Devoney Looser spends a lot of her time thinking about 18th century British literature — Jane Austen, in particular. But that doesn’t stop her from getting regular doses of mayhem.
A couple of times a week, Looser, an Austen scholar and professor of English, laces up her skates to play one of the fastest growing sports in America — women’s flat-track roller derby.
Looser’s career began when two friends, former special collections librarian Katie Carr and Looser’s doctoral student Angela Rehbein, took her to retro night at Empire Roller Rink. The women started regularly attending the event and, before long, members of the CoMo Derby Dames, Columbia’s flat-track team, invited them to try out. They started going to open practices, and in February 2010, all three women passed skills tests, judged by veteran skaters, to become CoMo Derby Dames.
“It was something I never dreamed of doing,” says Looser, who admits to initially being a bit intimidated by the speed and athleticism of the competitors. “Some of the women are really good skaters and incredibly strong.”
Flat-track roller derby is a full-contact sport played on an oval track by two five-member teams. Since the sport was introduced in 2001, some 400 leagues have sprouted up around the world, according to the Women’s Flat-Track Derby Association, a governing body in Austin, Texas.
For Looser, a former speed skater and soccer player, the theatrics of roller derby are part of its appeal. That includes having a good alias. Reflecting her scholarly interest, Looser skates under the name “Stone Cold Jane Austen,” in homage to professional wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin. She also wears the number, 316, which has been associated with the wrestler in his career.
Looser’s debut as a CoMo Derby Dame was May 1, at the Fresh Meet Bout in Jefferson City. It was an intra-squad scrimmage with rookies getting their first taste of action before an audience. Looser enjoyed her first bout, and her coach praised her performance. “I forced a few jammers out of bounds,” she says. “I felt like I was getting the hang of it.”
She must have done something right. After the bout, Looser was named rookie blocker MVP. Rehbein, her student, was chosen rookie jammer MVP.
Looser thinks she and Rehbein may be the only doctoral candidate-adviser duo playing competitive roller derby. In fact, another of Looser’s doctoral students, Juliette Paul, has been attending beginner’s practices.
A 43-year-old mother of two, Looser never thought she would be playing a team sport again. But she loves roller derby, even the scrapes, bruises and “rink rash” that result from taking a tumble onto the wooden track.
“This is my first full-contact sport,” she says. “If you would have told me I would be playing roller derby a year ago, I would have laughed.”
But Looser enjoys the community aspect of roller derby, too. The Derby Dames welcome everyone, regardless of experience. Men and women have become involved in the sport as referees, and the bouts, organized and staffed by volunteers, have become family affairs.
Looser came to MU in 2002, along with her husband, George Justice, vice provost for Advanced Studies and dean of the Graduate School. She is the author of two books, Women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750-1850 and British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1670-1820, which received honorable mention for the Outstanding Book of 2000 from the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women.
As for what one early modern woman would think of her hobby, Looser believes Jane Austen would approve of the CoMo Derby Dames.
“She might not understand the appeal of the tattoos,” she says, “but I think, given what she seems to have thought of gender roles in her own day, she would appreciate the spirit of strong women working together, pushing their limits physically.”
The team is scheduled to take on the ICT Rollergirls of Wichita, Kan. Oct. 16 at the Boone County Fairgrounds. Advance tickets are $10 and can be purchased at www.comoderbydames.org.
So if you see Devoney Looser walking around campus, don’t try to pass. Stone Cold Jane Austen’s blocking skills are first rate.
— Josh Chittum