The revived roller derby is a glorious spectacle, what with the fishnets and the miniskirts, the whimsy and the music and the guy in a gorilla suit.
But when attentive fans of Madison's Mad Rollin' Dolls derby league attend bouts at Fast Forward Skate Center -- as they will Saturday night for the league finals -- they look beyond the pageantry to the sport itself. Because roller derby is a real sport, with strategy and injuries and everything that goes along with real sports.
The star Reservoir Dolls jammer Mouse expresses her zeal for the sport succinctly: "I love to skate, and I love to hit people."
Mouse has skated with the Reservoir Dolls since the league's debut bout in January 2005. In that time, she has emerged as one of the league's brightest stars, thanks to her electrifying technique.
In a given round, or jam, of roller-derby, each team has one player who scores points, the jammer. When a jam begins, she makes her way through the pack of defensive players, and then scores a point for each opposing player she passes subsequently. The first jammer to pass all the opposing team's defensive skaters is the lead jammer, who has the strategic advantage of being able to call off the jam by placing her hands on her hips.
A tough competitor, Mouse is relentless in grabbing lead-jammer status. She was lead jammer in all five of the jams she skated at the semifinals March 31, and among Reservoir Dolls she was second in points scored only to the powerful Dutch Oven.
Mouse's skating has earned her many fans, who wear Mickey Mouse ears in tribute. She also has detractors, who make placards with taunting slogans like, "Mouse, would you like some cheese with that whine?"
That whine? Ah, yes. Like tennis legend John McEnroe before her, Mouse is testy with the officials. When she doesn't like a call, she lets the referee know, and loudly.
To spectators the outbursts look almost strategic -- a way to psych out opposing jammers. Mouse demurs on that point. Mostly.
"It's more about having a good time," she says of her demeanor on the track. "But if it gets in their head, I might enjoy that."
For all of her competitiveness, Mouse acknowledges that the spectacle of derby is often what attracts people to the sport, players and fans alike. "But then they end up learning about athleticism, about sportsmanship," she says.
"There are a lot of girls who have never participated in a sport before," she says. "They wanted to do it because it seemed like fun. But then, once we get going, once you see the changes in your body after practicing your ass off, it gets more and more powerful. It takes you over."
Indeed, Mad Rollin' Dolls work long and hard. Their schedule has just five regulation bouts, plus two exposition matches, but they practice three or four times a week. Their practices consist of strength training, and drills like blood and thunder, where "for two minutes, we beat the crap out of each other," Mouse says.
Most practices are attended by all the Rollin' Dolls. Teams have some private practices, though, where the members analyze their next opponent and devise strategies.
So what is the holy grail of roller derby? What is the highest a jammer can score?
"There is the legendary 20-point jam," says Mouse. "But I don't think we've had higher than 13 or 14 points in a jam."
In a regular season bout, that is. "I had a 20-point jam at practice," she says. "But I was fishing alone. There was no one there to prove it."
Mouse is quick to say that the bouts may look fierce, but the competition is friendly. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for the other women on the track," she says. "Even if I'm about to kick their ass."
The final bout of the Mad Rollin' Dolls' season is Saturday, April 28 at Fast Forward Skating Rink (4649 Verona Rd.) The Reservoir Dolls will take on the Quad Squad for league title, and the Vaudeville Vixens will battle the Reservoir Dolls for third place. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door. Bouts sell out.