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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

A night at the Madison Roller Derby

Madison Roller Derby

Madison Roller Derby's Reservoir Dolls and Quad Squad in action, Feb. 15.

There was a fat guy with an “If you want carrots” t-shirt, but there was also a gal wearing a Brandi Carlile, and plenty of fans sporting Reservoir Dolls, Quad Squad, Vaudeville Vixens and Unholy Rollers team tops.

Meanwhile, the DJ was playing Madonna and Blondie, “Disco Inferno,” “Hit the Road, Jack,” Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” and The Runaways’ “Dead End Justice”--all fitting for a women’s roller derby event.

“It’s different today,” explained Saucy McBossy of the Vaudeville Vixens—and public relations/media manager for Madison, Wisconsin’s Madison Roller Derby (MRD) league. “It’s not your parents’ roller derby!”

And so it wasn’t.

McBossy was a participant in the Vixens’ bout (game) against the Unholy Rollers Saturday night (Feb. 15) at Exhibition Hall A at Madison’s Alliant Energy Center entertainment/fairgrounds complex. It was the second of two bouts, the first featuring the Reservoir Dolls vs Quad Squad.

“It’s very athletic,” continued McBossy of today’s roller derby. “There is no staged drama or hitting. What you see is a full contact sport on roller skates! We train hard to deliver high-level skating and a thrilling game that any sports fan can follow.”

Indeed, as exemplified by the two MRD Saturday night bouts, today’s roller derby is both high-level and thrilling. Unlike the popular televised roller derby games of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, that were dominated by stars like Joanie Weston and Ann Calvello, it’s mostly played on flat rather than banked oval surfaces, hence the designation “flat track roller derby.”

The rules, though, can still be somewhat confusing. Basically, each bout consists of two 30-minute periods divided into jams, or plays. Each team has five skaters (called a pack), including one jammer, who does the scoring by passing opponents trying to prevent her from passing them by blocking her progress (by stopping her cold or either forcing her out of bounds or to the floor). These four blockers simultaneously assist their own jammer in passing their opponents.

Madison Roller Derby

Reservoir Dolls vs. Quad Squad

According to Madison Roller Derby’s website, a blocker may legally block with her torso, thighs, upper arms and shoulders (but neither elbows nor head), and “booty.” The jammer earns a point for each opponent passed legally. There are numerous penalties for illegal blocks, passes and knockdowns, and six referees—also on skates--are required to call and assess such infractions.

“We have four home teams—each with 20 skaters plus bench support--who play against each other,” McBossy said. Saturday night’s event was the second of five in the league’s Season 16 home schedule, which culminates May 2 with the championship game and ceremony awarding the coveted “Leggy” trophy.

Launched as the Mad Rollin’ Dolls in 2004 by co-founders Crackerjack and Pam Demonium, Madison Roller Derby was the world’s fifth flat track league, and a founding member of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) governing body for over 600 member leagues worldwide.

“It’s the fastest-growing female sport,” noted McBossy.

The league has over 100 volunteer skaters, referees, non-skating officials, and support staff. It has a nationally-ranked travel team--the Dairyland Dolls--that has represented the league on the international level since the beginning, as well as a mentor league for training future MRD players.

In 2018, the league began hosting its own WFTDA-recognized invitational tournament, Udder Chaos.

According to its mission statement, Madison Roller Derby seeks “to provide a safe, inclusionary space to foster the development of a competitive women’s flat track roller derby athletic program, build leadership skills through volunteer opportunities, and make a positive impact in our community by serving as role models for our peers and future generations.”

“There’s a lot of practice involved, and a very high athletic level of skating,” said McBossy, who stresses that the team rivalries, while friendly, are in fact genuine—as is the sport itself.

“The effort is 100 percent real,” she said, contrasting today’s roller derby with the campy pro wrestling-like scripted sports entertainment of roller derby past.

“But we have kept the funny names!”

Sure enough, Saturday night’s rosters listed the players Booty Callins, Mae Lay, Lana Del Rage, Conan the Librarian, Donna Stunner, and Hello, Sailor. Bench supporters included Lady Who-ha, Full Frontal Jewdity and Liza Spinelli, while the refs were repped by the likes of No Ship Sherlock, Eddie Lizzard and Johnny Zebra. Noteworthy among the announcers was Dolly Pardon Me.

Quad Squad's mascot

Team mascots were likewise straight out of World Wrestling Entertainment, with Quad Squad’s caped crusader leading cheers with Batman-like “Bam” and “Pow” cartoon signs, and Unholy Rollers’ satanic stand-in chasing transgressors with a battle axe.

MRD mascots

As for MRD’s community involvement, one intermission featured folk music by five children from the local Yahara Fiddle Club. Another brought out scores of fans to the track for the sold-out Wheel Toss: At least 100 skate wheels had been sold to raise money for charity (Saturday’s event proceeds benefited The Road Home, which provides opportunities for homeless children and their families in surrounding Dane County), and were tossed at a dairyland cowbell taped down in the center.

Yahara Fiddle Club

Yahara Fiddle Club performing at last week’s MRD event

Considered one of the WFTDA’s “grandmother” leagues for being one of its first five, Madison Roller Derby is particularly cognizant of who came first to the land that its “bouting venue,” the Alliant Energy Center (formerly called the Dane County Coliseum) sits on. As noted on its site, it, like much of the state, was originally inhabited by the Ho-Chunk Nation, one of the First Nations of Wisconsin: “This history of colonization informs our shared future of collaboration and community building. Today, Madison Roller Derby respects the inherent sovereignty of the Ho-Chunk Nation, along with the eleven other First Nations of Wisconsin.”

As for the games themselves, Quad Squad put on a furious comeback from 30 points back to tie Reservoir Dolls 173-173, then won by a point in overtime. Unholy Rollers handily defeated Vaudeville Vixens.

Madison Roller Derby

MRD players greet fans

But all players showed great sportsmanship and camaraderie, with the Rollers and Vixens players circling the track and slapping hands with the fans ringing it—also gratefully thanking each one for their attendance and support.

Madison Roller Derby video



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