to the back patio.

 

"I got kicked in the ear with a skate," she continues, bobbling a little bit. "And then somebody bumped into me here and spilled half my beer. Dammit."

Aside from being dizzy and without half her beer, Hippie seems to be okay. This doesn't stop Joker — whose dream is "to be a masseuse for the Derby Dames" — from coddling her and offering up her phone numbers in case Hippie "needs anything."

Joker says it's a rule that each of the derby girls must have health insurance, so she hopes Hippie will go to the doctor. She also gives me the entire history of our local leagues in mere minutes, speaking with the speed of an auctioneer and the convulsive energy of an epileptic rabbit. She tells me one of the things she thinks is so cool about roller derby is how the leagues have consistently grown since AZRD was founded in 2003. "I've had to park on the street and jump the wall to get into bouts before because it was so packed," she says. "It's great to see that, though, because most of these girls don't make money from this. They do it for the love of it."

By the time we try to leave Hazelwood's at 1 a.m., the inside bar is tense with an "I've-drunk-too-much-and-now-I'm-gonna-kick-your-ass" vibe.

It's only 20 feet from where we're standing to the door, but we have to get through three heated confrontations. One of them is between two females (neither were roller girls) being held back by guys, and one of them is yelling about the derby girls and how they're tough and athletic and this other chick doesn't appreciate it because she's a stupid bitch or something like that.

As we pull out of the lot (watch for falling drunks), I tell Joker that I've seen more fights tonight than in the past five years combined.

And I don't think I've ever seen so much ruffle-butt underwear in my entire life.


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