Bits of white plaster peek through the dome ceiling, booming music reverberates through the crowd and cigarette smoke flavors the air at the Congress Theater in Chicago. Suddenly, the lights dim, fans scream from their seats and 30 women on roller skates storm the track. The championship game of the Windy City Rollers is about to begin.
With their thigh-skimming black skirts, florescent underwear, strappy fishnet tights, pink hair, gobs of mascara and two tiny x's painted underneath one eye, the Double Crossers don't seem like female assassins. But they sure make a statement.
Contrast that with the white ribbed tank tops and nylon athletic pants of the Fury, and it's a natural rivalry. The Fury, supposedly Hispanic gang girls, are the strong, silent type, according to Oak Parker Barbara Ann Dolan, who has skated with the Fury since the roller derby teams were created this year. "We're all about skating clean, all together as a team," she says.
Dolan, the mother of two young sons, got into roller derby through a friend, Kelly Simmons, now one of the Double Crossers. Simmons and another friend were on a road trip to Texas when they encountered a cocktail waitress with a big bruise on her side. A quick question revealed that it was a "derby burn," and the two ran with idea, recruiting friendsâ€"including Dolanâ€"and fundraising.
The objective of roller derby is to score points by having your team's designated "jammer" pass skaters from the other team. The jammers end up rolling around the circle about twice as fast as everyone else. Meanwhile, the eight other women on the track shove, elbow and jockey for position, trying to block the rival jammer while allowing their own jammer through.
And tonight, the Fury is hungry for vengeance. This is their third face-off against the Double Crossers, and they lost the other two. "Most of the teams want to beat the Double Crossers," Dolan acknowledges. "They're posers; they think they're all that, and they're not. You always want to take down the ones who think they're so good."
Still, Dolan's roller persona isn't exactly humble. Her derby name, Queen B, is pasted on her helmet in sparkly block letters. And when she skates onto the track, she acknowledges her adoring public with a quick wave, smug smile and tipped chin before joining her team in the starting lineup. "You can call her Your Highness," the announcer commands.
"It's like a freak show, but the freaks are tame," says Dolan's husband, Ben Neiburger.
The balancing act
Neiburger and Dolan's 6-year-old son, Levi, has been to every game. Levi's addictedâ€"he knows all the ins-and-outs of the league. "He knows who's good and who's bad and who's cheating," Dolan says.
For the championship game, Levi has his eyes on the Double Crossers. "They're always pushing and shoving," he complains.
The Double Crossers do have a reputation for pulling "dirty maneuvers that are probably illegal," Dolan says. "When a 6-year-old notices it, you've got to wonder."
Although she appreciates the extra support, it's not easy to be one of the two women in the league with kids, Dolan says. Only a small handful of the rollers are even married. "I'm really old compared to most of the girls," she says.
Since the majority of the derby players are young and single, Dolan has to go with their schedule. As a result, she faces a few extra obstacles even before she straps on her skates.
Practice, which is scheduled from 7:30 to 10 p.m. two nights a week, doesn't match the sleep schedule of Dolan's 3-year-old, Drew, who starts his day at 6 a.m. Also, he's recently learned how to use his most powerful weapon: guilt. Before she leaves, he begs her, "I don't want you to go to roller derby."
Kids and work often lead Dolan to skip the post-bout beer at Liar's Club. Most of the women go out drinking after the monthly games but, "It's not like I can say, 'Mommy had too much to drink last night,'" when the inevitable 6 a.m. wake-up call comes, she says.
"There are definitely nights when I'm dragging out the door and I don't want to go," Dolan admits. But the adrenaline rush makes it worthwhile.
"It's exhilarating. You feel great when you're done because of what you have accomplished."
When 10 people are trying to share the same patch of track, pushing, shoving and blocking ensues. "There's a lot of falling in roller derby," Dolan says.
Before the season started last November, Dolan hadn't put on roller skates for 25 years. She would fall whenever anyone came within arms' length of her, because she was scared.
Now, she's able to shift to one foot with the best of them, and she's not afraid to execute a double-block like the one she did a few games ago, when she threw out her elbows and knocked two of her opponents to the floor.
But those flashy moves come at a price. Injury is a fact of life when playing roller derby, and Dolan has sustained her share: She strained her shoulder and recently dislocated it, and her magnificent black eye holds a special place in the Windy City Rollers' online "Injury Gallery."
"In a really perverted way, it's like a badge of honor," Dolan says.
But injuries don't keep the women down for long. Rollers almost never miss the matches, whether they're able to play or not. It's not uncommon to see a team member in full uniform and crutches screaming from the sidelines.
The bruises and broken limbs don't create hard feelings. All four teams, about 72 women, practiced together for the first few weeks of the season, learning the trade together. Skaters on the other teams, the Maniac Attackers and Hell's Belles, cheered the Fury on to an overtime victory at the championship game. And after the game, players in different uniforms hugged each other with tears in their eyes.
"We are one big family and really love each other and really have a lot of close friendships," Dolan says.