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The Fort Wayne Derby Girls
Reinventing roller derby with fishnets, attitude, and b-movie bad girl shtick
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Like glitter balls, platform shoes, and Tab, girls roller derby is typically remembered as a 70s phenomenon. That decade is seen as a Golden Age of the sport, where Amazons on roller skates clashed with each other — shoving, pushing, body-checking — all while careening around a banked track at dangerous speeds. Movies like The Kansas City Bomber and Rollerball, (and even a short-lived sitcom called The Roller Girls) celebrated the sport and praised the players. Sure, roller derby’s checkered history began in the depression, and even included a brief flirtation with respectability back in the 50s, but it’s the state of the sport in the 70s for which it has been remembered. It was cool, it was tough, it was…
…well, it was kind of trashy and cheap. And that’s why, according to those who follow the sport, when the 80s rolled around, girl’s roller derby found itself relegated to somewhere between cock fighting and gold fish swallowing on the respectability scale. Sort of like professional wrestling’s little cousin. Only not as classy.
But in this day and age, it seems anyone or anything can reinvent itself, and so Girl’s Roller Derby appears to be on the cusp of another Golden Era. Thanks to leagues like the Texas Rollergirls and the A&E channel’s much-watched Roller Derby show, Girls Roller Derby has experienced a resurgence of popularity in the last few years. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (www.wftda.com), which sets down the rules and regulations for the sport, boasts almost 40 leagues and growing. There are Girl’s Roller Derby leagues all over the country, from Seattle to Austin to Atlanta to Boson to Grand Rapids… and now Fort Wayne.
The Fort Wayne Derby Girls take a page from professional wrestling, mix it up with the spirit of the X-Games, and throw in a hefty dose of saucy 50s-style b-movie bad girl shtick, with names like “Little D Evil,” “Josie-Fiend” and “Pushycat.” Besides the fact that the tracks they skate on are flat rather than banked, the way the sport is played isn’t all that different than it was back in the 70s. But today’s Girls Roller Derby acknowledges the fact that “trashy” and “cheap” can be a heck of a lot of fun.
“Aggressive women, on skates, with a little bit of sex and rock n’ roll that goes with it,” says Tonya Vojtkofsky, co-founder of the Fort Wayne Derby Girls, summing up the appeal of Girls Roller Derby. That’s not all there is to girls’ roller derby, she adds, but… “the girls are getting away from the fake fighting and all that, but yet there’s definitely a little bit of that that goes along with it.”
Vojtkofsky formed the Fort Wayne Derby Girls with Danielle Abbott in late 2005, inspired by a championship roller derby game they saw on a trip to Seattle (Abbott’s home town) with their husbands.
“I thought Fort Wayne was ripe for something like that,” says Vojtkofsky, who skates under the name “Minx.” “I couldn’t see why it wouldn’t work.”
Abbott wasn’t so sure. It’s tough to think of a place where aggressive women on skates, with a little bit of cartoonish sex appeal and rock n’ roll thrown in, wouldn’t do well. Then again, this is Fort Wayne. WWF conflicts are subject to more scrutiny than the Battle of Gettysburg, yet pro or semi-pro sports teams are a shaky proposition here — for every Komets or Wizards there’s probably a half-dozen Fort Wayne Flames. We’re also pretty slow to embrace anything new (unless it’s a Burger King). So Abbott had her doubts. “Really, my bets were against her,” she says of Vojtkofsky’s idea. “I never would have done it, except Tonya kept saying ‘I think they’ll support it.’ She grew up in Fort Wayne. I didn’t. I know it’s a conservative city, and I was afraid they wouldn’t embrace something like this. She convinced me they were ready.”
Apparently, she had nothing to worry about. After a slow start last fall, the 11 core members of the FWDGs held a recruiting party in late January for new skaters. 45 women tried out. They picked 20 (with five alternates), bringing the league total up to 31. “We weren’t only bombarded with skaters, we were bombarded by radio, TV, sponsors, photographers, organizations that wanted to work with us for volunteer events… we didn’t even have our business framework in place yet!” says Abbott, who describes herself as a meticulous planner and organizer (Vojtkofsky, on the other hand, says she “lives life by the seat of my pants”). “I want to say ‘thanks for your interest, but we’re organizing right now, we’ll get back to you.’ We’re basically putting together a company with 30+ employees together in a few months, and that’s hard to do.”
31 skaters is enough to form two teams. They hope to grow the league to four teams, sooner rather than later, and eventually establish a traveling team for bouts with leagues in Detroit, Chicago, and Ohio, but for now… “We kept it at two teams because we wanted to get quality time in with the coaches and the girls before our first bout in front of the public,” Abbott says. “And, we wanted to keep the door open so when it did go public we could bring more skaters in.”
Vojtkofsky adds: “Also, to keep it where we had control over a certain amount of girls. Rather than having 60 girls for four teams, (we wanted to) keep it at two teams so we got to know the girls and they knew what to expect, so by the time we had our first bout, we had things under control so it wasn’t just mass chaos.”
The Fort Wayne Derby Girls abide by the rules and regulations of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (www.wftda.org). Corporate sponsors aren’t allowed. The league has to be owned by a skater, for skaters. It has to be a grass roots league, with basic local sponsors, and has to participate in community and charity events. The WFTDA even has a Master Roster of derby names to choose from. FWDG Erin Sayers, for example, originally went with the name Bottle Rocket, but had to drop that moniker when she discovered it had been nabbed by a woman from the Grand Raggidy Roller Girls in Grand Rapids, a team they hope to bout against someday. Sayers now skates under the name “Boomerang,” which suits her better, she says.
For the most part, the FWDGs say everyone they’ve met seems to “get it”… to an extent. There are aspects of the Roller Derby image — the names, the skirts and fishnet stockings, the trash-talkin’ attitude — that can still cause a little confusion. The first: “(People) think we’re all a bunch of… sluts or something,” laughs Amber Recker, a 26-year-old Chicago native and college-level English instructor who skates under the name Miss Jane RedRum (though “Amber Recker” doesn’t sound like a bad derby name, either). “But I would say maybe 70% of us are married with kids.”
But then Recker, one of the 11 core skaters who started the league, goes on to cite the misconception that really bothers the Fort Wayne Derby Girls. “What I hear all the time is ‘that’s not a sport.’” she says. “You wanna tell my muscles it’s not a sport!?”
Actually, Recker holds the dubious honor of being the first Fort Wayne Derby Girl to take a major spill. During a mock bout, she collided with another player, wheels got locked, and Recker went down, smacking her head hard.
“Miss Jane had a falling out with the ring,” says Tonya Vojtkofsky. That’s a nice euphemism for what Recker describes as a concussion — and yes, kids, she was sans helmet at the time.
If you’re starting a tally, that’s one concussion, plus you need to add one broken wrist, one sprained ankle, and then innumerable collisions, spills, and wipeouts…
So much for the notion that Fort Wayne Girls Roller Derby is a powderpuff league.
“Those were fluke accidents,” says Recker. “There have been bumps and bruises, but the 11 core members are still around.”
True, any sport where you slap on a plaid skirt and make-up and call yourself “Little D. Evil” (Abbot’s alias) has a bit of showmanship in it. That said, if you’re going to whirl around a track on rollerskates, knocking into other skaters while hopefully avoiding being knocked around yourself, you really have to know what you’re doing. A lot of people don’t really get the athleticism that roller derby demands until they see the skaters in action. “Our coaches, or anyone who comes to practices are blown away by the athlete that has to be in you to endure what we do,” Abbot says.
The first bout happens on May 20th, and they’re hoping to have another round of recruits after that, once people get to see what it’s all about. And what are FWDGs looking for exactly? “Dedication,” says Amber ‘Miss Jane Redrum’ Recker. “Don’t try out and say you’re going to be on the league and then don’t show up, because that screws over everyone who tried out that you beat. You have to really want this.”
“We’re looking for someone who isn’t afraid of a little rough-and-tumble, but has a good attitude” Vojtkofsky adds. “Who can take a punch but turn around and hug you when it’s all over with.”
In the meantime, FWDGs are working with coaches J.J. Fabini, Thurman Carroll, and Brian Weidler, practicing for their first bout, breaking in the new recruits, and trying to stay focused amidst all the unexpected attention. “We want the sisterhood above everything else,” Abbott says. “We want to be able to go out on that floor, bust our butts skating, knock each other around, but walk off and go have a beer together afterwards.”
On Saturday, March 25th, the Fort Wayne Derby Girls are hosting a Meet and Greet party at THE BAR on Leo Rd (formerly Dupont Bar and Grill).
First bout takes place on May 20. Go to www.fwderbygirls.com for more details.