A tamer brand of roller derby, fit for the family, will be on display in Bucks County this weekend.

The Heavy Metal Hookers (in green) battle the Philthy Britches.
The Heavy Metal Hookers (in green) battle the Philthy Britches. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 23, 2012

It looks fierce. Wild. Dangerous.

Its players circle with menacing, or humorous, or just plain weird names on their jerseys.

The world of Roller Derby is a unique kind of entertainment that more and more locals are discovering as spectator ranks swell. And yes, you can bring the kids. The resurgence of what was once regarded as a fringe sport for hellions given to wild drama and fistfights is now family entertainment.

A large part of the reason: The rules have changed. It's grown tamer, more based on physical strength, and definitely more mainstream.

This weekend brings the East Coast Derby Extravaganza (ECDX), a major event that gathers 1,000 competitors from teams across the United States and Canada at the Sportsplex in Feasterville, Bucks County.

"This is definitely a wonderful combination of sport, entertainment, and competition," says Mary Dunham, who is both a player and a spokeswoman for the Philly Roller Girls, a skater-owned-and-operated nonprofit athletic league. The league's wry mantra: "Derby is back in the City of Sisterly Shove." PRG members are under the national umbrella organization, the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). Launched in 2005, the Philly Roller Girls are now more than 50 members strong, with three colorfully named home teams: the Broad Street Butchers, the Heavy Metal Hookers, and the Philthy Britches, who compete against one another.

Two travel teams, the more demurely dubbed Liberty Belles and Independence Dolls, are made up of local team members who compete outside the region.

With derby monikers such as "Devoida Mercy" and "Mary That Motha OH God," one might expect women of the rough-and-tumble sort on these teams. So one of the biggest surprises about today's skaters is who they are in their daily lives. There are doctors, social workers, fund-raisers, historic preservation planners, and technical writers. Teachers, artists, and corporate trainers also don the helmets and imaginative gear.

"We're a totally diverse group " says Jocelyn Jenik of Philadelphia ("The Cycrone") who, at 49, has the distinction of being the oldest member of Philly Roller Girls.

Widowed in 2006, and the mother of two, Jenik learned about Philly Roller Girls from a friend. Today, she also serves as cocaptain of the Independence Dolls and is the indefatigable volunteer who has spent months preparing for the Xtravaganza.

What audiences will see is a sport that requires intensive training - local teams practice as often as three times a week - and one that blends athleticism with attitude. "We're all serious athletes who promote 'sportswomanship,' and who proudly represent Philadelphia on a national level," says Dunham, a Philadelphia visual artist in her "civilian life" who celebrates the strength she has found in the sport.

In its heyday in the 1940s, the sport had about 5 million devoted fans nationally, but the theatrical elements later overshadowed the athleticism. While zany pseudonyms and colorful uniforms continue, much of the drama of derby has been abandoned in favor of the sports/skill aspect.

This modern incarnation of women's roller derby was born in 2003 in Austin, Texas, when a handful of enthusiasts wanted to free the sport from the expensive banked tracks prevalent in the 1970s, and go to a more practical flat track. The banked tracks were costly to build, move, and store.

The new flat track is easy to install in any large space, with regulation measurements marked on the spot to meet the sport's standards.

Once the second wave of women's derby had begun, Philadelphia jumped on the bandwagon, initially recruiting members in coffee shops and bars. It wasn't long before word of mouth kicked in, and the Philly Roller Girls league was rolling.

Potential members to audition for the teams, and if they make the cut, they go through a rigorous rookie training program wryly called "Raw Meat."

The reasons for joining are as varied as the players.

Elaine Kilmartin ("Persephone" in Derbyland) had just finished her residency in anesthesiology when a friend mentioned the arrival of a local roller derby team. "I was down to only 50-60 hours a week of work after residency, and I decided I needed some really great exercise - and also some socializing," says Kilmartin, 38, a married mother who is on the staff of Jefferson Hospital.

Kilmartin, cocaptain of the traveling Liberty Belles, and her teammates will go up against Texas and Denver at this weekend's event. "This is a very big deal for us - fun, wonderful, and a lot of work," she says.

For Natacha Moscoso ("Stalkher Nitely" on the Heavy Metal Hooker team) it's been a question of passion. This 22-year-old found herself in the sport, and loves everything about it, despite the bumps and bruises and shoulder injuries she's endured. "The way I see it," says Moscoso, "you can learn every drill in the book, but without the passion, it just doesn't work."

Philadelphian Emily Lowing, at a quarter-inch short of 6 feet one of the tallest players on Philthy Britches and self-dubbed "Long Jawn," is a counselor at an outpatient substance abuse and behavioral clinic in Wilmington - demanding, sometimes draining work. "I'm hooked on the camaraderie, the athleticism, the drive, and the passion of the women I skate with," says Lowing.

"Eileen u. Scream," a.k.a. Amy Keeney, a design coordinator for Urban Outfitters, sums it up this way: "For once, I felt like my body was not just this object . . . it was so empowering!"

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