LOS ANGELES – When she looks out across a banked wooden track where a couple dozen girls in crash helmets and roller skates are pushing, shoving, slipping and falling, Rebecca Ninburg sees a lot more than just kids having a raucous good time.
"That's the future right there. That's the next generation," says Ninburg, better known in the roller derby world as Demolicious, co-founder of the Los Angeles Derby Dolls skating league.
As if to make her point, 8-year-old Little RegulateHer, one of the stars of the Junior Derby Dolls, bursts out of the pack and, in a scene worthy of the film "Whip It," goes on to lap every other skater on the track.
After jamming her way past her much bigger opponents for five quick points ("I'm little so they don't see me coming," she explains later), the 4-foot-6-inch whirlwind stumbles, takes a hard face-first fall, gets back up and goes around again.
Roller derby, once a comical exhibition dismissed by athletic purists as not much more than pro wrestling on skates, has made another comeback. Only this time it's a legitimate, female-empowering sport for little girls, and there's nothing fake about the blocking and bumping. Or the pushing, shoving and occasional clobbering. As well as the bumps and bruises that go with it.
"I once broke my finger, and I get lots of bruises and twisted ankles," says 11-year-old Amber Sniderman, who skates under the name Bamber. Her mother, Killo Kitty (aka Staci Sniderman), coaches the Junior Derby Dolls.
Despite its rough and tumble nature, roller derby, invented in Chicago in 1935, has become one of the country's fastest growing female sports over the past decade.
It's a natural evolution, says UCLA sociologist David Halle, who has studied the impact of sports on culture. For years, Halle noted, there was no full contact sport like tackle football for women or girls, in large part because society frowned on the idea of females smacking each other around if the smacking wasn't fake.
"Now those things are no longer frowned upon," Halle said. "All the old ideological battles have been fought and won. So now roller derby can come back as a sport in which girls can get together in a very vigorous activity, just as boys always have."
When Ninburg and Wendy Templeton (whose skate name is Thora Zeen) founded the Derby Dolls in 2003 there were only three organized leagues in the country. Now there are approximately 650, according to Derbynews.com, which tracks the sport. Many of them, like the Derby Dolls, also have programs for girls 18 and younger.
Meanwhile, the Derby Dolls, one of the country's most successful banked-track leagues, have transformed an old warehouse on the edge of downtown Los Angeles into the Doll Factory, a 1,700-seat arena they pack to capacity with loud, devoted fans who show up to see teams from Colorado, Arizona, Texas, Nevada and elsewhere take on the Dolls.
The rules are essentially the same as when promoter Leo Seltzer invented the sport: Five skaters to a team, one jammer and four blockers, and the jammer must fight her way out of the pack and lap the others within 60 seconds to score.
But no fake fights, no bashing someone over the head with a folding chair or tossing them over the rail. Not even an elbow to the face. Even a shove from behind can result in time in the penalty box.
For the most part the grown-ups follow the rules. But when the juniors take to the track the penalties begin to pile up, particularly among younger skaters who are encouraged to block but not hit. It's nuance that's sometimes ignored.
"What I like most about it is you get to hit people," laughs Little RegulateHer, echoing a common feeling among junior skaters.
Not that that's the only attraction. The girls also put a feminine stamp on the slam-bang activity, wearing uniforms that include, along with the team jersey, miniskirts, fishnet stockings and other colorful accoutrements.
Then there are the names. Derbynews.com keeps a registry to ensure that, like members of an actors union, no two skaters have exactly the same one.
"It's kind of like naming your child," says 13-year-old Quinn Shepherd, who skates for the Chicago Riots under the name CupQuake, a moniker it took her months to settle on. "You want it to say you specifically, who you are, how you skate."
It also reflects the different kind of athlete roller derby seems to attract.
"'I liked running and tag, but organized sports were always boring to me," said 13-year-old Izzy Hannigan who, as Brook N. Harts, also skates for the Chicago Riots. "The one sport that I did like was ice skating."
That wasn't cool among her friends in Chicago, however. Not the way roller derby was. Especially after "Whip It" hit theaters two years ago. The film, starring Ellen Page as a roller derby rookie, was written by Shauna Cross, a former Derby Doll who skated under the name Maggie Mayhem.
"I thought, "Wow, I could be cool for once," Harts said.
Cleobattra , aka 16-year-old Mia Osinski of Los Angeles, wasn't looking for cool. She just didn't care for sports, period. Until a friend dragged the dancer to a roller derby match. Now she's one of the biggest, strongest and most feminine members of her team.
"I was like, 'Oh no, I would never do that," she recalled, shaking her waist-length brown hair out of her helmet and pulling her colorful, mismatched sports socks off of her black fishnets after a recent practice.
"Now I've been planning what colleges to choose to apply to," she added with a sheepish smile, "And I've been making sure they're close to roller derby leagues."