By APRIL DIODATO
OBSERVER Lifestyles Editor
On the dusty, winding back roads just past the Pennsylvania/New York border stands the Russell Roller Rink and not much else. From the outside, it resembles an oversized pole barn, but within its chartreuse walls, among the slightly musty smell of rental skates, there's a revolution going on.
OBSERVER Photo by Matt Pnaebianco
The Babes of Wrath, Chautauqua County’s own roller derby team, poses together at the Russell Roller Rink in Russell, Pa., where the team practices on Wednesdays and Sundays.
Each Wednesday evening and Sunday morning, women from throughout Chautauqua County (and a handful from Pennsylvania) get together to skate, knock each other to the ground and cheer each other on. Traveling from as far as Irving, some don't even have transportation of their own but those with dedication find their way to Russell, Pa. Donning a myriad of gear, including brightly-colored leggings and helmets emblazoned with their derby names, their avidity radiates from the rink, immediately infectious to any intrigued onlookers who happen to wander in.
They call themselves the Babes of Wrath. Like the grapes growing in the local vineyards that inspired their name, the up-and-coming local flat-track roller derby team is equal parts sweet and sour, a powerful combination of camaraderie, strength and female empowerment. The team has gradually come to fruition since 2009 and is now gearing up for its first home event, dubbed the "Summer Bruise-In." On Sunday, June 12, the Babes of Wrath will take on the Eerie Roller Girls of Erie, Pa., at the Jamestown Savings Bank Ice Arena.
"These girls are like my best friends now I've never really had a lot of girlfriends," said member Megan Renard of Lakewood, originally from Alaska. "These are some of the coolest chicks I've ever met."
Each Babe has a unique story of how she became enamored with roller derby. Renard (derby name: "Aeon Fox") had renewed her childhood love for skating, which she did religiously every Friday and Saturday from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. at the Alaska Skateland. For Fredonia native April "Chili Pepper" (Dingman) Cobb, she couldn't wait to strap on skates after watching the movie "Whip It," starring Ellen Page as a high school misfit who found an escape from her bemoaned small-town existence in the sport. Ginger Smith discovered her newfound passion at a Queen City Roller Girls bout in Buffalo.
"I had already pretty much made up my mind that I was definitely going to start skating, but after seeing roller derby in action, I was totally hooked," Smith said. "Not only did it look like great athletics, but the event really brought the community up there together."
She recently relocated to Jamestown from Fredonia in part to be closer to her team, to which she has belonged since March 2010. At practice, in torn pink tights and shiny black hot pants, she goes by General G'Injure, commanding her troops with the aid of a microphone. Her derby name is a spin on "General Jinjur," a little-known character from L. Frank Baum's "Wizard of Oz" books who led an all female army to take over the Emerald City. As director of training, she is responsible for the conditioning, skill level and safety of the skaters, planning practices, administering the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) minimum skills tests and serving as a general source of knowledge on athletics and gear.
Brandi Breth, who is warm, friendly and powerful on skates, came up with her derby name "Dixie von Doom" in homage to her Texas roots and her love of comic books. It was the latter that brought her to Jamestown it's a passion she shares with her husband, whom she met online and moved to Western New York to be with. When they finally were face-to-face for the first time, she met her fiance and future in mother-in-law all at once. ("I thought I was going to be sick!" she remembers incredulously during a brief break from practice). One year later, she graduated on a Friday night, got married the following Saturday afternoon and left Texas that Monday night. She has been here for eight years now, residing in Jamestown with family in Sinclairville and Randolph. Becoming a Babe of Wrath has helped her meet new people in the area and gain confidence, overcoming her difficulties with anxiety.
"When I heard about this, I dove right in," Breth said. "I love it."
THE BABES' BEGINNINGS
The seeds of roller derby were sewn during the Great Depression, starting as an endurance sport and evolving into a full-contact spectator sport motivated by blood thirst. In roller derby's heyday, beginning in the 1950s, the wildly-popular televised bouts featured a lethal combination of sex, violence and short-shorts, with over-the-top brawls akin to pro wrestling (with equivalent credibility). Eventually, it fizzled out in the early 1970s, with the economic downturn to blame. Roller derby was reborn in the new millennium in Austin, Texas, with the Texas Rollergirls leading the pack. Breth, who grew up an hour south of Austin, actually read about the phenomenon in her hometown paper and immediately knew she had to find a way to get involved, first making an attempt to get a group together in Evans two years ago. According to the upcoming documentary "Derby Baby: A Story of Love, Addiction and Rink Rash," the roller derby movement continues to quickly gain momentum. There are currently more than 500 leagues around the world, with bouts drawing crowds of 3,000 to 6,000 people in some cities.
Like the sport itself, the growth of the Babes of Wrath has been a grassroots effort. There were several players involved the Babes' origins. The girls credit skaters Renard and Angela Caley (who has since parted ways with the group), as well as Coach Pete Schiera, owner of the Suburban Blend store in Jamestown, which is the Babes' core sponsor; Chris Wysard and Sara Dorogi, who "have done a lot of work off skates getting our league up and running," Smith said.
Renard said she and Caley first went to skate at the now-defunct Evans rink about two years ago, but it was the Queen City Roller Girls who sparked their interest in starting a league of their own.
"We went up to Buffalo, watched a bout and it totally opened our eyes," Renard said. "We were like, 'We could do this. We could make this happen in Chautauqua County.'"
Wysard and Dorogi, a couple which has managed to bridge the North/South County gap (with Wysard in Jamestown and Dorogi in Dunkirk), were also fans of the QCRG. In fact, it was love at first bout.
"When we first walked in, it was like another planet half concert and half sporting event," Wysard said. "Maybe 10 minutes into it, we realized that we need this down here. It has racing, some violence, girls in short-shorts, rock music. It's perfect."
They began faithfully attending QCRG bouts and spreading the word back at home. Wysard has done considerable branding and marketing work for the group with the benefit of his talent for graphic design; Dorogi tirelessly worked to promote roller derby locally and helped to establish contact with community members county-wide.
"The potential is huge," she said. "I was, and still am, pretty shameless about promoting it to anyone and everyone who will listen."
"We thought (roller derby) would be a good way to reach the entire population here it's kind of disaffected and doesn't have much to do," Wysard said.
At the same time, Renard and Caley were beginning to attend adult skate nights at the Russell rink. The two pairs became linked by their shared desire to form a roller derby team in Chautauqua County.
"Through the grapevine, we heard about Angela and Megan skating at Russell," said Dorogi, who serves as the Babes of Wrath community liaison. "Because Chris is from Jamestown, he was able to find out who they were and eventually we got connected."
Together, all involved worked to put a structure into place, recruiting members and holding practice. The team's development has had some hiccups, with attendance certainly not helped by with one of the worst winters on record. Now, as they prepare for the Bruise-In, it's all falling into place.
"It's sometimes difficult to get everyone united and working together because derby started out very informal," Smith said. "But now we're having scrimmages and events and we have a board of directors, so things are getting serious. I've been trying to make practices more productive and challenging as we become a league and skate against other teams. We've definitely come a long way though."
Initially, they had hoped to revive the old rink at the Chautauqua County Fairgrounds, where many a local youngster went with their friends to skate and hang out. Dorogi fondly remembers going to a skate night to show off her fresh skating gear. Unfortunately, Dorogi said they were informed that the roller rink is no longer viable the floor, which hasn't been used in 16 years, is now warped and it would take considerable funds to fix it.
The Babes still hope to create a rink to serve as a more central point for the team but the task has proven to be more difficult than expected, with some insurance issues to blame. They are also working toward becoming sanctioned by WFTDA, among their other goals, which include becoming fully-sponsored and financially independent, uniting the North and South County, to represent the area as a group of hard-working athletes, and supporting local charities through volunteer and fundraising efforts. The team helped raise funds for victims of domestic violence at the "Kiss Me Anew" Bash in February and participated in Hands-On Jamestown, an organized community clean-up held on May 21.
"It's a really positive thing and that's what it's all about creating a strong bond between women," Renard said.
Festivities for the June 12 Summer Bruise-In get rolling at a 2 p.m. tailgate party with live music by Jamestown-based band Smackdab and a "Dogs for Dogs" sale to benefit the Chautauqua County Humane Society. (Dorogi said the idea for the hot dog fundraiser was inspired by the recent incident reported on in the Jamestown Post-Journal on the estimated 40 dogs that were left living in squalor by an irresponsible owner, seized from an abandoned Jamestown apartment in mid-May). The pre-bout ceremony kicks off at 3:50 p.m. with the game starting at 4. A half-time show will be presented by the Suburban Blend Skate Team. The Bruise-In concludes with an after-party at 5:45 p.m., with the Babes and their fans either toasting their victory or drowning their sorrows to the sounds of DJ Jimmy Whispas.
"They're probably about where we are skill-wise," Breth said of the Erie team. "They're a really great group of girls, I've skated with several of them."
Tickets are $6 pre-sale and $8 at the door. They currently on sale at the following locations: Suburban Blend, 209 Pine St., Jamestown; Labyrinth Press Company, 12 E. Fourth St., Jamestown; Buster Brown Bean Company, 33 Church St.,, Fredonia; Cattoos, 108 E. Fourth St., Dunkirk; and Jamestown Savings Bank Arena, 319 W. Third St., Jamestown. Tickets are also available online at www.jamestownarena.com or by calling the box office at 484-2624.
New team members, affectionately called "fresh meat," are always welcome. (In fact, each Babe interviewed enthusiastically extended an invitation to skate with the team). It is not necessary to have prior skating experience most of the ladies have learned as they went along.
"I was in all the musicals (in high school), I wasn't on any sports teams," Cobb said. "I'm not really an athletic kind of person and that's why I love this everyone's new at it. All of us are in our 20s and 30s and I feel like I started on equal ground with everyone. And that's why you can do it!"
Women ages 21 and up are eligible to join; skating referees and non-skating officials, open to area men and women ages 18 and over. To find out more about becoming a part of the Babes of Wrath, visit www.babesofwrath.com or find the Babes on Facebook by searching for "Chautauqua County Roller Derby."
"At the end of the day, even after a bout, when we've spent an hour beating the crap out of one another, we're still friends," Breth said.
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