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SUZY Hotrod, the much-tattooed jammer for the Gotham Girls, is sprawled across her tall, blond, Dairyland Dolls counterpart, Jewels of Denile - casually punching her in the face.
Luckily, the cow breaks things up.
If it sounds like a scene from a John Waters film, you wouldn't be far off. This is roller derby - the guilty pleasure of the 1950s, back again in all its retro glory. The costumes (the cow is a mascot), the names and the makeup are all outrageously over the top, and the derby - which competes tomorrow at the Skate Key in The Bronx (220 E. 138th St.) has become the hot ticket for hipsters.
Though the setting is kitsch, the action is real, as the purple-and-red bruise on Denile's chin attests. But Denile, also known as mother-of-two Michelle Hebert, shrugs it off.
"It's roller derby. You can't take it personal," she says. "You just gotta go in there and play as hard as you can, then go get drunk."
Hotrod agrees, since she didn't even know who she was fighting. "I just grabbed the first person I saw," says Hotrod, a photography studio manager and punk rock guitarist named Jean Schwartzwalder. "I got knocked down, so I figured I should probably start a fight."
Spoken like a true roller babe.
Roller derby was founded in 1935 as a marathon skating race, drawing 20,000 fans per match to watch couples skate almost 60,000 times around a banked track. Audiences clearly relished the frequent crashes, so the game was eventually changed to a team format to pump up the action.
Derby peaked in the 1950s thanks to television, but by the early '70s a weak economy, rising costs, and political infighting drained the sport's momentum. Numerous attempts to revive it failed. Then, in 2001, several bars in Austin, Texas, looking to sponsor something unique, formed an all-female roller derby league. The teams used old, quad-style skates (as opposed to Rollerblades), and skated on flat tracks, bringing the action closer to the crowd.
In this version, two teams of five take the oval - a "pivot," three blockers and a "jammer." The pivot leads the team, followed by the blockers and, about 20 feet behind that, the jammer. Once the jammer works her way to the front of the pack, she has two minutes to score points. This is done by passing members of the opposing team, all while her team tries to prevent the other jammer from doing the same.
Despite the look of things, there are rules - such as no grabbing, tripping or blocking from behind.
This in-your-face style caught on, and a second league formed in Phoenix in 2002. Once word got out, "it spread really fast," says skater Ginger Snap, who notes that there are now 35 active leagues. At a time when many feel that sports have been corrupted by commercialism, roller derby has a refreshing purity.
"A lot of people aren't interested in commercialized sports like basketball or football, because they're not accessible," says Snap, who sees roller derby as punk rock on wheels. "You go to a football game and it feels like it's a million miles away. With roller derby, it's in your lap. There are people who would saw their arm off before they would cheer for pro basketball players, but they'll cheer for girls on skates."
New York's league, Gotham Girls Roller Derby, formed in November 2003 with 12 members, and now has more than 30, with a waiting list for next season.
In addition to attracting aggressive, heavily tattooed types, roller derby is becoming a great way for bookish babes to release their inner bruiser. Petite Gotham star Rolletta Lynn joined the derby three years ago in Texas after catching her boyfriend in bed with a roller girl.
"A friend of mine was like, you should join roller derby so you could kick her ass," says Lynn, a computer service technician at Tek-Serve whose real name is Leslie Sisson. "So I got into it, and realized that she was a cool chick. We became friends."
Lynn loves how the sport - which she credits for leading her out of geekdom - allows women a rough release that doesn't crush their femininity.
"Men have their aggressive sports," says Lynn. "They've got hockey. They've got boxing. We didn't have anything like that. Plus, if men were involved, it wouldn't be as sexy."
Most of the Gotham Girls have only been skating for a year or two. The aptly-named Leggs Luthor hadn't had wheels on her feet since she puttered around in Strawberry Shortcake skates as a child, but after watching an exhibition bout last November, she was hooked.
"We get to be really strong and beautiful at the same time," says Luthor (Anna Hurley), who works at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. "It's great physically and mentally, and it brings you back to being cool after working 9 to 5."
The Gotham Girls compete monthly at Skate Key, drawing almost a thousand fans per match. The league has three teams, each distinguished by their trademark bad-girl uniforms - the sailor-suited Brooklyn Bombshells, the prison-attired Manhattan Mayhem, and the black leather-clad Queens of Pain.
While they usually battle each other, last month's match was their first-ever interleague bout, pitting their all-stars against the Dairyland Dolls from Madison, Wis.
The Gotham Girls' crowd is enthusiastic, screaming wildly as Hotrod slithers through the tough Dolls defense, then jeers as Lynn is pushed to the ground and flipped a Doll the bird in frustration. Fans also get to be part of the action, as when Gotham Girl Donna Matrix gets knocked off her feet, landing in the laps of several lucky fans.
The two 20-minute sets of this human NASCAR race fly by. Madison wins, 82-72, but the match seemed much closer.
With more than 30 recently created leagues nationwide, girls are flocking to be part of this. Jen Simms drove from Philadelphia with her friend Kristina Morgan for the event. Both are training for the first season of the Philly Roller Girls. As Val Halla and Ivana Rock, respectively, they look forward to facing off against the likes of Suzy Hotrod.
"We've met Suzy, and she's very nice to us," Simms says. "But we know that's gonna change when we get out there in the rink. She's gonna be like, 'what's your name again?' and then punch us in the face."
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