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Forget Cheerleaders, Meet the 'Jeerleaders' of Gotham Girls Roller Derby

FORT GREENE — Meet the anti-cheerleaders.

Forget the perfect blond locks and year-round suntan — it's heavy metal and military boots for the "jeerleaders" of the all-female Gotham Girls Roller Derby, who are just as tough as the high-contact roller derby teams they support.

Yet despite their mean-girl personas, the jeerleaders come for the camaraderie — and the action.

"Jeerleaders probably weren’t friends with cheerleaders in high school," said Elyssa, 27, whose roller derby name is "Relent-Lyss." "They (jeerleaders) are the badass version of a cheerleader."

Relent-Lyss, who lives in Westchester and jeers for the Manhattan Mayhem roller derby team, was dressed in an orange wig and police hat — complete with handcuffs and military boots — before a roller derby at Long Island University in Fort Greene on a recent Saturday night.

 Jeerleaders at the Gotham Girls Roller Derby.
Jeerleaders at the Gotham Girls Roller Derby.
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DNAinfo/Serena Solomon

"We are pushing everyone's buttons and getting everybody into the game," said Rothe, who has been jeering for three years, and by day works in the environmental field.

In roller derby, the ultimate aim is to complete as many laps around the rink as possible. Only one team member, "a jammer," can score points, which is done by lapping the opponents. However, the jammer must negotiate the barges and blocks from defensive players on the opposing team while receiving protection from their own team.

Each participant, clad in helmets, elbow and knee pads, and with mouth guards in place, also invents her own tough-girl roller derby name for matches.

Jeerleaders at the Gotham Girls Roller Derby support four teams from across New York City — Manhattan Mayhem, Bronx Gridlock, Brooklyn Bombshells and Queens of Pain.

While the jeerleaders do shake pom-poms while performing at halftime, their take on cheering is more motley crew than squeaky clean.

"I would rather someone who is really enthusiastic ... loves roller derby and maybe has a rhythm issue, than someone who is spot on dance-wise and couldn’t care less about the sport," said head jeerleader Mary "Little Mary Switchblade" Hawkins.

Without the backing of a marching band, the jeerleaders dance to anything from heavy metal and rock to hip-hop and pop, preferably with a New York City twist — like the Beastie Boys' "No Sleep till Brooklyn."

"These girls kick ass," Hawkins, a 34-year-old East Village resident who works as a graphic designer, said of the roller skaters. "We need to choose kick-ass songs."

Occasionally the jeerleaders sport mohawks and even jostle with their counterparts on the opposing team.

According to Hawkins, roller derby had something of a rebirth in 2004 in Austin, Texas, and gained  mainstream traction with the 2009 film "Whip It," directed by actress Drew Barrymore and starring Ellen Page.

"It is like football on skates," Hawkins said.

"After high school and college, there are not that many opportunities for women to play a tough sport," she added, referring to roller derby players as "serious athletes" who travel nationally and internationally for their sport.

The Gotham Girls Roller Derby has nonprofit status and, while completely organized by volunteers, is a tightly run ship. Women become members with monthly dues of $50, according to Eva "Evilicious" McCloskey, a 31-year-old East Village resident and derby skater who heads up public relations for the organization.

 Jeer captain Mary "Little Mary Switchblade" Hawkins described roller derbies as football on roller skates.
Jeer captain Mary "Little Mary Switchblade" Hawkins described roller derbies as football on roller skates.
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DNAinfo/Serena Solomon

Besides skating or jeering, each member must play a role in running the business side of operations, such as public relationships, logistics or administration, she said.

For the voluptuous jeerleader "Coco Bombshell" — a 34-year-old Manhattan resident named Melissa who declined to give her last name or occupation — there is a lot of acceptance in roller derby.

"It really promotes strength within women," she said before the Saturday night bout began. "You can do anything no matter what your size, your sexual orientation or where you started out from.

"It is a lot of fun. You get a lot of encouragement from the other skaters," she added.

Rothe agrees that jeering is more than just a performance. After living in Manhattan for a few years, she lacked a sense of community with other like-minded women until she joined the Gotham Girls Roller Derby.

"I was having a hard time finding cool girls to hang out with," said Rothe. "This was a great community of girls.

"There is a great sense of camaraderie between the skaters and the jeerleaders."