AUSTIN, Texas – The teams have names like the Honky Tonk Heartbreakers (search) and the Hell Marys (search). The players are decked out in miniskirts and torn fishnet tights, some as wayward Catholic school girls or wild rodeo queens. And the matches offer a kind of controlled mayhem, put to flashing lights and loud music.
Roller derby (search) — the campy "sport" that filled low-rent arenas from the 1930s to the 1970s — is back, rowdier and more raucous than ever.
"Faster, faster, go, go, go!" the crowd chants at a bout featuring the Texas Rollergirls (search), one of two all-female leagues competing in Arizona, Seattle and Los Angeles; fans of all ages have made Austin a roller derby hotbed.
There's athleticism, to be sure. Skaters jockey for position and ram into each other while racing around the track. Packs of skaters try to propel their "jammer," a player who earns points for lapping opponents.
But there's also a hint of professional wrestling, as outrageously named skaters — check out Dee Generate and Reyna Terror — tangle theatrically. "Think WWE meets burlesque meets the X-Games," says the Texas Rollergirls Web site.
Live music is a big part of the show. The Texas Rollergirls describe their league as "rock 'n' roller derby." Before one bout, an all-woman punk band, The Winks, revved up the crowd.
"Everyone here is rabid about music. They're funky," said Melissa Joulwan, a freelance writer who goes by the name Melicious when skating for the Texas Rollergirls. "The laid-back, easygoing attitude of Austin also translated into us being able to do it here."
The Texas Rollergirls league, owned and operated by the skaters, consists of 60 women on four teams. Along with provocative outfits, the women, most of them in their 20s and 30s, wear helmets, kneepads and protective mouthpieces. They also own and operate the league.
The rival Lone Star Rollergirls (search) also boast four themed, costumed teams. Unlike the Rollergirls' flat track, they compete on a banked, or sloped, track. Some members of the two Austin leagues once were part of a single operation until the Texas Rollergirls split off.
Costuming and drama — including an occasional "fight" that can earn a skater a soft spanking with a cardboard paddle — are part of the attraction of the slightly risque derby.
"It's a chance to see pretty girls wearing skimpy outfits. ... (And) we're actually doing something," Joulwan said. "I don't know that it would be as popular if we wore traditional uniforms."
Still, the Texas Rollergirls welcome children to their meets. They bill themselves as "PG-13," and regularly donate to animal and youth charities.
Roller derby isn't just about being showy; it involves solid skating and maneuvering, said Vendetta von Dutch, blocker for the Hotrod Honeys.
"Anything can happen," said Vendetta, who missed some bouts this season after breaking her collarbone during a run-in with a skater known as Dinah-Mite. "It's all about multitasking and reaction time."
Vendetta is actually Julie Underwood, a 32-year-old elementary school teacher who moved from Dallas to Austin to live the roller derby life.
"The second I heard about it, I wanted to come see it. The second I saw it, I knew I wanted to do it," she said. Her all-black costume is accented with a touch of bright pink.
The teams hold regular practices, but fights aren't choreographed, and the skating competition is real, said Joulwan, the freelance writer known as Melicious.
The games have some trappings of other sports — referees, printed programs and a solemn singing of the National Anthem. But the Texas Rollergirls constantly struggle with how much should be about sport and how much about show, Joulwan said.
The current equation seems to be working. A typical competition draws 1,100 spectators.
Fans initially were regulars from the Austin music scene, but lately the crowd has come from all walks of life, Joulwan said.
"People told their friends, and they told their friends, and now we have normal people, too," she said.