Derby Dames not just spinning their wheels

It’s a Saturday evening and we’re barely three minutes into the first half of the Green Mountain Derby Dames’ first bout, when “Darkness Visible” hip-checks the Wisconsin blocker, “Shrimp Trampi,” sending her skidding off the track on her hands and knees and nearly causing the sort of pile-up that puts seats in the seats at Nascar – and, perhaps, at roller derby. The announcer, “Rock Thudson,” goes wild.

Last month I watched Roller Derby for the first time, and I’m hooked. It was a Derby Dames doubleheader, with Vermont’s Black Ice Brawlers taking on Team Unicorn from Wisconsin in the late afternoon. Then, in the evening, Vermont’s “Grade A Fancy” began a systematic pummeling of “The Legislashers” from New Hampshire. (Final score? 244 – 36. But it wasn’t even that close.)

There are any number of reasons to explain the crowd at the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction, but my sense is that any sport that combines interesting, athletic women in fishnets and ripped stockings with speed and the possibility of violent collisions is going to have appeal. There is also a soft, gauzy halo of nostalgia (Didn’t our grandparents watch roller derby?) combined with the hard edge of good-natured and completely filthy sexual parody. Half the skaters have derby names and numbers that are brilliant and, alas, unprintable. Here, however, are a few that are: “Ivana Thump,” “Terminate Her,” “Miss Dairy Air,” “The Atomic Muffin,” and “Track Infection.”

And, oh by the way, some of the skaters are spectacularly athletic. That doesn’t hurt either. I had no idea what was going on at the beginning of the afternoon bout and watched it the way my wife watches football. We had been married a month before she understood that you don’t – to paraphrase that great Miami Dolphins kicker, Garo Yepremian – kick a touchdown. But it didn’t matter, because the skating was riveting. As “The Atomic Muffin” – a.k.a., Mary Katherine Dow, a hair stylist by day at O’M Studio in Burlington – put it, “Roller derby has the brute strength and team choreography of football. We play a smart game, too, but we play it sexy, fat, skinny, theatrically, and without apology. I think Americans have a thing for hardworking rebels.”

Here, however, is what surprised me most and what really drew me in. Roller Derby, first and foremost, is about empowerment. It’s that whole, “I am woman, hear me roar” thing that I love as a dad of a daughter. (Why has no one chosen “Helen Ready to Roll” as a derby name? It must only be a matter of time.)

“Darkness Visible” is actually Elaine Haney Sopchak, mother of three and former bookseller. Her derby name is a reference to John Milton and the phrase the poet used to describe Hell in “Paradise Lost.” She told me she “had been kind of adrift” since closing her bookstore. Then, one day when “The Atomic Muffin” was cutting her hair, the stylist brought up roller derby. Sopchak went from reffing to jamming in short order, enduring the bumps and bruises and overcoming the self-doubt. “Many of us were misfits who never were part of the in-crowd,” she told me. “The camaraderie I’ve experienced with the Dames is special. I’ve become friends with women I never would have met if it weren’t for derby.”

Which brings me back to those names. “The derby serves as an alter ego for most of us,” said Sopchak. “We’re secretaries, moms, nurses, artists, and retail counter clerks. On the track, though, we are our derby personas.”

And so despite the broken bones and bruises and torn ACLs, the sport is actually rather healing. As “The Atomic Muffin” told me, “I’ve been sober for almost 13 years. Adrenaline is the only drug I can take without forfeiting my medallion.”

There is certainly plenty of adrenaline flowing at the derby – and just maybe some endorphins, too. To quote the Terminator (versus “Terminate Her”): I’ll be back.

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 The Green Mountain Derby Dames return to the track next Saturday night, October 8, with bouts at the Champlain Valley Exposition at 4:30 and 7:00. Tickets are available through the Flynn Center Box Office and at the bout.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on October 2, 2011. Chris’s next novel, “The Night Strangers,” arrives this Tuesday — October 4.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.