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Roller derby goes full circle

A group skaters does crunches while another team does laps during an intermediate class Derby Lite Oak Park. | Rob

A group of skaters does crunches while another team does laps during an intermediate class of Derby Lite in Oak Park. | Rob Hart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 9, 2012 10:29AM

Fifteen women on roller skates swept by Barbara Dolan in a fast, breezy cluster. The swarm loosened, and Dolan, also known as Queen B, didn’t like it.

“Speed it up! Speed it up! Stay in the pack,” she hollered at the rumbling throng.

“I have a spontaneous need to yell whenever they’re on floor,” admitted Dolan of Oak Park.

Twice a week since September, Dolan has conducted Derby Lite roller skating classes at the Area Rec Center on Chicago Avenue in Oak Park.

Beginning and intermediate students — all female — learn how to stop, fall and skate better and faster, as well as perform many roller derby team maneuvers, such as the Whip and the Weave.

The two-hour sessions are non-competitive and have no body contact, unlike roller derby matches between league teams.

The Derby Lite program,, instead, focuses on skating techniques found in competitive roller derby, and it offers physically intense drills — lots of them.

With the music of Lady Gaga thumping off the bare brick walls and metal rafters of a former car dealership, the women pulled on about 12 pounds of equipment — three-pound skates, elbow and knee pads and helmets — before adjusting mouth guards.

Offered by the Park District of Oak Park, Derby Lite also teaches endurance, strength, balance, cardio and confidence through teamwork and friendships.

Most of the women have roller derby names: New York Doll, Z Nemesis, Lola Roller Ova, Dooze Damage, Sybil Disobedience, Helsa Wayton and the Big Lebeski.

Dolan said baggy sweat clothes were the usual choice of wear when students first begin, but after a while they come dressed in fishnet stockings, “sparkly boot shorts” and DerbySkinz.

“To me, it’s a statement of confidence. Some of the girls start feeling better about themselves because they’re getting in shape.

“You can burn 1,000 to 1,400 calories per workout, and there’s always been a sassy side to women’s roller derby, right?” she said.

After 15 minutes of stretching and warming-up the women launched into a routine called “the fall down, get up drill,” in which they skate forward, fall to their knees and hands then flop on stomachs before pulling themselves up again to resume skating, similar to hockey players on ice.

“OK, get your sea legs on. Let’s go,” Dolan yelled amid cheers of encouragement from fellow students.

Oak Parker Chloe Cunningham said the drill teaches skaters how to distribute weight in a sprawl to the hard plastic floor.

“It’s quite a workout, but fun. We do this about 25 times per drill,” said the 35-year-old Cunningham. “Pulling yourself up is a good core exercise for the stomach,”

While some Derby Lite students were very experienced — one woman was a disco ballroom skater, another had several years in the sport — most had not skated since they were kids or teenagers.

“It appealed to me as a women’s sport with an edge. I was immediately hooked. Going fast on skates is really fun and the camaraderie among the girls is great,” Cunningham said.

The Derby Lite program — billed as “Fun & Fitness for Women Old Enough to Know Better” — started in 2009 with 18 skaters. This year 85 participated in the program, and ages ranged from 18 to 65.

A fit Susan Van Dusartz played tennis at the park district and floor hockey at Oak West Cook YMCA in Oak Park for years.

Since taking up roller derby, she has recorded a few bumps and bruises. “I’ve fallen directly on my head, but the equipment took the brunt of it.”

As for her age, “let’s just say I’m in my 50s,” said Van Dusartz.

For Trina Bockus of River Forest, skating with speed and skill was the hardest part.

“I didn’t think I could do this at first, but you keep working at it. You get stronger, too, because workouts are so vigorous,” she said.

Dolan skated with the Windy City Rollers from 2004 to 2006 in Chicago, where roller derby originated in the 1930s, she said.

The sport eventually died out, but made a comeback about 10 years ago when the Texas Rollergirls formed in Austin, according to the Windy City Roller’s website, www.windycity

Other female-only leagues followed in Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles.

“In the last half of the decade, women’s roller derby evolved from the fake-fighting version some remember from the 1970s, to a regulated, hard-hitting, and purely athletic sport,” according to the site. More than 80 leagues now exist in the United States and other countries.

“I started Derby Lite for fun and fitness. And this is my business. We do scrimmage now and then,” Dolan said, who studied ballet, tap and jazz dance until she was in college.

“No experience is needed to take these classes. Some skate like Bambi on ice, and we get ringers in here, too,” she said.

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