The biggest misunderstanding about roller derby, said Devotchka DeLarge late last Saturday morning, is that it’s played with a ball. She was seated on a wooden bench in the locker room of the Arizona Derby Dames facility, surrounded by other roller derby players. Everyone laughed at the thought of a roller derby ball.
“People just don’t understand what we’re doing,” said Nikki BadAzz, who wore a skating helmet and a black tank top. “I’ve tried explaining roller derby every different way. I’ve even tried using sweetener packets to show how it works.”
The movies about roller derby add to the confusion, said a blue-haired skater named WhoreChata, who sat in a folding chair. Movies like Whip It, in which Drew Barrymore actually clotheslined someone. “As if that’s allowed,” WhoreChata laughed.
“And that movie Rollerball,” said a woman who goes by the name Militia and skates with the Runaway Brides. “This terrible '80s Hollywood movie that got it all wrong.”
The Dames were taking a break from preparing for next Saturday’s championship game. They used to be a flat-track league, but in 2010 they became the only banked-track team in the state, meaning they play on a curved, elevated track. For six seasons, they’ve trained and played in this southwest Phoenix warehouse space.
“We’re governed by the Roller Derby Coalition of Leagues,” Devotchka explained. “The rule set is very precise and closely governed.”
In the old days, she remembered, players could hit somebody or push them over or roll around on the floor with an opponent.
“People would get into ‘fights,’” Nikki said, and made air quotes. “Some were real, some were faked.”
“I’ve had my nose broken,” Devotchka said, and touched her lavender curls. “When roller derby first started, it was athletic and awesome and punk rock. It’s still very much the same, but it’s evolved to be more open to women in general. We have players who are doctors and nurses and teachers and lawyers. It’s not just tattoo artists and punk rockers. So when we became more mainstream, we were like, ‘Hey we should probably be doing things to protect ourselves and the other players.’ I like it more now because I don’t have to worry about losing a tooth if someone punches me in the face.”
Roller derby is being taken more seriously, Militia said. There’s an Olympic roller derby team now, and the sport is less theatrical and more athletic. “But still with a lot of punk rock undertones,” Devotchka insisted.
Still, some fans believe roller derby is scripted, that it’s faked like WWE wrestling matches. A video that plays before each match explains what’s really going on, and that helps, said referee LolliCop, a Regulator captain whose daughter began competing at age 8.
“The younger girls we train, we’re not just training them to play a physical contact sport,” she said. “We’re giving them tools to use in life, so they know how to deal with different personality types in a respectful way. How to be strong women who can take charge but not be misunderstood as some bossy little bitch, just because she’s confident.”
These women don’t care what culture says about strength and power belonging exclusively to men, WhoreChata insisted. She talked about a Dames junior league called Minor Assault that trains girls ages 10 to 17. “Watching these girls come in and seeing them change is amazing. Being uplifted spills over into our lives off the track.”
The Dames hold tryouts a couple of times a year. “We run through basic skills,” Nikki explained. “Then there’s a 20-week training where we teach blocking and fundamentals and strategy.”
Those who make it through are called “fresh meat,” and usually get drafted onto one of six home teams. The Dames also host an all-star team, a referee team, and a junior team, said Devotchka, whose little sister skates under the name Lucy Fur. “She used to be a Coffin Dragger,” she said. “She’s a penalty-calling Regulator now.”
Things weren’t always hair-braiding and “Kumbaya” among derby teams.
“Relationships between the leagues used to be really bad, really nasty, especially when all the leagues split apart about 15 years ago,” sighed Devotchka, who’s been around the longest. “In about 2008 or so, relations between the leagues started to mend. That was around the time we kind of realized ‘Hey, we’re all here for the same reason, there’s enough room for everyone.’”
There are tragic roller derby stories. Everyone remembered a player named Shelly Four Fingers, who lost a digit while moving the track. “It was reattached, but she didn’t have use of it,” Devotchka recalled. “It didn’t keep her from being around derby, but she couldn’t skate.”
Athletic injuries can take a toll, Devotchka admitted. She pointed to WhoreChata.
“We’re both retiring after this season,” she said. “There’s going to be lots of ugly crying. We’re talking about starting an adventure club, because we’re going to be so sad without roller derby. I’ve played for 16 years, flat-track and banked-tracked and everything in between.”
WhoreChata shook her head. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years. I’m not getting any younger. My body isn’t getting any younger. I want my time off. My youngest son was 3 when I started. He’s a teenager now.”
There will be new roller derby dames, Devotchka promised. The Doomsday Valkyries, a team of newer girls, are shaping up beautifully, she said. And even without her, she joked, a match between the Coffin Draggers and the Schoolyard Scrappers will still be a nail-biter.
“The Brides have had a really good season,” WhoreChata said. “They’ll have another good season.”
“Everyone will have a good season,” Militia and LolliCop said in unison. And then everyone laughed.