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Penn Jersey She-Devils Roller Derby


These Wheels Are on Fire

Kimmie Kazie greeting the masses.

Welcome to the insane world of the resurgent Roller Derby leagues. It was my privilege to attend the Rock and Roller Derby extravaganza, featuring the Penn Jersey She-Devils this past Saturday in South Philly. The day would include several live bands and a roller derby exhibition bout.

I realized that I may need some things to cover this event so I contacted the editor of Defining Moment, el Commandante, and left my list of requirements. “I’ll need two fifths of vodka, 4 liters of tonic water with quinine, 4 limes... sliced, a case of beer, a carton of cigarettes non-mentholated and some sort of digital device to record my thoughts. I’ll also need some staff to make some sort of sense of this situation.” I intoned into his voice mail. Several hours later everything was confirmed and obtained and we were ready to set out for the event. I disembarked with a staff of 4: a photographer, a technical advisor (for the newly purchased digital recorder), a Roller Derby consultant and myself. The afternoon was wearing on and we had limited time to get to the event. We needed several hours if we wanted full coverage.

Violence is not mandatory... but encouraged.

The event took place at the New Alhambra Arena in South Philadelphia. An unusual venue, yet fairly well suited for the mixture of rock and roll and roller derby. There was a small fenced in area, designated for alcoholic beverages and only beer from a keg was provided. Those who sorely needed a drink were caged and on display. The interior was also non smoking. Already, my nerves were on edge, because to truly cover something like this you need to feel completely at ease. I quickly found myself backstage, exploring the bands’ staging area and managed to right myself with some rum and whiskey. Throughout the day I had slowly come to grips with the digital recorder’s strange, new technology.

In the dimly lit, warehouse-like interior, bands played on and a few stragglers congregated here and there. The skaters would occasionally skate in and cruise through reminding us why we were there, eyeing the crowd and conversing amongst themselves. My anticipation grew, I had no idea what to expect and the prospects of the day seemed to bode well. It was roughly 5 PM and the exhibition was set for 6.

Dirty Gert post bout.

The Penn Jersey She-Devils are an amateur roller derby team with roots in Philadelphia and New Jersey. The head coaches are Judy “the Polish Ace” Sowinski and Skip “Arnold” Schoen, both accomplished roller derby legends themselves. The girls exude a certain level of punk rock cool, most covered in ink and wearing short skirts with fishnets and stockings. Do not be fooled, these women are vicious competitors and warriors, they are not to be taken lightly. They all have their team names: Candy Kaboom, Dirty Gert, Havoc, Metal Momma… meant to warn as much as entertain. I find the genuine enthusiasm and love for the game held by the girls to be refreshing, they are in this for themselves and for each other and the need for competition. These bouts are REAL and so is the blood and broken bones. My pulse quickens as I realize the time is nearing for the “exhibition” bout. Unfortunately, it is a luck of the draw match, splitting the team in half. They will be competing against their own teammates and their thirst for mayhem will surely be tempered by the fact that their next big bout is less than a month away and any injuries will prove to be a large impediment.

Metal Momma and Candy Kaboom pre-bout game faces.

I rounded up my crew and we headed over to the exhibition “arena”, a make shift roller rink spray painted onto the black top. There were several sets of bleachers set up under the overpass, and little to nothing setup for safety. We smoked strong cigarettes and waited. The sky was overcast and the air was hot and sticky, not your typical August day. We found seats on the bleachers as our photographer scouted the area trying to get some shots of the skaters warming up, but the looming darkness of the overpass proved to be too much. The exhibition was commentated by bullhorn and as the Philadelphia sirens screamed in the background the overall vibes were starting to feel apocalyptic on this sweaty summer afternoon.

Roller Derby Glossary
Blocker player trying to stop the jammer from lapping and scoring points
Jammer player trying to lap the other team and score points
Pivot special blocker leading the pack and setting the pace of the action
Whipping act of pushing or pull your teammate to increase speed
Fishnet Burn the checkered road rash created when hitting the ground wearing fishnets
Bout match, exhibition

The teams were decided by pulling names out of a hat, and once that was settled, I quickly placed money on the bout. I knew little to nothing of the rules or the meaning of roller derby, but I had a hunch about the team in black and nothing got you interested in something more than money on the line. The exhibition started at a stagger stop pace, but was soon in full swing. As the wheels rolled round and round the flat macadam rink, I started to understand, at least for the moment, the rules of the game.

In the game there are two types of players: blockers and jammers. The blockers stay in a pack and control the pace of the game. Each round, one member of the competing teams is designated the jammer. Their goal is to come up from behind and cut through the pack, they receive points every time they do this. I was told the penalty rules are fairly simple: “No Hands”. You cannot push or pull anyone not on your team. Whipping, the act of grabbing your fellow teammate and whipping them past you to increase their speed, is the exception. As for any other rules I’m sure that I left out, I plead ignorance.

La brucha, Havoc, Kitty Coroner , Sugar and Spite, and Cherry Bomber sit down to field our questions.

At this point the action was in full swing, the girls skated hard and took many risks that day. This was not a standard roller rink, but rough asphalt. Hitting the ground at the speeds they travel would feel like landing on a belt sander. The skaters have scores of “battle” wounds and emphasize that this is REAL. One of the score girls has her arm in a cast, due to a prior injury during a bout. Road rash burns, broken wrists and tailbones, and numerous scars are par for the course in the world of amateur roller derby, yet another testament to the perseverance and drive these women possess. The crowd was warming up to the match and the girls started to get more and more aggressive. The play moves fast, and is easy to get into… the crowd was definitely engrossed in the action unfolding in front of them. Every couple of laps or so, a player would carom off onto the sidelines or trip up over the relentless grind of the other girls’ skates. At one point a small scuffle broke out, attesting to the spirit of winning engrained in the skaters. As the bout continued I started to notice the different styles of play… some jammers would force their way through the pack where as others would use their superior speed. It was the time old struggle between force and finesse. We smoked cigarettes and sipped whiskey enjoying the progress of the exhibition. It was clear I had placed the smart money on the black team… it was now only a matter of time. Black took the lead and never let go. It was an easy victory.

I collected my money and went on to conduct more interviews post bout. The skaters are easy going and forthcoming in their interviews, a stark contrast to the vicious competitors you see on the track. I had been awakened to a sport I never knew I liked. My preconceptions of roller derby were far from accurate… I had underestimated the quality and integrity of the sport, a possibly fatal error when dealing with any one of these athletes. I saw the camaraderie and dedication and the passion of the women that made this thing what it was… not only was I several dollars richer and entertained, I was inspired.

A special thanks to the Penn Jersey She-Devils for a fucking awesome afternoon and their willingness to put up with me for the photos and interviews.

The She-Devils’ website is
Their next bout is Sunday, September 24, 2006 at:
Cornwell's Skating Center
2350 Bristol Pike
Bensalem, PA 19020

Extra Special thanks to my fearless crew: Pete, Dave, Bill, and Molly.

Jonny O
August 29, 2006