JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- Bettie Bratz team member Elexis Horspool (aka Lex Kill), right, keeps pace with a Toxic 253 participant during a halftime junior league bout.

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- AFC Arena on Joint Base Lewis-McChord was filled with young girls in roller skates Jan. 30 -- but while girls and roller skates have been commonplace for decades, this night had a twist.

The girls were getting ready for roller derby practice with the Bettie Bratz, the JBLM Bettie Brigade's junior league. The group brings the full-contact women's skating sport to military kids ages 7 to 17, and unorthodox as it may be, it's helped skaters on and off the track.

"I've seen such a transformation over the last year," Bratz co-coach Erin Dafoe, whose derby name is Foxy Blocker, said.

The juniors league has about 24 regular skaters, 16 of whom have passed the safety test required for skaters to participate in bouts against other teams, all the hallmarks of adult derby -- girls come up with cute or tough pseudonyms to skate under, wear fun tights and socks and, yes, they make contact.

In fact, when the Bratz got rolling in late 2010, the practices were just positional. The group was formed shortly after the Bettie Brigade was founded, and mostly consisted of daughters of derby moms.

"The kids that would come to the rink while we were skating always wanted to jump in and help us out," league founder Sarah Howard, who skates under the name Gloria Sass, said.

Her daughter was one of the original Bettie Bratz, and at first they bouted each other without contact. Instead the girls learned the rules and strategy of derby without adding hits and falls. But then they started thinking more seriously about playing outside teams, and to do it they would have to add hitting. All the other juniors teams were full-contact, so it was either adopt contact or stay on base.

"I was really concerned about it," Howard said.

In the end, though, she decided she was for it, and she wasn't alone. The group held a meeting of all the parents and asked for unanimous approval before they went forward -- and they got it.

They've been playing other junior teams in the area since, including a few girls in a mixed bout during halftime of the Bettie Brigade's season opener on Saturday.

It turns out contact made the strategy click for the girls. As soon as it was added, their game rose to a whole new level.

"It was the missing piece of the puzzle," Dafoe said, adding she was "shocked" to see how quickly contact made a difference in the game.

To be clear, hitting in roller derby is not a free-for-all. Contact can only be made between the shoulders and the mid-thigh, and hitting another skater in the back is illegal.

"Their hits are very calculated; it's not something they throw out there just to do," Dafoe said, noting that the girls are taught appropriate hits and safe falls, and penalized for "desperate" attempts at other skaters.

There have been other changes to the group in the last year, as well. Boys can participate now, too, though only as referees or non-skating officials (just as in adult derby).

But the real change is in the players.

"I was scared," Daytona Horspool, aka Daystroyer, 12, said of when she first started skating with the Bettie Bratz a year ago.

Now she's learned that it doesn't really matter how hard she gets hit, so long as she's giving the sport her all. Daytona's parents agreed -- her 9-year-old sister skates with the Bratz now, too.

It's an attitude that's useful in a lot of areas of life, and one that many of the skaters have adopted.

When Megan Sammons, aka Goldie Hurtsalot, 12, started a few months ago she was shy, quiet and not very coordinated on her skates. Less than two months in, that's starting to change.

"She actually talks to people she doesn't know now," her mom, Ramona Sammons, said.

In fact, she loves the sport so much she'd rather walk to practice than miss it.

"We didn't know that it existed until she came out one day and she's been hooked ever since," Sammons said.

Derby does more than break girls out of their shells, according to Bratz co-coach Jess Lundie, aka Jess in the Box. Because the environment is run by and for women, they learn to collaborate with each other in a positive way.

"I think it teaches women to work together in a way that society teaches us we can't," she said.

But for the Bettie Bratz, one of the biggest draws is the military angle.

For Rosa Strange, who recently started skating with the Bettie Brigade herself, the group provides a chance to bond with her kids, which is especially important with her husband deployed to Afghanistan.

In fact, roller derby was her daughter's idea. Kiera Bella Strange, 11, wanted to do something she'd never tried before, and she made her mother promise to do it with her. Soon her son Ashton, 12, got involved as a ref, and they all adopted derby names -- Pretty Strange for Rosa, Little Strange for Kiera and Stranger Danger for Ashton.

The Monday-night practices are now time that the Strange family spends with each other and with people who get their lifestyle.

"The time that is spent here is spent with kids that know how it is," Strange said.

In the end, the benefits are great and risks are no greater than other contact sports. And the kids? Well, they're getting better all the time.

"I've been astonished at how crazy talented they all are," Lundie said.

How to get involved

The Bettie Bratz welcome all kids ages 7 to 17. No previous skating experience is required. Practices are held on Mondays and Thursdays from 6 - 7 p.m. at AFC Arena. JBLM girls build confidence on skates.

For more info, visit the Bettie Brigade online at http://bettiebrigade.com/.

Page last updated Fri February 10th, 2012 at 15:54