Miami Beat Box is wearing the elastic beanie cap with the big star on it stretched over her helmet to indicate that she is her team’s jammer, the only skater eligible to score points in a scoring round, or jam. She has already made the requisite first pass through the pack and is coming around the flat, oval track in an attempt to lap the other skaters. She’ll score a point for every one of the opponents she can pass before being knocked silly by one or more of the other team’s blockers, some half-again her size, who are waiting for her with locked elbows and clenched teeth.
With the other squad’s jammer well behind her, Beat Box approaches the tight group of blockers, slicing back and forth on eight wheels, searching for an opening. She starred for the Charlottesville Derby Dames in their June 9 victory over Richmond’s Mother State Roller Derby, a bout in which she scored 19 points in one second-half jam, lapping the pack five times during the daring and reckless two-minute tear.
That was then. This is now. As the pack rounds a turn, two of the blockers drift far enough apart to open a gap that Beat Box shoots for. Just as she hits the hole, the blockers lock arms and clothesline her across the chest, sending her head backwards as her be-skated feet shoot out in a flying karate kick. Her body is utterly parallel to the concrete floor 3′ beneath her, and she plummets to the ground with nothing to soften the blow but her own flesh. “FLUMP!” her butt crushes down on the rock-hard surface, and I can feel my own hip socket ramming against the head of my femur. There’s a gut-tugging body thud just before her elbow pads and skates slap down on the grim surface. I’m thinking she’s down for the count.
But Beat Box is back up on her skates inside of two seconds, chasing the pack again. It was her own teammates who had just sent her flying, and I was just watching a practice scrimmage, which the Dames do as often as three nights a week.
There are about 80 women in the Derby Dames operation, half of whom participate as skaters while others contribute in various support roles. A handful of men serve as coaches and referees and that’s the whole world of women’s flat track roller derby in Charlottesville. The first thing that hit me about derby is that it’s a far cry from a softball team or league night at the bowling alley. Softball: You collect your dues, screen-print some jerseys, stop by Dick’s for cleats, maybe even your own bat. Once you shag some fly balls, take batting practice…
Well, hold on right there, the fact that there is a place for a softball team to take a few cuts and toss the ball around is what distinguishes derby from other recreational sports. When derby started here, there was no league to join. There wasn’t even any place to skate. The next thing that hit me, once I got my head around the operation, was that derby isn’t a sport really, it’s a whole world these women created for themselves out of spare parts and loose hardware.
Something out of nothing
SparKills, one of the original Derby Dames, was inspired to do derby after watching a team from Austin, Texas at a bout in 2005. She figured her dream was out of reach since she couldn’t roller skate much and the hotshot Texans were already at an intimidatingly high skill level. A couple years later, she happened to rent a room in a Charlottesville house from Mad Mountin’ Mama, another of the Dames’ eventual founders, who, herself, first got geeked on derby after seeing the same team skate in Austin. Mama came across a handbill announcing a meeting of women trying to get the derby going in Charlottesville, and it was on.
“The meetings were in our house,” SparKills said. “The very organizational ‘can we do this?’ meetings were there. None of us had ever done derby. There were clips of it on YouTube. So Mama [who worked as a personal trainer] was training us, doing drills but not really knowing how they fit in with actual play. We were the blind leading the blind. It was a lot of jazz hands. It was, ‘Hey we’re doing roller derby,’ but we weren’t, really.”
“It took a year to find anywhere where we could skate,” Mama remembered. “We were going over to Staunton once a week, paying our money and skating in circles at the rink with everybody else. We couldn’t get them, for liability reasons, to host us.”
A couple of the other women kept poking around for a more private place to skate and came upon the National Guard Armory on Avon Street.
“We had it once a week for three hours,” Mama said. “So, it was kind of building from nothing. It was the passion that one or two girls had to keep it going.”
These days recruiting and workouts for fresh meat (the several-week introductory training and weeding out that all Dames go through) are held Downtown at the Key Recreation Center, but, for now, the team conducts its official practices in an isolated and decaying warehouse on the outskirts of town. Girls are fresh meat until they attain a certain skill level. Some girls do it in a month, others take a bit longer.
Puddles of water are scattered across the massive expanse of the warehouse’s concrete and dirt floor. The practice track is marked out on the smoothest section of concrete, and plastic sheeting hangs under the holes in the dilapidated ceiling where the rain comes in, deftly angled to keep the track dry. The I-beam stanchions in the infield area, which hold up the roof, are snuggly wrapped with mattresses, bound in place by duct tape. A ’60-something Ford Mustang collects grime in a far corner. Next to a pair of crutches against the wall hangs a white bed sheet that serves as a backdrop for photo sessions for the team’s website. From a laundry line dangle what at first blush appear to be ladies’ unmentionables, but turn out to be only similarly-sized jammer caps. Stand in the wrong corner too long in this cavernous sprawl and mosquitoes will suck you bloodless.
The Dames change from street clothes to practice gear sitting on the floor or on the hodgepodge of cushions and lawn furniture strewn about trackside. There are no showers, no lounge area near comfortable enough for the average adult to sit around for an extended, post-practice bullshit session.
Somehow, the Dames are at ease in this dank place, made homey by the smattering of discarded furniture they imported and by the easy way they catch up while they’re lacing their skates. Alas, they will soon lose their lease, as the property on which the warehouse sits will be reassigned to a more lucrative use.