Grace on wheels: Here come the Gate City Rollergirls

by Brian Clarey

A big break in the first half comes during the third jam, when Greensboro Rollergirl General Sew, in her homemade red jersey, fishnets and the hottest of hot pants, takes advantage of a power jam opportunity and racks up 15 points, putting the Rollergirls ahead of the URGE, of Greensville, SC, making the score 20-4 in favor of the hometown team.

But to fully grasp the weight of this play, you need to understand that the Greensboro Rollergirls as an entity are but a year old, that this is their first official bout against an out-of-town squad and that more than 200 people have come out to High Point on a rainy and cool Sunday evening and paid a $10 cover at a venue — a roller rink! — bereft of ABC permits, professional lighting or even a proper PA.

These hundreds defy easy classification: teenagers and college kids, the idle middle-aged, hipster parents pushing their oddly-named kids in high-tech strollers, parents and grandparents, looky-loos of every stripe. There’s a guy here wearing a satin jacket issued by his cribbage team.

They’re here because roller derby is back — or, more accurately, roller derby has been back since about 2000, when this campy and salacious form of sports theater was appropriated by a generation of badass women who brought a punk-rock attitude and a competitive edge to the sport. Things reached critical mass in 2006, when the A&E reality TV series “Rollergirls” documented — both on and off the rink — the league established in Austin, Texas in 2001.

So we’re a little behind the banked curve in Greensboro, as usual, but this time we’ve made up for our tardiness with gusto. Already, just one year in, three separate teams skate under the Gate City Rollergirls banner: the Battleground Betties, the Elm Street Nightmares and the Mad Dollies, which act as a farm system of sorts for the all-star Gate City Rollergirls team, facing off on the hardwood tonight against the URGE.

And by now their lead has been slimmed significantly to 20-19, after Nos, a magnificent bruiser jamming for the URGE, rode a slingshot after the last turn and churned her way past the scrum, slipping blockers like Jim Brown breaking through the line.

At the end of the 30-minute half, due to adeptness on the part of Rollergirls General Sew, Betty Rumble and Molly Flogger, the Gate City team has amassed 69 points. Heh. But the URGE, after a sustained power jam shouldered by veteran team member Torch, have put up 88.

It’s definitely physical. Certainly exciting. Undeniably salacious. But it’s about more than watching a bunch of tattooed chicks knocking each other around The rules of roller derby are relatively simple: The lead jammer scores points by turning laps on the tight track, impeded by the opposing team’s blockers and pivot. No grabbing, no flopping, no fighting.

Play is fast and furious, penalties numerous, and sometimes the scoring seems… arbitrary.

No matter. People come for the sport, sure, and the rollergirls oblige with athleticism and grace. But this revamped version of roller derby stays true to its roots of sports entertainment, with a theatricality that draws from goth and rockabilly, a sexy and powerful brand of feminism, dirty high school homecomings and professional wrestling.

Roller derby is the sport of the future as well as the recent past, with wisecracking play by play, a DJ and, in this case anyway, an oddly traditional halftime act.

Tonight students from the Walsh Kelley School of Irish Dancing in Greensboro, a troupe of a dozen or so little girls ranging in age, perhaps, from 6 to 12, capture the halftime crowd’s attention with traditional Irish dance in Gaelic garb, their hair curled into flouncy ringlets just for tonight. On one sideline, most of the women from both the URGE and the Gate City team stand on their toe brakes and watch those young girls. They celebrate the performance in the respectfully bawdy way for which rollergirls have become known the world over.

In the second half, General Sew rides a power jam to tie the match at 97, and things remain knotted until Torch of the URGE blazes her squad to a 118-110 lead. After strong second-half skating, Molly Flogger goes down with 9:21 to go after some rough play in the turn. She lies still on the rink floor a moment while all other skaters take to their knees. She gathers her strength and crawls to the bench, her team behind 122-114.

That’s when Betty Rumble steps up, exploding from the jammer position, weaving through blockers, crossing over the turns tucked into a speed-skater’s crouch, angling across the straightaways. Between her and General Sew the Rollergirls hang in, and Rumble rides the last jam to victory. Final score, 135-134. Don’t ask me how.

Rumble, a UNCG student and veteran of the storied Carolina Rollergirls, the state’s first derby team, makes MVP.

“I didn’t think I was gonna play derby again when I moved out of Raleigh,” she says later.

Across the rink, after the crowd’s thinned, Molly Flogger and General Sew stand with one of the URGE, trading war stories and showing battle scars.