The ten-year history of the Arch Rival Roller Girls, St. Louis’ first women’s flat-track roller derby franchise, is way too large in scope to fit into one single story. There have been too many games, skaters, peaks and pitfalls to give what one would consider “a comprehensive overview” in one short column.
But history is important, for we have a better understanding of the present, and its potential future, by acknowledging the past. The next few entries here at the ARRG website will look back at the league as it prepares to present “ARRG Alumni Night” at Midwest Sport Hockey on Saturday, March 12.
The genesis of the Arch Rival Roller Girls actually began with a 300-mile northern trip in fall 2005. Chicago, Illinois. 2135 North Milwaukee Avenue. The Congress Theater.
St. Louisan Sarah Kate Buckles, recorded in the history book as ARRG’s founder, was visiting friends when she attended a game during the inaugural season of the Windy City Rollers, the Chicago-based women’s flat-track roller derby league.
Perhaps it was the re-surging sport, a quad-skate combination of athleticism, drama and beauty that featured simultaneous fast acceleration and punishing impact. The athletes’ ages varied from early 20’s to twenty years’ beyond. Actually, the women participating didn’t fit any mold of the stereotypical athlete and they had witty, and sometimes wacky, names that were an extension of their personalities.
Perhaps the event set-up had something to do with it. The Congress Theater, now permanently closed, then functioned as a 3,500 seat concert hall that featured, at the time, artists such as Nine Inch Nails and K.O.R.N. Lighting that was set-up for effect rather than illumination. Eclectic music played continuously and announcers barked play-by-play over the action.
Perhaps it was the crowd, a mix of young and young-at-heart that broke down socio-economic and cultural barriers. A melting pot of hardcore sports fanatics, collegiate hipsters, psychobilly thrill rockers and parents that normally wouldn’t be caught in venues like The Congress. These were people who were interested in an athletic alternative…and a damn good time.
Enter modern-day, flat-track derby…and it hooked Buckles instantly.
“I totally fell in love with the sport,” Buckles told the South County Times of the experience in September 2007. “It took only one bout, and I knew we had to have it in St. Louis, absolutely.”
Also in the audience during that inaugural season in Chi-town was St. Louisan Grave Danger, then mortician student-by-day and bartender-by-night. She was there visiting a friend, Windy City skater Killy Kapowski.
She was also intrigued with what she had witnessed. An athlete by nature, with interests that ranged from swimming to rock climbing to boxing, Danger saw firsthand that the resurging sport could potentially develop a following if pursued in the Gateway City.
“I was definitely interested, but didn’t have the time to start a league in St. Louis… or so I thought,” said Danger, who skated with ARRG for ten years.
For Buckles, who adopted the “nom de skate” Mary Manglin’, her time was precious. Shifts at St. Louis’ Blueberry Hill occupied the majority of it but the pursuit of the derby dream, in her mind, was well worth the risk.
It seemed, however, that convincing those unfamiliar with the modern adaptation of the sport played in Chicago would be a hard sell locally from the onset. After all, most cultural references to sport in the past few decades had images of choreographed brawling, questionable scoring surges and, in the case of television syndication in the 1990’s, an overtime jam that involved a wading pool on the track’s infield that housed “live alligators.”
“Roller derby of the ‘70s was professional wrestling, basically,” Manglin’ reflected. “We saw moves that were so fake.”
“I got out my little iBook and just started e-mailing people,” she told the South County Times.
Although the process garnered quasi-interest from her inner social circle, Buckles still had to utilize the “do-it-yourself” means of getting the message across. She created and distributed recruitment flyers and posted them wherever open space was found.
This caught the eye of future recruit Artemischief, who saw a handbill at the Hi-Pointe, the now-defunct punk rock bar in St. Louis’ Dogtown neighborhood. After halting an intoxicated driver from leaving the venue earlier in the evening, she was later told by the inebriated patron that she should try out.
“I actually knew how to roller skate,” recalled Artemischief, who retired in 2011. “I had been playing roller hockey recreationally during the summer while I was in college. I had bought a couple of pairs of skates at thrift stores, so I had retained the ability to skate.”
She would not be the only one to see the flyer. Future ARRG recruit The Educator also saw the club’s corkboard and was coerced by a friend to give it a try. Consider it 2-for-2 at the Hi-Pointe.
The influence also reached a third-year law student whose prior athletic background included basketball, softball and cross country in high school.
“Someone told me that I should come out and play roller derby,” said 2005 recruit Mayor Francis Slayer. “My honest reaction was, ‘What is roller derby?’ I certainly had heard of it before but I did not know the rules. I knew it was a contact sport, but I didn’t know how it was played.”
Meanwhile, while working her shift at the now-defunct Federick’s Music Lounge, Danger was alerted by a friend about Manglin’s efforts of launching a roller derby league in St. Louis.
“She told me that, since I was the meanest person she knew, I had to do it,” Danger recalls. ”I told her that if I got to skate, hit chicks and drink beers with them afterwards, then I would give it a try.”
Manglin’s initial recruiting class of fifteen started informal skating at South County’s Rollercade in October 2005. The “newbies” didn’t even have adopted derby names yet. There was Amy, Laura and April as well as Catherine, Tina and a pair of Liz’s.
Not surprisingly, the skating bared little resemblance to what Manglin’ and Danger saw months earlier in Chicago.
“They were ‘practices’ in the loosest sense of the word,” Danger reflects. “We could only work on skating basics, and even then it was just…you know…staying up on skates.”
There was no scrimmage, no contact and, as a result of meeting during a public skate session, no control of the sound system’s playlist. ARRG’s inaugural soundtrack included “The Chicken Dance,” “The Hokey Pokey” and “Y.M.C.A.”
“We went to do the ‘Hokey Pokey’ and I fell on my ass so hard that I had to lay there for a second and make sure I didn’t break anything,” says Danger. “That was when I met (retired ARRG skater) Riddle Lynn. She came over and asked if I was okay and helped me up.
“That was actually my first derby injury…a huge elbow bruise from smacking the floor.“
Danger wasn’t alone. The bumps from those early sessions were experienced by all. Consider it derby’s version of “the school of hard knocks.”
“I remember coming home from Rollercade with probably the biggest bruise in my roller derby career on my hip,” said Slayer, who spent ten years with ARRG and retired in 2015. “It was just from being in a straight line and falling down. We were trying to get very basic skills mastered in the early days.”
There was also the bruised sense of pride. After all, these were open public skate sessions and any curious onlooker, either young or old, was probably unsure of what to think of the primitive training.
“It was amazing to watch these eight-year-olds school us,” jokes Artemischief. “They skated circles around us. I could stay up on my wheels, but I was nowhere near a good skater. I could just function.”
Three months later, ARRG’s collective, which had now grown in numbers due to social interest, began practicing at The Skatium in South St. Louis City. The league now had a place to work on drills privately and even hired a coach, Ken Watts, who had thirteen years of “artistic skating instruction” in his portfolio, to teach them the skill sets needed to advance.
“Actually it was by accident,” said Watts in a 2006 interview with Lo-Fi St. Louis. “I was the last person out of the roller rink when they started. They just came up to me and asked me if I wanted to go out for a beer.”
“Coach Ken really helped us get started because I don’t think we really knew anything there was about skating,” said the Educator, who retired in 2014, of the supervised practices.
Watts, who adopted the paternal moniker “Papa Wheelie,” and the rest of the skaters soon began working on contact drills, which were designed to “toughen up skaters,” according to Danger…or as Artemischief more directly puts it, “to actually have the b*lls to hit someone.”
Once relegated to merely “shaking it all about” in the child-friendly confines of Rollercade, the ladies could now legally hit in their own “roller dojo.”
“At the end of the night we played ‘Queen of the Rink,’ where the goal was to be the last woman legally standing,” says Danger. “I remember thinking that this was it, I was either going to get hit and decide I didn’t like it or get hit and decide that I loved it.”
For all involved, the ability to now hit felt good. Really, really good.
“I don’t remember who knocked me down, but when I hit the floor, I decided I wanted to be the inflictor of pain from there on out,” says Danger.
Hitting behind closed doors is one thing. If the group of skaters were ever to get beyond recreational status, and experience the rush experienced by those from Windy City, then they would have to hold a formal public exhibition.
The fledgling league’s first foray was originally scheduled to take place in St. Louis City proper during 2006’s Mardi Gras weekend. As expected for a sport unseen, ARRG would receive secondary billing to the primary event held at the Soulard Market Gym. The league would skate demo jams in between fights promoted under the “Hoosier Weight Boxing” banner.
The event never materialized, according to legend, due to the promoter’s failure to obtain a liquor license. Perhaps in hindsight, that was probably a good thing.
This gave time for the group to re-focus and inevitably hold its first game under its own terms.
On April 29, 2006, the league held its first demo game, a match-up between the Pink Vixens and the Black Angels, at the Empire Roller Rink in Columbia, MO. The 90-minute one-way shuttle was the sacrifice made in order for skaters, family and friends to participate and view.
The commute didn’t matter to any of them. After all, this was history being made.
“We were all very new and I think we all thought that we were really great at roller derby,” fondly recalls Slayer. “Instead of jammer helmet covers, we had cardboard stars that were held on by Velcro. It was simple technology.
“We really didn’t realize that we had a long way to go, but everyone was really excited. It was the best people in the league at that time.”
The bout’s euphoria was high, which helped propel some who were under the weather that day.
“I had strep throat during that game and I felt terrible,” recalls Artemischief. “I was jamming every other jam. I had no idea what I was doing. I just remember that they told me to go to the line and away I went.
“I can laugh about it now because I had no idea how points were scored during the game.”
The game, won by the Pink Vixens, drew an audience of 160. All things considered, ARRG’s inaugural launch was successful.
“That was a really fun game,” recalls the Educator. “At that bout, I knew personally that we would be around for awhile and I think ARRG knew that it was really in to this. We wanted to build.”
According to the league’s financial ledger, the Columbia exhibition, after expenses, profited an even $666. Perhaps a coincidental foreshadowing, for as the league began to build itself brick-by-brick, the usual complications associated with upstarts began to show.
Skaters became injured and feared long-term consequences of physical play. Time and financial constraints forced some to re-evaluate their dedication. Some skaters unfortunately didn’t improve and couldn’t reach basic skill requirements. A few found out that this modern version of derby was much more than “just looking hot in torn fishnets.”
In short, numbers dropped drastically. What had peaked to close to 90 participants in its early stages had dwindled to about three dozen a short time after Columbia. A few pessimists felt that the league would flame out just as fast as it took to get hot.
“It was a roller coaster ride,” recalls Danger. “Most people said it wouldn’t last more than two years, that it was just a fad. During a lot of those first couple of years, with growing pains and learning how to run a business and play a sport at the same time, I wondered if they were going to be right.
“I don’t know that I have ever felt like I’ve had so much to prove during that time – to the public or to myself.”
But as time progressed, things were proven both on and off the flat-track…and ARRG survived and blossomed.
COMING UP IN OUR NEXT INSTALLMENT: ARRG continues its journey with an increase in fan base, a major roadblock during a peak moment and a resurgence to the highest single-game audience in league history.
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