"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Many friends cringe when I mention my secret shame of roller derby infatuation. The sport’s close association with ’70s wrestling leaves them believing it’s nothing more than a stage show that’s at best undignified and at worst trashy. The attraction for them is elusive.
Roller derby is as much entertainment as sport, but the same could be said of the NBA or NASCAR. Derby athletes are trained to take a hit and fall with grace, just like boxers and hockey players, but they do it wearing fishnet stockings and short skirts, and that’s the rub.
Whether you love it or hate it, whether you believe penalties that include public spankings make it misogynistic or that the permission for women to behave aggressively makes it feminist, roller derby is growing in popularity across the country and in Arkansas. Those involved say they dream of the day the sport will be on par with boys’ football in Arkansas.
While that’s not likely to happen any time soon, derby has touched a nerve in women who were tired of the wimpy sports available to them. They’ve been empowered by eight wheels and an alter ego. Some are skating away from bad marriages and others are just looking for something in their lives that doesn’t feel ordinary, but all have found an identity they say exists nowhere else.
“Derby makes you feel young,” says Christi Coffey, aka Good Golly Miss Molly, captain of the “Red” team of the River Valley Roller Girls League in Fort Smith. When not on the track, the 32-year-old mother of four homeschools her children and describes herself as “almost 6 feet tall with a good chunk of weight on me.”
Originally a sport for both sexes, the latest incarnation of roller derby is dominated by women. A game, or bout, is played between two teams for three 20-minute periods on a flat circular track in a skating rink. Jammers score points by lapping the pack of skaters during the two-minute jams; one point is scored for every player on the opposite team that she passes after one lap through. Blockers help their jammer get through the pack; pivots skate in front and control pack speed.
“The sport is essentially going around in circles, so there has to be a crowd-pleasing aspect with trying to promote it,” Michelle Obana of the NWA Rollergirls in Fayetteville. That’s where the salty names and sexy fishnet stockings, costumes and skirts come in. Obana defends Arkansas’s standards as more family-friendly than those of some leagues in other states (“cheerleaders wear less than we do”), but there is no getting around it: Sexy performances are part of the sport.
“I think if you were a pastor’s wife, it would probably be a little harder to get away with,” Obana said.
Whatever it is the Rollergirls are doing, they’re doing right. A January bout in the generally conservative town of Springdale drew more than 1,000 people, Obana said, and had to be moved from the Rollergirls’ practice rink, Razorback Roller Rink in Rogers, to the All Star Sports Arena to accommodate the crowd.
Each of the three Arkansas leagues have decided for themselves how much raunch they’re willing to accept. The Central Arkansas League doesn’t use a “spank alley” penalty. (The penalty requires a skater to skate through a line of men who spank her as she goes by.)
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