The sound of skin slapping concrete has a way of grabbing one’s attention.
A voice barks “Up!” and over 20 women, in various school-girl plaid skirts, tank tops and short-shorts, clamber to their feet and continue skating in an oval at high speed.
Coach “Special” Ed Villegas is training them for war.
A whistle sends them back down to the deck, skidding across the concrete of the Columbia Hall floor at the Oregon State Fairgrounds, a cacophony of scraping helmets, knee pads, skates, arms and legs that resonates throughout the vastness of the Cherry City Derby Girls’ practice facility. The thud can be felt in one’s shoes.
Over and over again they drop, then rise and skate. They’re overcoming their fear of falling.
“It’s called reckless abandon,” Villegas said, “And it’s good to have just a little bit.”
Moreover, on this Sunday evening they are learning how to fight. When it comes time to compete, the hits will get harder, the heartbeats faster, the action crazier. Today they’re learning how to fall, and how to get back up. They’re developing the stamina to do so quickly, and repeatedly.
When the real thing hits, Villegas warns, “You’re not going to have the ability to recover.”
This is not a fashion show, and it is not a sorority.
“Any guy that comes into this thinking that this is all just skirts and legs is sadly mistaken,” Villegas says.
This is the derby revolution, and its members are embedded throughout Salem.
For Ryan Rogers, 32, founder of Culture Shock Community Project, organizing a roller derby league in Salem seemed like a good enough idea. For this organization that focuses on connecting members of Salem’s artistic and creative element, derby was another grassroots venture that could motivate people to “live deep and do good,” as the Project’s motto states.
“Roller derby has a spirit and an energy that is, in my opinion, as a sport, matched by none,” Rogers said, “because it’s so grassroots.”
Forming the Cherry City Derby Girls (C.C.D.G.) was an effort to tap into the energy of a sport long left for dead whose rejuvenation has exploded into a nationwide trend in the past decade.
Once a barnstorming spectacle that raided armory buildings with violent collisions and pro-wrestling-style, play-to-the-rafters fist-fights, the sport of oval track team roller skating has, in the past several years, been rebooted for the 21st century.
Gone are the men; gone are the theatrics. In their place are women suggestively dressed and scandalously nicknamed, racing in teams of 10 to 15 amateurs, skating naught but for the love of the game and each other.
With emphasis on no-frills skate skills and sexual expression, this “redux” version has caught on in towns from Portland to Hagerstown, Maryland, and even across Europe.
Women across America are flocking to the sport for their chance to dress their alter egos in fishnet stockings and hit the track as Shove Me Tender, Scratcher in the Eye, Skid Ho or Viagrrra Falls.
Even Hollywood is taking notice. The A&E Network has launched a reality show, Rollergirls, following the daily life of skaters in an Austin, Texas league. And in October, Fox Searchlight Pictures is slated to release the movie “Whip It,” starring Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page, about a young girl who discovers her true self on four-wheel skates.
Smashing sexy women into each other – something of a no-brainer for a marketing executive, one might think. But could it roll on to Salem?
Nothing prepared Rogers for the flood of over 200 women from across the city and valley, of all ages and walks of life: mothers, grandmothers, wives, girlfriends, sisters and daughters, who came to his opening orientation meetings last March.
They could feel that they were on to something.
“It’s happening,” said skater Leslie Venti, 38, a freelance graphic designer and co-owner of Venti’s Café.
Now a core group of roughly 80 skaters trains three days a week, two to four hours a day. They skate, they sweat, they bleed, and they bond. Their ultimate purpose is to stage their own bouts, and skate the flat track for Salem.
If they skate it, will Salem come?
The First Rule of Skate Club
At Venti’s Café, Lisa Zaniewski sits uncomfortably in her chair, taking care to avoid pressure on the livid purple bruise that’s crawling up the back of her left thigh. Despite the pain, the 25-year-old information technologies consultant smiles.
“You’re inflicting blunt force trauma at two inches away,” she said, rolling her eyes back, “and I … love … it.”
It’s her joy in being a derby girl.
“You’re allowed to inflict pain on another person, and then buy them a beer,” she said.
Bruises among women of roller derby are worn as badges of honor. A t-shirt worn at one practice reads: “It’s not domestic abuse – I’m a derby girl.”
It’s a surge of confidence that comes with recovery. The empowerment carries over into daily life, both at work and at home.
“Whatever happens, I can handle it,” said skater Summer Pommier, 29, a mother of two and clinical researcher at Portland State University. “I can deal with it. I’m so strong; I have so much behind me, that [adversity] is nothing.”
Derby becomes daily life for these skaters. Many of them spend well over the rough $200 for skates, equipment, dues and supplemental insurance. Despite tightening purse strings, some still talk of investing in $500 skates. They spend much of their off-time skating, networking with local shops, developing fundraisers for the league, and healing injuries. Hyperextended knees, hematomas, broken bones arise, but few things keep skaters away from the track long, if at all.
“I’d have to sever a leg or something,” said skater Jenna Otto, 41, who works in the catering office at Western Oregon University.
Sometimes, derby even starts to come across as an identity through skating that seems to compete with real life. Like a female Tyler Durden, Otto has even caught herself sizing up other women.
“I do find myself out and about now looking for derby girls,” Otto said. “[I think,] ohh, I bet she’d be a great derby girl.”
Their club does come with perks: derby is a tight-knit community of fast friends. Many of the skaters also own businesses, and offer each other “derby discounts” on their wares.
It’s one part of Ryan Rogers’ greater plan, a derby that promotes local businesses and charities. C.C.D.G. has also adopted a highway, and has plans to branch out into other opportunities for local public service.
“We’ve actually worked very hard,” Rogers said, “to create a roller derby that has a very supportive atmosphere, and is very community-minded.”
The goal that bonds them now is the desire to stage a bout in late summer or fall of this year. Many of these women haven’t skated in years; some are even now just learning how. The rigors of the weekly endurance test that is C.C.D.G.’s current “boot camp” reinforce that bond these women share.
“I walked in and I had 80 friends all of a sudden,” Venti said.
Pommier was more hesitant to join; she hadn’t laced up skates since she was 14. She held out until she saw herself skating again in a dream so real, so tangible, she just woke up and knew:
“I’m a f—-ing derby girl. That’s just the way it is.”
What kind of woman is a derby girl?
“She can be as soft as she wants,” Pommier said, “she can be as hard as she wants; she can be as tough as she wants.”
“For my son to see that, and know that his mom is just awesome, I just believe he’s got so much respect for women, and I can see that already in how he treats me,” she said.
Becoming Betty Grapple
For many women, it is an opportunity that has never existed before: the chance to be part of a full-contact sports team after college and to recapture a youth that grows more distant with each passing year and each added responsibility.
For Lisa Howard, 30, getting back on skates immediately brought back instincts and skills from half her lifetime ago.
“I was so amazed,” said Howard, a human resources training specialist in Monmouth. “The first night that I had skates on, I was skating backwards already again. It just came back to me; it was like riding a bicycle.”
Being a Cherry City Derby Girl has also made a big difference in her physique. Since starting in April, Howard has lost roughly 20 pounds, and shed several dress sizes.
However, it’s what she’s gained that seems to matter the most.
“Through derby, I really found myself again,” Howard said. “I found that I have gifts, and I have things to offer people.”
For Howard, roller derby has been the second gear in a drive to change her life. This past year, with her second marriage ending in divorce, she found herself a single mother with limited means of raising three children, ages 5, 4 and 2. She suffered the excruciating anxiety of leaving her children in daycare for the first time, as well as the financial burden of it.
This helped wake her up to how much she had changed.
Howard had grown up an active, athletic person. In high school, at Monmouth, she was a cheerleader. She played softball, threw javelin in track and field, and went snowboarding. But three children and two marriages added pounds and baggage, she said. There was no time for games or playing outdoors, she says, and that identity eventually faded away.
“My entire life became my ex-husbands,” she said.
She recalls the pain she felt, realizing she was going to work in baggy clothes and messy hair, unable to find the motivation to care about her appearance anymore. Gone was the vibrant, confident girl of her youth, seemingly forever.
“I didn’t feel pretty, anymore.”
Howard chokes back tears.
“I really felt all the crap from my life.”
Through roller derby, she has begun to take her life back. Now nearly 70 pounds lighter, she is turning the stress of her recent past into the kinetic energy of a dynamo who spends roughly 18 hours a day at work, working out, caring for her children, hitting derby practice and getting involved in Salem with other skaters.
She is planning an art show through the derby league and even thinking of looking into modeling.
“I am happier than I have ever been in my entire life,” Howard said.
She has spent a long time trying to rediscover who Lisa is, she said. Derby has given her a clue.
“Lisa is a really strong woman,” she says. “I think really, the definition of Lisa is perseverance.”
Once she passes a quiz on flat-track derby rules and a skating proficiency test, she will register her skate name, a nom de derby, as it were, with the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, the sanctioning body of the sport.
What is the name she wants?
Betty Grapple, homage to the movie icon.
“When I’m Betty Grapple, I can whip your ass. And that’s what I’m supposed to do.”
Keep Salem Weird?
“I’m not here just to get in shape,” Howard said. “It’s about being Betty Grapple in front of a lot of people.”
Currently, the Oregon State Fairgrounds grants the league free access to their buildings for every practice in exchange for the derby girls putting on skating events during the upcoming State Fair.
“It will bring people in,” Jordan Henderson of the Oregon State Fair, said.
“It’s an up-and-coming group.”
The team thinks Salem is ready.
“I actually find that Salem is primed and ready,” Rogers said, who compares it to Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Austin.
“Salem has per capita the highest concentration of creative, passionate, driven, unique people that I’ve ever experienced,” he said.
But if perception is reality, Salem is still not Portland or Eugene when it comes to alternative culture.
“The audience is there, maybe we have to spoon-feed a little bit,” Venti said, “to make it accessible.”
Rogers aims to steer the C.C.D.G. in a PG-13 direction, at the onset, anyway, to avoid any “generational recoil,” as he puts it, against the in-your-face raciness of fellow derby leagues elsewhere in the country.
Skater Desiree Rudder-Yepes, 40, mother of seven and a customer service representative, is going along with it, but has her reservations.
“It’s still a bummer to me. A lot of us have tattoos and piercings and a lot us come from a punk-rock background,” she said, “but oh well.”
Skater St. Anne Sinner thinks derby can cross over into mainstream, regardless.
“The derby that I used to do (in Bend), there were a lot of families and a lot of kids,” she said.
The key to sustaining roller derby here, according to Kyle Sexton of the Salem Chamber of Commerce, is rallying a base of followers who are willing to put their money where the bout is.
“Salem consumers love something new,” Sexton said.
There is opportunity in Salem, says Tiffany Russell, President of the Rose City Rollers, Portland’s derby league and one of the most established in the country.
“I’m excited for them,” she said. “Derby is grassroots. There are no charismatic owners, no agents, no shoe contracts. And no prima-donna players.”
All skaters must stay involved, she says, with day-to-day organizational issues, fundraising, sponsor relationships and community outreach activities.
“You need to make sure that 100 percent of the people are doing 100 percent of the work,” Russell said.
To maintain a successful league, skaters must help establish new sponsors, and make connections with new local businesses and charities.
“You can be surprised sometimes, by new links and opportunities,” she said.
There may well be a demographic for roller derby, according to Scott Sadler, an entrepreneurial consultant and owner of Sadler Business Coaching. But he advises caution. Calling for a hip, vibrant Salem scene is nothing new, he warns.
Ultimately, Salem residents have to come to a bout and check it out.
A former restaurant owner, Sadler recalls seeing survey after survey in which respondents demanded a more hip downtown nightlife, with more late-night eats and more local artwork.
He remembers staying open later, spending hundreds of dollars only to watch his seats stay empty night after night.
“People love taking surveys and pontificating,” Sadler said. “But the reality is people have to patronize new ventures and get involved or else they slip back into their old patterns, habits.”
For her part, anyway, there’s no going back to old habits for Lisa Howard.
“It’s not an option,” she said. “I’m better than that; I’m stronger than that. And the only way that [things are] going to happen is if I make it happen for myself.”
Among the derby girls, there is little fear of anything, let alone failure.
“Once I got out on the floor and realized I could do it,” St. Anne Sinner said, “things became less intimidating to me, everyday normal things.”
Villegas believes the future of Salem derby is in good hands.
“If I were in a bar brawl, I’d want these girls with me,” he said.
As he talks, a group of women gathers from points all across Salem and the Willamette Valley, to put on their uniforms and plot the next course of the derby revolution.