How-to... Roller Derby
Poised to take off, you balance on your skates, motionless and ready behind the Jammer Line, a strip of pink duct tape that runs across the black track. Beside you, the opposing Jammer is ready too. Like you she wears a star on her helmet to identify her as the scoring player for her team. Ahead of you, the four other members of your team and four of the opposition crouch ready in the taped off Blocker Box, already anticipating each other’s moves. The whistle blows, the Jam is on and everyone explodes into action.
You bump the other jammer, jockeying for the lead as you race for the pack. Moving slower than you, the skaters in the pack jostle, check and block each other, trying to force open a path for you, and to shut down the other jammer, playing offense and defense simultaneously. Like crashing through a wall, you hit the back of the pack and start to fight your way forward. You can’t throw elbows, knees or fists, but the hip checks, shoulder checks and body blocks come in hard. Your blockers take the brunt of it and you force your way to the front of the pack. The other jammer is right on your tail, but a big check slams her down and she slides for six feet on her elbow and knee pads before she comes to a stop out of bounds and scrambles back to her feet.
You’re in the open now, pumping your legs around the banked track, staying high in the straightaway and low for the turns, building momentum just like NASCAR. As you race around the oval, closing in on the back of the pack, your teammates shout at you, “She’s coming! She’s coming!” The other Jammer must be catching up. You can’t hear her over the hollow booming of your skates impacting the track, and you’re not about to look back. Just trust your lead and dive back into the pack.
Every rival skater you pass is a point for your team, but they’re not going to just let you do it. Crashing into the scrum of the pack you sneak past one and then they close in on you. Double teamed, you can’t move forward. You try to shove through, but a shoulder pops up and smacks you in the nose. Your head snaps back and your eyes reflexively tear, but you keep your feet under you and drive forward. Through blurred vision you see one of your blockers take out the two in your way. Off balance, you stumble past. Two more points. Pass one more and you can skate free of the pack and try to lap them again before the 60 seconds of the jam are up. You get your balance just as your eyes clear - just in time to see the lowered shoulder of the last blocker surging up to meet your ribs. You try to cut, but it only serves to deflect the blow. You veer off course and slam into the rail, feeling it give with the impact. Turned around and propelled toward the infield, you’re going down. Before you fall you put your hands on your hips, signaling the Ref to blow the whistle and call off the jam before the competing jammer can take advantage of your spill and start earning points for her side.
You get to your feet as all the players roll off the track. Almost instantly they’re replaced by ten more women, surging into position like the surf, ready for the next jam.
That’s Roller Derby - Got Your Attention?
Teachers, doctors, lawyers, CPAs, editors, airplane mechanics and full time moms travel from all over the Southland to an industrial space in downtown Los Angeles that was once a Choco Taco factory. But they don’t make frozen treats there anymore. What they make now is the hard hitting, fast moving and re-emerging sport of roller derby. They call the place the Doll Factory, and it’s the home of the L.A. Derby Dolls, Southern California's premiere all-female, banked track roller derby league. And these women didn’t just join a roller derby league, they built it. Look at the About page on their website and you’ll find “DIY” and “do-it-yourself” all over it.
Roller Derby as we once knew it disappeared in the 1970s and 80s, but now it’s back. And this isn’t big business, big sports, team owners and corporate money. Roller Derby leagues are cropping up all over the country (and all over the world) as a DIY effort, undertaken by the women who want to skate. Following up on that do-it-yourself spirit, I got to sit down with the president and co-founder of the league at the leading edge of the sport, and her name is Demolicious.
For her, roller derby was and still is “an exercise in taking an idea, and then taking it through.” A decade ago, when she and co-founder Thora Zeen created the Derby Dolls, it was a year and a half before everything came together and the first game was finally played. But when the last whistle blew and the lights went out, she felt the collective of the people taking ownership of what they built.
So if it’s time for you to break out of your routine (and I do mean break) chances are good there’s a derby league near you. If there isn’t, there’s just a few things you need to get one rolling.
Step 1 – Have the Passion
Before all this started, Demolicious had a successful career as a sculptor for movie sets. She was good at it, but frustrated just to be “making stuff for landfills.” There had to be something she could do that mattered. But of all things (I asked my first question), why roller derby? Demolicious completely broke the ice and rephrased my question, “you mean why the f**k roller derby?” At first perhaps simply seeking an outlet, she remembered the women of roller derby in the past and tried to see if she could partake. But there was no such thing anymore. Instead, what she discovered was something she could build. Something that would matter. Because the modern incarnation of roller derby isn’t just about skating, it’s about elevating women in sports.
Yes, there are men who do it, but roller derby isn’t a sport than puts a W in front of the league to tell you this is a man’s game that women are playing. Finding players was never a problem. Response was overwhelming to the very first Craigslist ad, and there was no trouble putting together enough women for two teams for the first game. Across the country, women were seeking the same thing and finding they had to make it themselves. Unaware of each other, derby leagues struggled to life almost simultaneously in Austen, Texas, Phoenix, Arizona and with the Derby Dolls in L.A. That purpose and that passion are important, ‘cause this isn’t going to be easy.
Step 2 – Take the Hits
From the Outside - That first year and a half of prep wasn’t the end of the struggle to make the Derby Dolls a viable thing. When people see you rolling towards them, be prepared for some to turn the other way. The post punk, neo-feminist look of the derby can be a frightening challenge to some people who can’t take the bad-ass, tattooed skater beyond face value. Make no mistake, she is a bad-ass. But she is also an athlete, a community builder and a role model. Not caring what other people think is an asset, but you still need a place to build your track, and that place will be in somebody’s neighborhood. Demolicious endured skeptical and even hostile neighbors, along with a serious lack of capital. Earning the nickname “Fundraiser Dolls” she and the other women of the budding league raised enough money to move from a roller rink in North Hollywood to a warehouse rooftop in Chinatown, ‘cause they couldn’t afford the inside.
After monitoring the dew point for a season, they finally moved inside the former pillow factory and skated among the leftover feathers until the fire department shut them down right in the middle of a game. All this time, they also weathered the resistance of some of their neighbors. There were complaints about noise and crowds (hence the fire department), but also on being a bad influence on the neighborhood. There was even a letter writing campaign backed by some from the old roller derby organization, aimed at getting the local city councilmember to shut them down.
That’s when the space that would be the Doll Factory appeared, in the district of a different councilmember. He saw the value the entrepreneurial, community building spirit the Derby Dolls would bring to Historic Filipino Town, and the move to the new facility was under way.
On the Track - You’ve also got to learn the difference between being hurt and being injured. Demolicious took a hit so hard she did a summersault into the infield. When she got back up, she high-fived the opponent that hit her and skated back into the game. That’s being hurt. On the other hand, my other guide into the derby world, Infinite Pest, is now the Derby Dolls head of PR, following a career ending broken leg on the track.
She heard it crack three times and knew she was finished. That’s an injury. Wrist guards, mouth guards, elbow pads, knee pads and a helmet are all required, but you’re still going to get banged up. The skaters all wear nylons or tights so they slide when they hit the track. Otherwise, you’re going to leave skin behind for a nasty track rash. Fingers and ankles are the most frequent breaks now. It used to be collarbones, but the hip check has become more popular than the shoulder check, so that doesn’t happen as much.
For every game, there’s an EMT in the infield. There’s also a doctor on site, and a chiropractor, and an acupuncturist. Plus, there are doctors and nurses among the skaters themselves. And to keep from getting injured in the first place, there’s a fitness center with weights, a yoga studio and a heavy bag.
Incidentally, spend any time around the Doll Factory, and you’re sure to hear about the night Chargin' Tina got her nose broken in three places and finished out the game before going to the hospital. That’s an injury, but don’t tell her that.
Step 3 – Build It
The Track - You can play roller derby on a flat track, and all you need is the space to do it and some duct tape to mark out the oval. But the Derby Dolls play on a banked track, like they did in the old days. In fact, they originally skated on the L.A. T-Birds old track. But they needed a track of their own and a man named Bitchy Kitten came along. He took the design of the T-Bird track and modified it with more curve and give to the rail posts, and more and better padding on the posts and rails.
This Kitten Track is now the standard design for all the banked track leagues in the country. The surface is a layer of black Masonite for smooth, fast rolling, with a subsurface of plywood. This is all supported by a unistrut frame so the thing has overall strength, but some give to it when you crash to the floor. And you will crash.
The Kitten Track’s improvements mean fewer concussions, rib breaks and tailbone breaks, but they do still happen. It also features a low kickboard that can save you from flying off into the crowd. It hurts like hell if you land on it, but that’s just bruises and contusions, so you can keep skating.
The whole thing was built by the skaters themselves, with the help of family and friends and the technical crew called the Track Monkeys. Before every game and between each quarter, the Track Monkeys inspect the track for any damage, popped screws, spilled blood or any other hazards to the skaters.
They shot a time lapse video of the construction process. The track can come down and go back up. Usually they leave it in place, but they’ve been known to break it down and ship it as far as Chicago for a tournament.
Maybe because the old roller derby was a scripted sports entertainment, the track didn’t have to be as safety minded. But today’s derby is full tilt, full contact and all real, so the steel frame of the posts and rails that keep the skaters on the track are deeply wrapped with padding – rigid foam at the core, and two more layers of softer foam over that.
Of course, you’re also building the risers for the fans, the box for the announcers, the booth for your audio, lights and web cast, concession stands and ticket desk. That’s a lot of 2x4s, plywood and black and pink paint.
The Community – That high five after the hit Demolicious took was more than just sportsmanship. The Derby Dolls are divided into four teams, the Fight Crew, Sirens, Tough Cookies, and Varsity Brawlers, but all know they’re in this together. On the track, they don’t hold back (obviously) but off of it they’re a single team, building the league and the connections that go with it.
Skaters coach the Junior Derby Dolls, aged 7 to 17, some who will go on to join the teams, but most who simply benefit from the guidance of a positive, strong, female role model. Did you see Whip It? The book and screenplay were written by a former Derby Doll, and Infinite Pest says it was that movie that inspired her to join the derby. Why? Because even though the skating and the action are necessarily simplified and abbreviated for the sake of the movie, what it really captures is the sense of community, of family, that comes from derby.
There are about 200 people considered Derby Dolls, including volunteers and retired skaters still active in the organization. All but four of them are volunteers. Demolicious is there full-time, and she and three part-time staffers head up the office. Everyone else is there because of the connection they find in the vastness of Los Angeles.
And that connection isn’t just with each other. The Derby Dolls have sponsored neighborhood cleanups around the Doll Factory, health fairs and job fairs, sometimes focusing on job opportunities for women in non-traditional rolls like heavy machine operators, and other times focusing on jobs for men and women both.
We’re not just talking about the Derby Dolls either. In L.A. there’s a flat track roller derby league called the Angle City Derby Girls, and they cross over socially and for some events. Beyond L.A., there are as many as 800 leagues across the country, with 30,000 skaters. The Derby Dolls all-star team, the L.A. Ri-Ettes, skates against teams from across the states and around the world. One hundred thousand women participate in 2,000 leagues globally in a DIY effort that’s spreading across the planet.
Step 4 – Create Yourself
You’ve noticed by now that the skaters all have derby names. This may be a holdover from the old sports entertainment days, and the names are a fun indulgence. But taking on a nom de skate has a more important implication. Creating a derby persona lends you the license to step out of your everyday life. As Demolicious says, derby “is the opposite of how we were trained to be ladylike as little girls,” and a new name could be the catalyst that allows you to escape into a new way of being a lady. Real names and jobs aren’t discussed because your derby name is more than an alias; it’s your other self. As the sport grows, the number of available names shrinks. Check your chosen AKA against the international database of derby names at http://www.twoevils.org/rollergirls/ to see if someone else is already skating under that moniker. One skater told me you may have to settle for your second or third choice. “Derby world problems,” she shrugged philosophically.
Although she was told the league would never work because women can’t get along together in groups, Demolicious and the rest of the Derby Dolls and skaters across the world have put the lie to that. The unwritten rule of derby is there are no hard feelings off the track. As the skaters challenge the status quo, they do it with a unity of purpose. That’s not to say there aren’t conflicts or disagreements. This isn’t utopia. Another unofficial position is the Derby Wife. Skaters pair up in a buddy system borrowed from the golden age of pirates (they called it a “sea wife”). Your derby wife is your training partner and companion. She’ll listen to your gripes, watch you back, admire your bruises, patch you up, take you to the hospital and give you a talking to if you get out of line. That helps keep the entire community constructive and supportive. And through all of this, the constant has been “our ethics and our commitment to our mission statement,” says Demolicious. It’s a point of pride for her that this remains the overriding principal of the sport, and she’s turned down offers for reality TV, “over 400 times,” that would seek to exploit rather than celebrate the sport and its mission.
Now, you also need your gear. You already covered the required safety stuff. You need skates. Don’t go shopping for modern, in-line, rollerblades. The roller derby is played on old school, four wheel, quad skates.
I asked why and Infinite Pest answered that “inline skates are less maneuverable and slower.” Then Demolicious cut to the chase. “We hate them,” she said. They use speed skates because they are faster and because they are “not lame.” So that covers that. You have to learn to skate backwards, hop, jump, turn, and stop without falling.
Every team has a uniform, but every skater puts her personal stamp on it, so amplify your derby persona with fish nets, face paint or a tutu, and never forget you’re a lady – a bad ass lady.