By Sarah Vaughn
There’s a thud as a girl in short shorts and roller skates slams into the wall. She smiles, flips off her assailant, and zips off to catch up with the pack.
Welcome to roller derby.
Derby, at its simplest, is a race. Two teams clad in quad roller skates dash around an oval track and try to score points by lapping their opponents. Jammers, one per team, are the scorers and try to pass the four blockers of the opposite team with the help of their team’s blockers. Blockers help their own jammer through the pack and punish the other jammer with hip-checks, booty bumps and upper body slams. Although there are rules that govern the legality of blocks, derby is a full-contact sport that often results in players crashing into the walls, the floor, referees and each other.
Invented in the 1930s by sports promoter Leo Seltzer, roller derby started as a 57,000-lap test of endurance. The sport has since gone through many incarnations: the original professional, coed teams of the 40s, 50s, 60s and early 70s which were popularly broadcast on television, the campy and staged revival derby during the late 70s, 80s and early 90s, and the current all-female grassroots leagues. Contemporary roller derby, characterized by its underground, punk-rock, do-it-yourself attitude, started in Austin, Texas circa 2002 and has since exploded into nearly five hundred leagues worldwide.
Intrigued, I find myself at the practice of one such league, the OC Roller Girls. Practice takes place behind the Rinks in Huntington Beach, a threadbare complex that smells like a damp hockey locker room. The guy at the front desk directs me past two rinks, a snack bar and bored kids in hockey pads to the back.
“Turn right at the bathrooms, go through locker room ten, turn right again and it’ll be in front of you.”
Sure enough, there in the middle of a vast warehouse room complete with pallet racks I find the girls suiting up.
Hell Toro and Poison IV line up on the jammer line
“So you’re the Reporter Girl,” Disco Dervish greets me. Disco is the busty, red-headed founder and queen of the OC Roller Girls. Disco started the league almost four years ago after moving to California from Arizona and realizing no league existed in her new home. The league is now sixty four veterans strong, with three main teams (Psycho Ex-Girlfriends, Huntington Heartbreakers and Back Bay Bombshells), two travel teams and Fresh Meat, girls in training.
More veterans start filtering in for their 7:30 intraleague practice as the Fresh Meat finish. Any preconceptions I had about derby girls are quickly obliterated. Instead of fearsome, twenty-something, cooler-than-thou indie girls with arm sleeve tattoos and dyed asymmetrical haircuts, I found myself surrounded by every kind of woman imaginable: tiny, muscular, chubby, quiet, old and young, moms, students, teachers, CEOs and rockabilly housewives.
Each derby girl goes through an initiation of sorts. Back when the league was in its infancy and there were barely enough girls to make up two teams, recruits were thrown into derby with what skills they had and sank or swam. Rotten O, one of the original members of team OC, jokes about learning the rules two weeks before their first game and how they hit one another, “but it was probably more like running into each other than anything else.”
Her experience contrasts sharply with Megan-A-Mess’s. Megan, who started playing last June after following a popup on YouTube to the league’s site, just passed her third physical and written test to become an official member of a team. Now girls start in Fit Not Hit, a four week program designed to build fitness and skill on skates without blocking and proceed to Fresh Meat where they remain until they can demonstrate mastery of the physical expertise required for game play (including proficiency in falls, stops, endurance and speed) and sufficient knowledge of the thirty five page rule book. Then each new member registers their unique derby name and number and waits to be placed on a team.
Derby names are one of the most fun and campy aspects of the sport. Players are known not by normal names, but by clever, subversive monikers derived from well-known personages (Taylor Swiftly), word play (Naughty Pine) or reputation (Megan-a-Mess). Rotten O’s name stands for Rotten Ovary, based on an experience she had with a dermoid cyst she had removed from her ovary.
“It was the size of a football and it was made of fatty tissue, teeth and hair,” she explains. “I’m sick in the head.”
The girls begin suiting up, taking off pants and sweatshirts to reveal short shorts and tank tops, snapping on knee and elbow pads, fastening wrist guards, adjusting helmets, bandaging feet before tugging on and lacing their skates. Some girls tighten stops or adjust wheels, chatting the whole time.
Luz Panties as a banana
“Holla!” shouts Mistress Mwahaha in greeting when she sees Brik Wall. “Er, holler,” she corrects herself. “I’m white. I forgot.”
“How do you spell that?” demands Brik.
“That’s right. Don’t forget!”
Droll repartee, gossip and other typical friendly conversation continue while the girls stretch. Poison IV, D’Cup and Megan-a-Mess discuss injuries. A teammate suffered a gruesome foot break recently and Megan, who’s been recently struggling with an inflamed shoulder, is having nightmares about it.
“I dreamt I fell and broke my leg, but there wasn’t anyone there,” she shudders. “Every time I think about her foot breaking I feel like throwing up.”
Getting hurt is an integral part of roller derby, with almost every girl enduring sprains, aches and the ubiquitous bruises. The girls learn to deal with it. One of Mistress Mwahaha’s ribs was fractured by a legal block last practice, but she’s still playing.
“Stop whining. It’s just a rib. You’ve got a million of ‘em,” insists Rotten with a laugh.
Although derby has its dangers, deliberately trying to hurt other players isn’t tolerated.
“A lot of people think there’s a lot of violence, like punching, kicking,” says Megan-a-Mess, referring to the stereotypical derby girls of yesteryear who were encouraged to fight. This image is one that most modern derby girls are trying to buck. Although some renegade leagues still kick, bite and scratch to the fans’ delight, the WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association), derby’s main governing body, forbids such practices in an attempt to legitimize the sport.
“There are rules to the game like there are rules to football. You’re not just gonna kick the quarterback in the nuts and then grab the ball,” Megan points out. “It’s just show; there’s no heart in the game when you pull that stuff.”
After stretching, the girls enter the rink and line up their drinks along the plexiglass. Lines painted on the cement floor outline the track. Most leagues play flat track derby instead of the traditional banked track because it’s cheaper, easier to learn on and results in less injuries. With their coach out of town, volunteer and occasional cameraman Man-O-Pause steps in to lead the teams. After a few warm-up laps the girls do drills like swerving, crouching and stops, practice maneuvers like dick in a box, then do endurance. Man-O-Pause, with a roller derby Bratz doll affixed to his helmet, follows behind the girls and barks orders. The teams are preparing for their February 13th bout, Love Hurts, between the Back Bay Bombshells and the Huntington Heartbreakers. Although each girl is assigned to a specific team, they all practice together, learn the same techniques and occasionally play on teams different than their own to even out the talent, challenging themselves and making the bouts more exciting.
Playing derby requires a huge money and time commitment. Although beginners can often borrow equipment from other players before committing to play, new decent quality skates alone cost about five hundred dollars, not including pads, helmet, mouth-guard, insurance and the sixty dollar monthly membership fee. Time-wise, each girl is expected to contribute to running the league, along with attending three two hour practices every week. Jobs include marketing, bout production, management and charity. Some girls, like Rotten, who works at a furniture showroom, have jobs that allow them enough time to work on derby affairs. Others do jobs tailored to their skills. Gregarious Poison IV is the main flier girl. Megan, an artist, donates art to fund the team’s charity, Breast Cancer Angels. Other girls lend their skills to Team Bar Fight, the league’s official drinking team that bar hops the weekend before a bout to promote the game.
Poison making faces
Finally the night of the game arrives. Although it doesn’t start until seven, all the girls arrive two hours early—there’s much to do. One of the hockey rinks is transformed into a regulation track, a 148.5 foot inner oval surrounded by another one 236.5 foot around. Volunteers arrange chairs on the far sides and a platform for the band on the right. Wavers are signed, the mini-fair of vendors selling clothes and other merchandise are set up and the ticket booth is stocked. At 6:30, when the doors open, a line already meanders back through the parking lot. Fans of every demographic are represented: couples, hipster college kids, rednecks, groupies, derby girls from other leagues and a surprising number of families. One elderly couple in line were fans of old school derby and had bought tickets online on a whim. “I saw the paramedics outside and knew we’d come to the right place,” quips the wife.
After getting my hand stamped, I proceed past the televisions in the lobby showing speed skating, through the stalls selling vintage dresses and “do you derby?” gear to the rink, taking my seat in the plebian section. VIP’s look down from the bleachers. A live band, the Blue Lion Project, plays generic rock music as the girls emerge and warm up. Though the uniforms consist of simple black and white shirts that pale in comparison with the outlandish getups worn by some leagues, the girls individualize with numbers scrawled on their arms, green leopard and red skull laces, furry leg warmers, tutus, sequined and pleather hot pants, leotards, tights and leggings of every different pattern imaginable. One girl even wears batman briefs.
As game time approaches, the seats fill up and people resort to sitting on the floor, standing in the back or watching from outside the rink. A video explaining the rules of the game is projected on the back wall and spectators in the front rows are warned that they might end up with an out-of-control derby girl in their laps. Refs and other game officials take their places in the center of the track, and the DJ and announcers take theirs across from the bleachers. Pop music starts playing as each team member is announced and cheered on by fans equipped with signs. Five players from each team line up, the eight blockers in front and the two jammers a few feet behind. When the refs blow the whistle, the blockers start moving cautiously around the track, followed soon after by the jammers.
Even after watching scrimmages and reading all the rules, equipped with a pamphlet illustrating penalties and ref signals, the game is difficult to follow. Girls weave in and out chaotically, falling and getting called out for illegal actions. Four refs spin around the middle following the pack and gesturing points and penalties and the announcers attempt to narrate what’s going on, but most of the spectators only know who’s winning by looking at the scoreboard. Though as the game starts warming up the players get more aggressive, the overall atmosphere is one of good-natured excitement, with girls laughing and dancing on the line. At one point during a time out, two girls ham it up, pretending to sleep on the track. The first thirty minute period finishes with the Bombshells up 57-42.
During the twenty minute half-time fans take a break to buy popcorn, beer and merchandise, Mia Roller clarifies the rules for anyone who has questions and a toddler with an orange pompom tucked in his overalls dances in the middle of the track.
The second half is more exciting than the first, but equally confusing. Everything comes to a standstill when Chick Norris injures her knee and is accompanied off the track by EMTs. The Heartbreaker’s main jammer Hell Torro, cheered on by her family in the stands, helps tie up the score 96-96 with three minutes to go. With one jam left, the Heartbreakers are winning 101-99. After the last jam, we crane our necks toward the scoreboard. The score is unchanged; the Heartbreakers win and all the girls mingle with fans and celebrate.
B-Train takes out her competitors
Everyone without prior plans or a bedtime proceeds to the after party at Suds Sports Bar. Overall it’s a tame affair. Fans and derby girls flood the place, partaking in cheap, greasy food and pitchers of beer, enjoying footage of the game broadcast on a few of the TVs. A tipsy ref buys me a Coke, introduces me to everyone and tells me stories about the legendary antics he’s witnessed at celebrations of yore.
“I passed out on a bus once with a bunch of drunk roller girls,” he recalls, shaking his head. “And I woke up with my nails painted neon orange.” The last away game featured a gorilla costume, a bunny, two bananas and a hot dog, and somehow someone challenged a Girl Scout to an acrobatic dance contest.
A toast goes up in the room. "To derby!" the girls and their fans yell, raising their beers and soft drinks.
Darla Deville, exultant after playing her first real game, takes a drink and declares, "I love these girls! Even when they kick my ass."
-Observation of 3 separate 2-hour practices/scrimmages, as well as hanging out before and after
-Observed 2 official games/bouts
-Observed 2 after parties
-Interviewed Rotten O, Beantown Brawler, Megan-a-Mess and talked to several other girls and refs about their experiences
-Documentation: WFTDA rule book, derby blogs, videos of bouts on YouTube, OC Derby Girls website and facebook, websites of other leagues