If you’re reading this, you probably don’t just like roller derby; derby is probably the central organizing principle of your life. You schedule everything else around practices and bouts. You hang out almost exclusively with your league mates. Your wardrobe includes compression spandex, animal prints, and/or fake blood. You wish your butt was bigger.
-Ouching Tiger, Rollin’ News, October 4, 2014
“… and number 53, Your Mom! Now your defending champions — the Iron Angels! In her first game, number 21, KaPOWski!”
The audience erupts in applause, cheers, and hoots, as Kill-ty Pleasure welcomes those of us among the spectators to the Connecticut RollerGirls home team championship, on a Sunday evening, Nov.13, 2016. Women in red and gray tank tops, leggings and bulky elbow and shoulder pads speed onto the track. It’s Bone Crushers vs. Iron Angels, and the self-described daughters of the “American Derby Revolution” are ready to go, biting into mouth guards, knees bent, gaze forward.
Roller derby, a relic of the 1930s, started with Leo Seltzer’s touring competition, Transcontinental Roller Derby, a race on a raised track, highlighting massive pile-ups and outsized falls. Fading in the early 70s, contemporary derby returned in the early 2000s as an all-female amateur sport, brought back by a grassroots business model. Modern derby is one of the only sports in which women set the original rules. Today, men’s leagues of the Men’s Roller Derby Association approximate eighteen percent of the women’s numbers, while the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association currently counts 384 registered teams, from Albany to Ann Arbor to Assassination City (better known as Dallas). The Brussels Derby Pixies play in Belgium’s capital, Convict City in Glenorchy, Australia, and the Cornfed Derby Dames in Muncie, Indiana. Here in Waterbury, Connecticut, the CT RollerGirls have been playing since 2006.
Women’s roller derby, though, has a bruised reputation. The sport was portrayed in 2009’s “Whip It” by director Drew Barrymore, who also acted in the film as “Smashley Simpson.” The “Fight Attendants” come rolling into the derelict warehouse rink, tattooed, matted hair behind 50’s pin-up headbands. The actresses portraying the “Hurl Scouts” take out their mouth guards and growl. Drew Barrymore’s character can’t finish a jam without jumping an opponent, and Jimmy Fallon, as the commentator, hollers that she’s “giving the crowd what they came for!” That crowd wants “hot girls in fishnets and roller skates beating the crap out of each other” every Tuesday night at the Warehouse.
Before her first bout, Ellen Page’s novice character whimpers, “Has anyone ever thrown up on the track before?” A veteran player responds: “Find that thing that really pisses you off, and use it. Have you ever had crabs?”
Pinky Nails, number 1973 on her derby jersey, objects to all of this. To her, “Whip It” is the “Disney version” of derby. “It’s the glossy version. Yeah, it’s true that it can be that brutal, and yeah, it’s true that it can be that petty, but… they’re not real derby girls! They’re not grungy enough,” she sighed. “They’re so Hollywood.”
Pinky skates for the Yankee Brutals, a travel team, and the Iron Angels, her home team, as a league member of Connecticut RollerGirls. I first met her two years ago, when she texted me to meet her in New Haven’s Book Trader Cafe for a ride to the rink. I’d decided to try out roller derby — first at a meet and greet skate session, then at a practice observation and finally during a boot camp in November 2014. Through the window of Book Trader on a frigid northeastern Friday, dark by 5 p.m., I saw her. Knitting.
Linda Kelley-Dodd, as Pinky is known off the rink, had just finished a day running the costume shop at the Yale School of Drama. In between helping execute student designs for Shakespeare, she made derby themed ornaments for the Christmas tree. “It’s kind of hard to not have derby suck up your entire life sometimes,” Pinky explained, as we rushed towards Waterbury. From a Toyota on Route 8, she chirped into the phone, “Hey, Fatal.” For years, womankind has aspired to a network-television-glorified squad like Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte from “Sex and the City” — CT RollerGirls has Fatal, Parker Poison, Puke Skywalker, Slaps, Black Cherry and Your Mom. Pinky got off the phone and warned me, “Please don’t let anyone recruit you,” though the event we were going to was just a meet and greet. She grinned. “Have you ever been to Waterbury?” she asked. “Oh, you are in for a treat. It is truly — truly, truly — a piece of crap. Such a shitty town. Bless its little heart.”
Blessed be Waterbury, home to both a semi-defunct Biblical amusement park named Holy Land USA, and Roller Magic, which resembled nothing so much as a supermarket lost in the wild. An unobtrusive one-story building behind fences and brambles, it glowed a bright used-to-be-white. One step inside, and the noise of a middle school’s worth of children broke into the dismal Connecticut night, mixing with deafening Top 40 hits. A flyer advertised a Black Friday special, in case you ever wanted to “Skate your turkey off!”
While I was putting on skates, a three year old wandered into our row of booths. She seemed bewildered by the discussion between Pinky, Rink Wraith and Kill-ty Pleasure. Pinky shook her head. “Hulk took a hit — she has a concussion.” Rink leaned over and jovially whispers, “Happens a lot.” Then she whispered BOOM! and punched her hand. The three year old asked why Pinky was putting on bulky wrist guards. She laughed, “What if I fall and get hurt?”
I had no wrist guards, but I did have primary health insurance, a precursor to being allowed to learn derby skills at all. Pinky looked down at my trailing laces and laughed at my plastic neon blue rental skates, which were successfully numbing all possible feeling in my toes. Then she tightened the wheels for me.
I wrote my college essay about falling downstairs. My family regularly retells a celebrated childhood story in which I rode a bike head-on into a cluster of palm trees, followed by the one in which I lost control of the bike, down to the edge of a man-made lake. I was recently given a T-shirt that reads, “Scars are Tattoos with Better Stories.” It was a family gift.
So I was unsurprised when I took my first steps, four wheels strapped to each foot, and both my legs trembled audibly. My arms zoomed up and out, wind milling to keep the rest of my body from collapsing. VelociSlaptHer, number 80, guided my first few cautious laps of the rink. Crystal Cassetori had shortened her derby name to Slaps, for “ease of yelling.” Tall, with a platinum pixie cut and a smile as elastic as her skating style, she proudly leaned into the air in front of us, team shirt first. The stylized rib cage printed across her chest screamed her home team affiliation — Bone Crushers. By 10:30, I was doing crossovers, picking up one foot and placing it over the other. Pinky wasn’t going back to New Haven, but she stopped me from calling a taxi, saying, “first rule of derby girls — we take care of our own.”
Somewhere between Holy Land and New Haven, Pinky gave me a list of documentary titles to watch — “Blood on the Flat Track,” “Hell on Wheels.” The second detailed the founding of modern derby, interviewing the “grandmothers” of the sport: the very first women’s league in Austin, Texas in 2001. I imagined a hurtling pack of badass ladies leaving the male-dominated sports world behind on the track. I prepared myself for a blaze of feminist glory.
Reminiscent of television programs one has to pay for, the bouts in “Hell on Wheels” were billed as “All Girl Action.” The penalty wheel could have been borrowed from a carnival. It was spun whenever a skater incurred one, landing on the option of skating down a line of beer guzzling men, who spanked the skater as she wentg by in her schoolgirl skirt. In the early days, derby was decidedly a sport, but one sometimes fetishized for a male audience. Pinky good-naturedly called the Texas skaters “Bambi on ice! Hot mess!”
The documentary began to the strains of music by “…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead,” as Buckshot Betsy and Cherry Chainsaw, among other members of Putas del Fuego, grin and say derby “got me back in touch with my aggression,” and “lets me whoop your butt just like a man.” In the early days of the Texas Rollergirls, the elbowing, luridly aggressive tattoos and speed skating seemed to inspire the stereotypes of “Whip It” rather than contradict them. Practices involved skaters jumping over each other, only narrowly clearing each other’s helmets with their wheels. The movie’s portrayal of derby culture — showmanship and catfights, entertainment over athletics — isn’t far from the truth of the sport’s beginnings. Slaps would later tell me that, though derby has changed, she has still heard audience members complain that they didn’t come to watch sports — they came to watch girls punch each other.
Derby at CTRG is entirely different. Ten players, five from each team, can be in a two-minute jam at once. Each team’s four blockers form a pack of eight, skating closely as a group. They’re followed seconds later by two jammers, one per team. The goal of the jammer is to get through the pack, scoring points by passing other players. The blockers in the pack must play offense and defense, blocking the other team’s jammer and helping their own jammer get through, as she is the only member of the team who can score points. If she deems it strategic, the lead jammer can choose to call off the jam, at any point before two minutes have elapsed.
There are penalties for hitting outside of legal zones, which include shoulder to mid thigh, the front of the body, and from the bra straps out on one’s back. You can hit with your shoulders and hips, but not with elbows or hands. Shoving is illegal. No one even tries.
Instead, peering into the pack at a practice days after the meet and greet, I could see strategy at work. The Bone Crushers were practicing “the amoeba,” a flexible broken circle of skaters, loosely holding hands and twisting to form a moving wall in front of the Iron Angels’ jammer. They formed a roadblock for her, shapeless and difficult to get through, like flowing water. Their jammer, Slaps, dodged flailing arms, making tiny leaps on her toe stops. She made it out, becoming lead jammer. Crouching forward, she flew, lapping the pack. The whistle cut through the incessant clack of skates pounding the track, and “Whip It” proved to be more and more of, as Pinky told me in the beginning, “a big, fat, freakin’ lie.”
Hitting still occurs. A blocker occasionally seemed to fly backwards, falling behind the pack onto the track after a strong collision. But she was up again immediately, falling deliberately onto one or both knees. In two hours of practice, I only saw three girls fall with their entire body, or take more than five seconds to keep skating. They know how to hit the track, and keep going — big hits are still a matter of pride. On the way back to New Haven from that practice, Your Mom, number 53, cheered from the front seat to the third member of the carpool, ChewHacker, an Australian exchange student. “Did you see me hit Rink Wraith?” she crowed. “I laid her out flat!”
Your Mom leaned to the left and right of the steering wheel, explaining how to take a hit. “If you avoid it, you’re just going in the direction the person pushing you wants you to go,” she said. “Instead, you lean into it, absorb it. You cut some of the time, the momentum of the hit, so it doesn’t work as well.” She laughed, considering the implications this has on other teams: “If they have some really big blockers, we send a big blocker to rough them up a little.”
She was joking (somewhat), but derby girls still struggle with a reputation for unnecessary roughness, the reputation that caused people to laugh when I said I wanted to try it. Slaps once told me, “People think derby is all a bunch of brawling, beer drinking tattooed chicks.” Pinky interrupted: “I’m about ready to get another tattoo.”
Slaps laughed, “I think almost all of us have tattoos. Maybe the tattoo thing is legit.”
The outfits are not. Pinky warned me, “Roller derby girls buy shit. They buy everything under the sun! You would not imagine… glitter panties? When they first start, girls are all about buying glitter booty shorts. Then after about six months, they realize glitter booty shorts are really uncomfortable to wear, and then they start just wearing leggings. All the time.” Practice, divided into teams, was half Bone Crusher red, and the rest Iron Angel white, but almost 100 percent athletic pants black. No booty shorts emerged, and glitter would have gone flying during hits, an out of place Vegas shout-out among the fierce signaling going on between Your Mom, ChewHacker and the rest of the Bone Crushers.
The names, violently entertaining as email and text signatures, are not quite the wrestling star monikers “Whip It” makes them out to be. People choose them to make a pun, from childhood nicknames, or just because “they sounded cool.” Pinky just had pink hair, while Slaps made a list of twenty names. It’s one of the first things you do as a derby girl. You pick something short, attention-getting, so people can shout it at you before you go down, skidding the length of the track. The obvious choice came to Slaps while watching “Jurassic Park.” “I kept going, oh man, raptors! They’re fast, and nasty, and evil — and that could be me!” she exclaimed “I veloci-slapped her!”
Your Mom thought the name was funny — and convenient. No other skater had taken it. Technically, once a name is registered with the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, it is exclusively yours. I’ve never once heard Slaps call Pinky “Linda.” Pinky would immediately pull a face, moaning “SLAAAAPS.” Even outside of Roller Magic, the unimportant derby details, like legal names, just fade away.
A little spectacle still has a place in derby. During bouts, as the teams skate in, the Bone Crushers have been known to carry out a skull. Their theme song is “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” They call their cheering, cowbell ringing fan section the Bone Zone. Leering men don’t pack the sidelines anymore, waiting to spank brawling ladies. At the game I went to last month, I sat next to a father and his two girls, who cheered for their mom as she became lead jammer. Though founded by women, modern derby didn’t start out this way. It has grown with the hip checks, the falls and scrapes down the length of the rink, the fierce familial bonds that every player I spoke to claimed.
Pinky told me in the car on our way to my first evening at Roller Magic: “Every derby girl’s story is different, and mine is different from most people. I started doing roller derby because it was a challenge — I have multiple sclerosis.” She was diagnosed while she was roller-skating recreationally, after an MRI discovered that what she thought was a blood clot was instead, a sign of the disease. As she was skating at a Hartford rink wearing elbow pads and wrist guards, someone saw her and asked if she was there for the derby practice. Pinky went on to found the league in Hartford. “Derby builds confidence in you,” she said. “When you’ve been diagnosed with something where somebody tells you, we don’t know what’s going to happen, you’re going to do everything you can until that time comes.” Diagnosed in 2009, Pinky has not had another attack, and attributes it to exercise at practice and at the gym. “I have two neurologists,” Pinky told me. “When I first said, so I really want to do this thing… my neurologist was like, yeah, that’s great! I think you should do it!”
Slaps plays for the sport itself, the thrill of playing the game, but also for the derby community. According to her, it’s “very large, but also very small. You can go anywhere, and be like, I play roller derby! And you will find the local ‘roller derby people.’” Though she hates to make the comparison to a sorority, she finds derby sisters everywhere. On our way to Waterbury, Pinky told me about her “derby wife, a girl who gets you, will ride in the ambulance with you.” (The term is defined by Urban Dictionary as, “A roller derby soul mate, the woman who you knew from the first second that you’d been separated at birth, who will hold your hair when you throw up after drinking too much, arrange bail, ride in the ambulance with you and set your real husband straight on the Derby world.”) For Pinky, that’s the girl who came up to her years ago in Hartford and asked if she was there to play roller derby. Diesel & Gin no longer plays, but Pinky does — and she says that’s all Gin’s fault.
Your Mom said she immediately made fifty new friends on joining derby, but prizes the personal challenge above all. “You respect each other, tell each other what you’re doing wrong. You can coach. I’ve never done anything so fun or so hard in my life. You could always do better, be one step faster, a little bit stronger, a little bit louder.” Pinky has seen girls start out, “putting their helmet on freakin’ backwards and holding the walls to stay up, and six months later, they’ll be doing crossovers, and skating backwards and there’s a new bounce in their step, because they have confidence they’ve never had before because they can do something they never thought was possible.”
It’s still a pervasive belief, in a world where espnW is regarded a pale sub-brand of ESPN’s network empire, that sports are mostly for men, that girls aren’t big enough, strong enough, ruthless enough to play on the same level. Slaps and Metal Malady both practice with the men’s league, the Connecticut Death Quads, and it shows — at the practice I watched, both players dodged expertly, skated thrillingly fast, and evaded some powerful hits. Though Slaps acknowledges that the men can hit harder, they play by the exact same rules, and women’s leagues are not a second thought, an “opportunity” for girls to play a tame version. They sign the same waivers in the case of “death and dismemberment.”
Most people also wouldn’t think of Metal Malady when they think roller derby. Watching her at practice proved another point of Pinky’s, that derby celebrates any body type. “I’ve seen Metal— who literally is 5’3’’ and weighs nothing — take out people who are twice her size and she has no problem getting in front of them. She will throw her body in front of them to stop them,” Pinky said, and grinned. “There’s a sweet spot you can hit somebody’s leg and fell ‘em like a tree.”
Your Mom and Puke Skywalker (number C3P0) both laughed at the stereotype that derby girls are brawny women with aggression problems. Some are, they said. Everyone laughed about the stereotype that all derby girls wear booty shorts. (Some do, though the prudent move seems to be to deny it in public.) Derby is a sport, a test of strategic skill and strength, nothing more. It has its own culture, but defies those who have never stepped inside Roller Magic to define its players. Derby breaks down the boxes women conform to, of athletic girl or high-heeled weakling, aggressive or motherly, strong or petite. For derby girls, an “or” is a limit. Perhaps, its players consider derby feminist because the sport refuses to impose any limitations on women — their image, their dreams, or their ability to knock each other down and sell cupcakes to fundraise.
The day I went to boot camp, I ran through a mantra in my head before leaving New Haven. Leggings, long socks, knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, mouth guard, helmet. Primary health insurance. A referee checked it all before any new girls were allowed on the track. She deemed my helmet tight enough, but I asked, “Are you sure?” through the mouth guard that took up a third of my face. At least one of us was sure about this. Stepping onto the track, I cheered softly when I realize another girl trying out derby at boot camp was shorter than me. Then she skated ahead. The back of her sweater read “Southern Women’s Rugby.”
Metal began teaching t-stops, and I started to hear praise from the other instructors, before I got overconfident in what I learned from Slaps at the meet and greet, and wiped out. “Control before speed,” Metal reminded me. Take a fall on one knee, stand back up with the other foot. Fall on both knees, use hands, push off the track. Metal warned me that, in a game, such an error would result in a hit-and-run, the casualties my broken fingers. Stop using your hands. You like your hands functional.
I leaned back on my toe stops, miraculously stood up, and kept skating. Biting down hard on my mouth guard, I stopped looking down. I stopped falling. At times, I was the leader of the pack of aspiring derby girls. “Whip It” had at least one thing right — when Kristen Wiig gets Ellen Page onto the track, saying, “Put some skates on. Be your own hero.”
Kill-ty congratulated me while I was unlacing my skates, waving Fatal over. “Did you see her out there? She could be our Ellen Page!” Metal reclaimed my borrowed skates, whispering conspiratorially, “You were great,” and reminding me of the exact date of tryouts. Derby girls take care of derby girls — and derby girl wannabes. When all the borrowed gear was off, I felt an absence, a chill on my elbows and knees. I’d forgotten the bulky exoskeleton was on after thirty seconds of racing around the track. I missed the tension in my jaw where the mouth guard had gripped.
In the past two years since my brush with derby, no one has compared me to Ellen Page. That was an extremely kind one-off. I didn’t try out in the end, since Waterbury was simply too far away for biweekly practice, but I learned about falling and getting back up. I suppose that could be taken as metaphorical. Mostly, I just learned how to take a hit and push back up without a concussion.
Here’s the non-tangible benefit of learning some derby, when you are my height and under the minimum weight to give blood — you face what a lot of people think you can’t do. You sign waivers, and you take off running for the rink on shaky legs. You stop calling yourself a klutz. The next day you trip over a fire hydrant.
Last month, the Bone Crushers took the home championship as I watched from the crowd of boyfriends, girlfriends, toddlers, and grandparents. When the game ended, I went over to say hi to Pinky, and to Slaps, before Slaps was called away by her teammates for a photo with the Leg Lamp trophy. It is precisely that — a leg in a fishnet tight, extending coquettishly from a faded lampshade. Most of the women raising it high had lost their skates already, red-faced and smiling. The team above all, leggings before booty shorts.
Grinning, I remembered lacing up the skates I borrowed from a derby girl. Then I walked out of Roller Magic, back into the wild.