Rollin' into town

If you see Graduate Arts & Sciences student Kate Ranganath around Grounds, she might seem like any other overworked doctoral candidate at the University. But catch her on Wednesday nights and you might see her vent day-to-day frustrations by careening around on skates, smashing everyone in her path.

She is even working on a name for her new alter ego.

"I'm considering Kateastrophe," she laughs, "but it's still up in the air."

Ranganath is a member of Charlottesville's new women's roller derby league, known as the Derby Dames. In the sport, women compete on roller skates to score points, knocking down and leaping over opponents in the process. Though Charlottesville's team is new, the sport itself is anything but.

The Oxford English Dictionary has references to roller derby from as far back as 1935, when the sport entertained Depression-era audiences. For just a nickel, you could watch teams of skaters compete for more than a month to rack up 3,000 miles in laps ­-- enough to travel from New York to Los Angeles.

A few years later, the formula was changed to encourage the more sensationalistic aspects of the sport: brawls and collisions.

As member Jessika Daver explained, in a roller derby bout, each team's defensive players -- the "blockers" and "pivot" -- form a pack, with the offensive "jammer" skating 20 feet behind. With a blow of the whistle, the referee signals the start of a "jam" -- a two-minute period in which the jammers score points by lapping the pack. The first jammer to pass the pack becomes the lead jammer and can choose to call off the jam at any time.

The sport has come a long way in its 70-plus years. After large-scale, commercial leagues began to die out in the late 1970s, amateur organizations have sprung up in the past decade, giving roller derby something of a revival.

YouTube videos show packed crowds cheering on women with names like Jesskica Rabid and Lucille Brawl as they push and shove their way around the track. You can even watch videos of entire bouts, although the most-viewed videos often hearken back to the sport's origins: good, old-fashioned fights.

These new leagues frequently try to distance themselves from the more sordid elements of the game's history while keeping the excitement at its core.

"Staged fights are a thing of the past," states a Charlottesville Derby Dames press release, while "flashy outfits and a rock 'n roll attitude remain."

But just because pro wrestling-style theatrics are no more, do not think these women cannot get vicious. They are outfitted with a full set of protective gear, giving a hint at how physical a bout can get. And at practice, they rehearsed getting up after a catastrophic fall.

Daver said the league is still getting off the ground; for more than a year participants have been working to get the league going. With some help from Richmond's River City Rollergirls, the league "started real practice in November," she added.

Anna Perron, who founded the Derby Dames with Jessika Flint, admitted that the league has a ways to go before it is ready for what it hopes will be its inaugural bout next fall.

"We don't really know what we're doing," the 2002 College and 2006 Nursing School graduate said.

But the fledgling league is working hard to get there, doing drills on basic elements of the sport and working on what Perron calls "skating awareness."

For the near future, the Derby Dames want to focus on building endurance -- a roller derby bout consists of three intense 20-minute periods -- and learning the nuances of moving on skates. Member Stephanie Goehring talked to the group about "doing everything in your life on skates" and how to "get your skate legs."

The novelty of the sport to most of the team can even be a blessing in disguise.

"The whole team just started, so everybody's learning together," Ranganath said. "It's not like jumping into a situation where everybody else already knows exactly what's going on ... It's a good time to start."

During cool-down stretches, Derby Dame Amy Kennel talked about the group's needs as a growing league -- primarily, lockers to keep equipment in and a sponsor to get that equipment in the first place.

The league is also looking for a larger practice space; for now, it holds practice Wednesday evenings in the Charlottesville National Guard Armory.

"We're trying to encourage people to use the Carver Rec Center," which is open to Charlottesville residents for free, Perron noted. She added, however, "we can't exactly practice there... There's a thing about dodging little kids."

Finding a new location could be tough; the closest skating rink is in Staunton, nearly an hour's drive west, according to the Derby Dames press release. But the Derby Dames are not letting that get them down. Practices are demanding, but fun, and the Dames talk and laugh as they skate and stretch.

"I look forward to it; I always am excited about it; I really, really enjoy it," Ranganath said in reference to practices.

Perron is quick to point out that almost anyone can become involved with the Charlottesville Derby Dames. The league is open to anyone over the age of 19, and as Ranganath demonstrates, the team is more than open to the University community.

"It's a good way to relax and do something outside of school," she said, adding that "it's nice to have a whole other group of people to interact with."

For that matter, opportunities to participate are not even restricted to women. The Charlottesville Derby Dames need some derby dudes, as well, to serve as referees in bouts. Perron encourages anyone interested in playing or being a referee to get in touch with the team. Before long, you too could take on a name that would make a super-villain jealous and start smashing everyone in your way.

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