Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Kvell on wheels: Roller derby star Fatal Dreidel

There are still about 10 minutes until the match starts, but the noise from the sellout crowd inside the Oakland (Calif.) Convention Center has reached a dull roar.

As the anticipation builds, referees in zebra-striped shirts amble around the track, making sure everything’s up to regulation standards. Groups of tattooed 20- and 30-somethings make their way to the concession stands for tequila shots, beer and tamales; one biker couple in their 60s scopes out the bleachers for any remaining seats. Across the way, a group of first-graders unfurls a finger-painted banner they’ve made to cheer on their favorite athlete: their teacher.

OK, so it’s not exactly the Raider Nation. But at 7:30 p.m., as the announcers read off rosters for the night’s contest between the Oakland Outlaws and the Berkeley Resistance, it becomes clear that when it comes to putting on a good show, the Bay Area Derby Girls could give some professional sports leagues a run for their money.

The B.A.D. Girls play flat-track roller derby, all-women’s roller derby. It’s simultaneously super-tough and tongue-in-cheek, as is evident from announcers with names like Miss Moxxxie and Postal Servix, and from referees who wear short skirts or tight, cleavage-revealing shirts.

And from the players’ names: Murderyn Monroe. Cass Warfare. Liza Machete, Dolly Deathrow Pardon. Fatal Dreidel.

Fatal Dreidel?

Yep, you read that right. To some people she’s Sara Cohen, 28-year-old nursing student and mother of two, Avi, 4, and Dov, 2.

But when the whistle blows to start the match, she’s Fatal Dreidel, No. 8.

Regardless of what you call her, she’d like you to add competitive roller derby to the list of things nice Jewish girls do.

“All credit for the name goes to my husband,” Cohen says with a laugh, in an interview a couple weeks after that soldout April 27 bout (which Oakland won, by the way, 168-156). “He’s witty, and I wanted something that kind of gave a nod to my background…and I was definitely aware that there were not too many Jewish women—that I knew of, at least—in roller derby.”

Growing up in New Jersey, she was a natural athlete from an early age; in high school, she played softball, basketball, field hockey and ran track. “At some point I realized that I got better grades when I was playing sports,” says Cohen.

At 5-foot-8, with wavy brown hair and an intricate cherry blossom tattoo adorning her right triceps, she certainly looks like someone who’s been active most of her life. “I think the extra time it took to practice made me more organized and focused,” she says.

She was no slouch in academics, either. After graduating from high school at 16, she earned a degree in marine science from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, then went to Duke University for graduate school in developmental biology. There, she earned a master’s degree and met her husband, Gabriel; the two moved to San Mateo, Calif., in 2007 when he got a job offer with Google.

Cohen worked at UCSF as a lab tech before the couple’s older son, Avi, was born. Two years later, they welcomed another boy, Dov. The family has lived in Alameda, Calif., since 2010.

In the summer of 2009, Cohen saw a flier for the Bay Area Derby Girls, just as they were beginning a six-week introductory course for beginners. After a year out of work, with most of her energy going toward being a mother, the timing seemed perfect.

“It was, ‘I’m going to go get roller skates, and this is going to be my birthday present to myself this year,’ ” she says with a laugh. “ ‘I haven’t skated since I was 7, but I’m going to do this.’ ”

Her husband, friends and parents didn’t expect it would last beyond those six weeks, she says, and she didn’t necessarily think it would either.

And yet: “It’s been a really important part of my life for the past four years now,” she says. “The way you bond with your teammates, how that bond extends off the track—I had no idea that I’d be as close to some of these people as I am…as the league gets older, it’s kind of like we’ve all grown up together.”

And by “we” she means Oakland Outlaws teammates such as Bonnie Doom, Bricktator, Huck Sinn, Minnie Peril and Tippa D. Iceberg.

The athletes aren’t the only people being shaped by the sport: Avi, who’s grown up going to practices with Cohen, “has declared himself our mascot,” she says. “He uses his superhero powers to help us win.”

Sure enough, Avi can be found at the center of the Outlaws’ most recent team photos, wearing a cape that matches the Outlaws’ uniforms. In one, he’s doing a pretty good Superman pose.

Cohen also says she feels strongly about her kids learning that “being physically fit and strong and active is fun…and that women can be tough, capable athletes as well.”

The modern version of roller derby has its roots in competitive banked-track roller skating marathons, which rose to popularity as a spectator sport during the Great Depression. Folklore goes that a struggling film publicist named Leo Seltzer saw that dance marathons and other competitions with prizes were drawing cash-strapped customers away from the movies.

He combined that trend with the rise in popularity of roller skating and created the “Transcontinental Roller Derby” in Chicago in 1937. Skating around a banked wooden track, competitors had to cover the distance between New York City and Los Angeles—3,000 miles—in male-female teams of two.

It took about five weeks of skating 111⁄2 hours per day, and even though most of the teams fell by the wayside due to injuries or exhaustion, as entertainment it was a hit. Seltzer took the show on the road, drawing crowds of up to 10,000.

Over time, the marathon element was shortened, and five-member teams emerged (to combat the strategy of two-person teams banding together to crowd out an opposing skater).

Following World War II, the emergence of television gave way to a new boom period for the sport—and exaggerated, theatrical hits and falls became a focal point. In 1949, Seltzer founded the six-team National Roller Derby League. The San Francisco Bay Bombers joined the league in 1954.

Fast forward to about 10 years ago: In Austin, Texas, a group of women form a team that comes to be known as the Texas Rollergirls. Fueled by a third-wave feminist aesthetic and emphasis on athleticism as much as entertainment, it grows over the next three years into an all-women’s league centered on the idea that the athletes themselves should own and govern their franchises—a do-it-yourself ethos that’s still a central tenet of the sport today.

One big difference between modern roller derby and that of 70 years ago: the introduction of the flat track, which is far easier and cheaper than a banked track to build, set up and use just about anywhere.

Following Austin’s lead, similar leagues popped up in New York, Los Angeles and Seattle, and by 2010 there were more than 450 leagues worldwide, including the Bay Area Derby Girls, a nonprofit founded in 2004. In addition to Oakland and Berkeley, the other current teams are the San Francisco ShEvil Dead and the Richmond Wrecking Belles.

It’s a competitive, full-contact, no-holds-barred game, and players wear helmets and kneepads for a reason: Falling (and, sometimes, shoving and being shoved) are just part of the action.

Aesthetics, as well, have been a factor in the game’s popularity as a spectator sport: a combination of uniforms, hairstyles and tattoos that project the fierceness and swagger of punk rock with a kind of campy wink.

But being known for that is something of a mixed bag, it seems. Cohen and her peers are fed up with people thinking that she and her fellow athletes are basically showgirls on skates.

“I think people are starting to take it a little more seriously, but when [women’s] roller derby first started, I think there were definitely people who came to bouts expecting to see sexualized images of women in fishnets and tiny skirts, falling all over the track and whatnot,” says Cohen. “The reality is we work hard, we work out a lot and train all the time, just like any other athletes, and it should be treated as a sport like any other.”

Cohen’s teammate Esteemed Bun Bun—real name Courtenay Bell-Gimelli—can think of a few other stereotypes she’d like to dispel.

“The idea that we’re all super hard-partying tough punk chicks who are always out drinking,” Bell-Gimelli says matter-of-factly. “The truth is, I’d be hard-pressed to pick out a girl in the league that isn’t highly educated and incredibly successful.”

“Most people would probably be surprised at how many teachers and doctors and nurses and lawyers we have,” the 31-year-old continues. (She’s a teacher at Oakland’s Freedom High School.) “Like Trixie Pixie [of the San Fancisco team] is a really talented programmer and writer, and she also happens to have a My Little Pony–style rainbow-colored mohawk.”

Asked if there’s such a thing as a “typical” derby girl, Cohen says no way.

“There’s a league requirement that players be at least 21, but other than that there’s a big age range. I have teammates in their early 20s all the way up into mid- or late 40s,” she says. “And as far as occupations, I’d say if anything there are a lot of people who are in very gentle, caring professions: nurses, veterinarians, teachers. I’m not sure what the take-away is there, but I think generally those people aren’t as meek or passive as you might assume.”

As for athletic experience in the B.A.D. Girls league, Cohen says some skaters are lifelong athletes who played hockey or figure skated as teenagers, and for them roller derby comes naturally. Others had never skated in their lives before signing up.

Cohen is the only Jewish derby girl she knows of in the B.A.D. Girls, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t others—she just happens to have the only moniker that easily identifies her as a member of the tribe. (There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, more Jewish derby girls on the East Coast: New York teams have players such as Mazel Tov Cocktail, Gefilte Fists, Nancy Jew and Ruth Hater Ginsberg.)

“I was definitely aware that there weren’t many of us [Jewish derby girls] when I chose the name,” says Cohen, who says “maintaining cultural awareness and connections” to Judaism is her goal for raising her sons. The family doesn’t belong to a synagogue, but plans to join one in the next year. “It’s important to me that the kids thinks of themselves as Jewish people living in America, and I think that takes some effort to maintain,” she says.

Cohen’s commitment to her kids is among the first thing people notice about her, says Bell-Gimelli, who has been an Outlaw for two years.

“She’s a fantastic mom in a lot of the same ways she’s a fantastic, caring team member—she isn’t a coddler, she’s not someone to let you wallow. She’s going to support you in a way that pushes you to be better,” Bell-Gimelli says. “She’s one of the top-tier players, but she’s very humble about it. And when it comes to the way she is with Avi, our little unofficial mascot—as a teacher, I would give my eyeteeth to have parents like that in my classroom.”

Officially, Cohen’s position is that of a blocker, part of a roller derby team’s “pack.” At the bout last month, she served as a pivot, the unofficial leader of the pack recognizable by a star on her helmet. She also serves as a relief jammer (the player who scores points) on occasion.

Her love of the game is almost visibly contagious; it’s not hard to see why, after the Oakland-Berkeley bout, she could be found signing autographs for a couple of little girls—future derby girls, perhaps?

“It’s hard to pinpoint the best moments in roller derby, because there’s kind of this amnesia,” she says. “There’s this moment when you finish a jam, and it’s ‘I don’t even know what I did or who hit me or how I managed to pop that jammer or blocker over the line or how that point was scored, but it felt really good!’

“That’s the main thing that I want people to know about roller derby, in addition to how hard we work—how much fun it is, how welcoming and open it is as a sport,” she adds. “Because we do have a lot of natural athletes, but I think we get also get a lot of people who feel like they were outcasts growing up, and they’ve never been a part of anything like this before, or they’ve spent their whole lives thinking they weren’t strong and couldn’t be athletes—and then they find roller derby.

“It’s so empowering when people realize what they’re capable of.”

Emma Silvers is a staff writer for j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California, from which this article was reprinted by permission.


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