JOURNEY BEGINS IN 2005 WITH A DREAM AND SOME QUADS
by the Grand Poobah, ARRG Bout Co-announcer – Photo credits: ARRG and Papa Lippy
The six-plus year history of the Arch Rival Roller Girls – St. Louis’ first women’s flat-track roller derby franchise – is way too large in scope to fit into one single story…or for that matter multiple stories. There have been too many bouts and events, too many skaters and support personnel and too many peaks and pitfalls to give what one would consider “a comprehensive overview.”
But history is important, for we have a better understanding of the present – and its potential future – by acknowledging the past.
The genesis of ARRG actually begins with a 300-mile northern trip in fall 2005. Chicago, Illinois. 2135 North Milwaukee Avenue. The Congress Theater.
St. Louisan Sarah Kate Buckles – recorded in ARRG’s history books as the founder of the league – was visiting friends when she attended a bout during the inaugural season of the Windy City Rollers, the Chicago-based women’s flat-track roller derby league.
Perhaps it was the re-surging sport? A quad-skate combination of athleticism, drama and beauty that featured fast acceleration and punishing impact simultaneously. The athletes’ ages varied from early 20′s to twenty years’ beyond. Actually, the women didn’t fit any mold of the stereotypical athlete…and they had witty – and sometimes wacky – names that were an extension of their personality.
Perhaps the event set-up had something to do with it? The Congress Theater normally functioned as a 3,500 seat concert hall that featured artists such as Korn and Nine Inch Nails. Lighting that was set-up for effect rather than illumination. Eclectic music played continuously and announcers barked the play-by-play over the action.
Perhaps it was the crowd? A mix of young and young-at-heart that broke down socio-economic and cultural barriers. A mix of hardcore sports fanatics, collegiate hipsters, psychobilly thrillrockers and parents that normally wouldn’t be caught in venues like this. These were people who were interested in an athletic alternative…and a damn good time.
Enter modern day flat-track roller derby…and it hooked Buckles instantly.
“I totally fell in love with the sport,” Buckles told the South County Times of the experience in September 2007. “It took only one bout, and I knew we had to have it in St. Louis, absolutely.”
Also in the audience during that season in Chi-town was St. Louisan Grave Danger, mortician student by day and bartender by night. She was there visiting a friend, Windy City skater Killy Kapowski.
She too liked what she witnessed. An athlete by nature – with interests that ranged from swimming to rock climbing to boxing – Danger saw firsthand that the re-surging sport could potentially develop a following if pursued in the Gateway City.
“I was definitely interested, but didn’t have the time to start a league in St. Louis… or so I thought,” said Danger.
For Buckles, who adopted the “nom de skate” Mary Maglin’, her time was precious – her shifts at St. Louis’ Blueberry Hill occupied the majority of it – but the pursuit of the dream in her mind was worth the risk.
It seemed, however, that convincing those unfamiliar with the modern adaptation of the sport played in Chicago would be a hard sell locally from the onset. After all, most cultural references to sport in the past few decades had images of choreographed brawling, questionable scoring surges and – in the case of television syndication in the 90′s – an overtime jam that involved a wading pool on the track’s infield that housed “live alligators.”
“Roller derby of the ’70s was professional wrestling, basically,” Buckles said. “We saw moves that were so fake.”
But if there was a way to get ARRG’s call of action literally rolling, then Buckles would implement the tools of modern technology.
“I got out my little iBook and just started e-mailing people,” Buckles told the South County Times.
And although the process garnered interest from her inner social circle, Buckles still had to utilize the “do-it-yourself” means of getting the message across – she created and distributed recruitment flyers and posted them wherever open space was found.
This caught the eye of future recruit Artemischief, who saw the flyer at the Hi-Pointe, the now-defunct punk rock bar in St. Louis’ Dogtown neighborhood. After halting an intoxicated driver from leaving the venue earlier in the evening, she was later told by the inebriated patron that she should try out.
“I actually knew how to roller skate,” Artemischief recalls. “I had been playing roller hockey recreationally during the summer while I was in college. I had bought a couple of pairs of skates at thrift stores, so I had retained the ability to skate.”
She would not be the only one to see the flyer. Future ARRG recruit The Educator also saw the club’s corkboard and was coerced by a friend to give it a try. Consider it 2-for-2 at the Hi-Pointe.
The influence also reached a third-year law student whose prior athletic background included basketball, softball and cross country in high school.
“Someone told me that I should come out and play roller derby,” said 2005 recruit Mayor Francis Slayer. My honest reaction was ‘what is roller derby?’ I certainly had heard of it before but I did not know the rules. I knew it was a contact sport, but I didn’t know how it was played.”
Meanwhile, while working her shift at the now-defunct Federick’s Music Lounge, Danger was alerted by a friend about Manglin’s efforts of starting a roller derby league in St. Louis.
“She told me that, since I was the meanest person she knew, that I HAD to do it,” Danger recalls. “I told her that if I got to skate, hit chicks and drink beers with them afterwards, then I would give it a try.”
Manglin’s small recruiting class of fifteen started informal skating at South County’s Rollercade in October 2005. The literal “newbies” didn’t even have adopted derby names yet. There was Amy, Laura and Dana, as well as Catherine, Tina and a pair of Liz’s.
And the skating bared little resemblance to what Manglin’ and Danger saw months earlier in Chicago.
“They were ‘practices’ in the loosest sense of the word,” Danger reflects. “We could only work on skating basics, and even then it was just…you know…staying up on skates.”
There was no scrimmage, no contact, and – as a result of meeting during a public skate session – no control of the sound system’s playlist. ARRG’s inaugural soundtrack included “The Chicken Dance,” “The Hokey Pokey” and “Y.M.C.A.”
“We went to do the ‘Hokey Pokey’ and I fell on my ass so hard I had to lay there for a second and make sure I didn’t break anything,” says Danger. “That was when I met (retired ARRG skater) Riddle Lynn. She came over and asked if I was okay and helped me up.
“That was actually my first derby injury – a huge elbow bruise from smacking the floor.”
Danger wasn’t alone. The bumps and bruises at those early sessions were experienced by all. Consider it derby’s version of “the school of hard knocks.”
“I remember coming home from Rollercade with probably the biggest bruise in my roller derby career on my hip,” said Slayer. “Just from being in a straight line and falling down. We were trying to get very basic skills mastered in the early days.”
And there was also the bruised sense of pride. After all, these were open public skate sessions and any curious onlooker – young or old – was probably unsure of what to think of the training.
“It was amazing to watch these eight-year-olds school us,” jokes Artemischief. “They skated circles around us. I could stay up on my wheels, but I was nowhere a good skater. I could just function.”
Three months later, the squad – which had now grown in numbers sevenfold -began practicing at The Skatium in South St. Louis City. The league now had a place to work on drills privately and even hired a coach – Ken Watts, who had thirteen years of “artistic skating instruction” in his portfolio – to teach them the skill sets needed to advance.
“Actually it was by accident,” said Watts in a 2006 interview with Lo-Fi St. Louis. “I was the last person out of the roller rink when they started. They just came up to me and asked me if I wanted to go out for a beer.”
“Coach Ken really helped us get started because I don’t think we really knew anything there was about skating,” said the Educator of the now-supervised practices.
Watts – who adopted the paternal moniker “Papa Wheelie” – and the rest of the skaters soon began working on contact drills, which are designed to “toughen up skaters,” according to Danger….or as Artemischief more directly puts it in a missive, “to actually have the b*lls to hit someone.”
Once relegated to merely “shaking it all about” in the child-friendly confines of Rollercade, the ladies could now legally hit in their own “roller dojo.”
“At the end of the night we played ‘Queen of the Rink,’ where the goal was to be the last woman legally standing,” says Danger. ”I remember thinking that this was it, I was either going to get hit and decide I didn’t like it, or get hit and decide that I loved it.”
For all involved, the ability to now hit felt good…really, really good.
“I don’t remember who knocked me down, but when I hit the floor, I decided I wanted to be the inflictor of pain from there on out,” says Danger.
Hitting behind closed doors is one thing. If the group of skaters were ever to get beyond recreational status – and experience the rush experienced by the skaters of Windy City – then they would have to hold a formal exhibition in public.
The first bout of this kind for the fledgling league was originally scheduled to take place in St. Louis City proper during 2006′s Mardi Gras weekend. As expected for a sport unseen, it would receive secondary billing to the primary event that was to be arranged at the Soulard Market Gym. The league would skate demo jams in between fights promoted under the “Hoosier Weight Boxing” banner.
The event never materialized, according to legend, due to the promoter’s failure to obtain a liquor license. And perhaps in hindsight, that was probably a good thing.
This gave time for the group to re-focus and inevitably hold its first bout on its own terms.
On April 29, 2006, the league held its first demo bout – a match-up between the Pink Vixens and the Black Angels – at the Empire Roller Rink in Columbia, MO. Yes, the 90-minute shuttle one way was the sacrifice in order for skaters, family and friends to participate.
But it didn’t matter to any of them. After all, this was history being made.
“We were all very new and I think we all thought that we were really great at roller derby,” fondly recalls Slayer. “Instead of jammer helmet covers, we had cardboard stars that were held on by Velcro. It was simple technology.
“We really didn’t realize that we had a long way to go, but everyone was really excited. It was the best people in the league at that time.”
The bout’s euphoria was high, which helped propel some who were under the weather that day.
“I had strep throat during that game and I felt terrible,” recalls Artemischief. “I was jamming every other jam. I had no idea what I was doing. I just remember that they told me to go to the line and away I went.
“I can laugh about it now, because I had no idea how points were scored during the game.”
The bout – won by the Pink Vixens – drew an audience of 160, a success all things considered.
“That was a really fun game,” recalls the Educator. “At that bout, I knew personally that we would be around for awhile and I think ARRG knew that it was really in to this. We wanted to build.”
According to the league’s financial ledger, the Columbia exhibition – after expenses – profited an even $666. Perhaps a coincidental foreshadowing, for as the league began to build itself brick-by-brick, the usual complications associated with upstarts began to show.
Skaters became injured and feared long-term consequences of physical play. Time and financial constraints forced some to re-evaluate their dedication. Some skaters unfortunately didn’t improve and couldn’t reach basic skill requirements. A few found out that this modern version of derby was more than “just looking hot in torn fishnets.”
In short, numbers dropped drastically. What had peaked to 130 participants in its early stages had dwindled to about three dozen a short time after Columbia. A few pessimists felt that the league could flame out just as it was getting hot.
“It was a roller coaster ride,” recalls Danger. “Most people said it wouldn’t last more than two years, that it was just a fad. During a lot of those first couple of years, with growing pains and learning how to run a business and play a sport at the same time, I wondered if they were going to be right.
“I don’t know that I have ever felt like I’ve had so much to prove than during that time – to the public or to myself.”
But as time progressed, things were proven – both on and off the flat-track – and ARRG survived.
Athletes personally advanced from 30-second laps to eight. The league would officially become a member of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association in 2007 and qualify travel teams for post-season play. The league’s attendance would outgrow its four-year South County venue and would have to relocate to a larger facility.
And just like it’s Chicagoan counterparts, the locals participated…and had a damn good time.
It’s unique – and somewhat fulfilling -that on the eve of ARRG’s six-year anniversary of its first public exhibition, held in a hourly-rented roller rink, the league holds its local championship at Chaifetz Arena – a venue that seats a capacity of five digits – on Saturday, April 28.
Ask anyone that is “an ARRG original” who skated in the Columbia 2006 bout. They’ll tell you that the six-plus year journey to reach the league’s first regulation bout in St. Louis city was well worth the experiences, both high and low.
“This is what we’ve inspired to do from the beginning, so this is all about bring our dreams to fruition,” says the Educator.
“(April 28) is a really amazing day for us,” adds Slayer. “From where we started, all the work that we’ve gone through all through the years.”
“It feels like we are on the map as a real legitimate sport in St. Louis.”
COMING UP TOMORROW AT 8 AM FOR ARRG’s “30n30″: Now that you’ve read the early history of the league and its humble beginnings, we’ll look at the quest to draw its largest crowd yet. Monday, we’ll look at the league’s pursuit of the Chaifetz Arena as the home of the 2012 local championship.
ARRG’s “30n30″ is a daily feature that examines different aspects of the Arch Rival Roller Girls – St. Louis’ first female flat-track roller derby franchise. In this section every morning at 8 AM for the entire month of April, a new feature will be presented.