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.
Invented in the 1930s by sports promoter Leo Seltzer, roller derby has gone through many incarnations. Contemporary roller derby, characterized by its underground, punk-rock, do-it-yourself attitude and showcased in movies like “Whip It,” started in Austin, Texas circa 2002 and has since exploded into nearly 500 leagues worldwide.
The OC Roller Girls league practices take place behind the Rinks in Huntington Beach, CA, a threadbare complex that smells like a damp hockey locker room, in the middle of a vast warehouse room complete with pallet racks.
Girls filter in and start suiting up. Any preconceptions I had about derby girls are quickly obliterated. Instead of fearsome, 20-something, cooler-than-thou indie girls with arm sleeve tattoos and dyed asymmetrical haircuts, I find myself surrounded by every kind of woman imaginable: tiny, muscular, chubby, quiet, old and young, moms, students, teachers, CEOs and rockabilly housewives. They’re also friendly, chatting playfully with each other as they suit up.
“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!”
The rules of the game are simple in theory. Two teams clad in quad roller skates dash around an oval track and try to score points by lapping their opponents. Jammers are the scorers and try to pass the opposite 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.
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 with a dermoid cyst she had removed from her ovary.
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, but 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.
Finally, game night arrives. Although it doesn’t start until 7:00, all the girls arrive two hours early — there’s much to do. 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.
The game is difficult to follow and most of us only know who’s winning by looking at the scoreboard. Girls weave in and out chaotically, falling and getting called out for illegal actions. Despite our confusion and some gnarly spills, the overall atmosphere is one of good-natured excitement, with girls laughing and dancing on the line. The first 30-minute period finishes with the Bombshells up 57-42.
The second half is more exciting. Chick Norris injures her knee and is accompanied off the track by EMTs. The Heartbreaker’s main jammer Hell Torro leads the Heartbreakers to a narrow 101-99 victory with only minutes left in the game.
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. 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.
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.” Her enthusiasm provides all the more reason for UCI students to start doing the derby.