Roller Grrrrls: Derby Dames find sisterhood in flat track revival

The dame game
These days there’s some sort of Derby Dames practice all but one night a week. The more hardcore skaters hit the pavement at least three nights. Stone, Bone, Machete, Beat Box and a few others seem like they are laced up pretty much every night, doing something derby centric. Practicing, trying out new wheels on a new bout surface, running new recruits through the paces, whatever, just something to keep ready.

“We have one or two non-derby nights a week,” Machete said.

The women all concur that they do something derby-related every single day, whether it’s answering e-mails, putting together a package to present to potential sponsors, or making laminates for an upcoming bout.

The Derby Dames organization is the social nucleus and most time-consuming element in many of these women’s lives. And because the Dames are as much an organization—a living, breathing business concern—as they are an amateur sports team, there is lots to do. It’s not just practice and conditioning that eats up the time, they have meeting upon meeting of their various committees. There’s the training committee, the community relations committee, the team-building committee, as well as the newly formed, unofficial and controversial All-Star committee.

The Dames pose together after a bout. Photo: Dan Addison.

The All-Star committee formed earlier this year when a cabal of the better and more committed skaters wanted to separately field the most competitive team possible. They basically formed an elite team of Dames, to compete against top national competition, by circumventing the organization’s standard democratic protocol. The move was considered by some to be a blasphemously autocratic move by a set of maverick Dames.

“There’s a lot of like, talkie, talkie, talkie, you know touchy feely, and, like, is this O.K.? A lot of temperature taking. It’s just a lot of that,” said All-Star SparKills. “[Men] would be like, ‘You guys are still talking about this?’ We don’t have a lot of leaders who are willing to say, ‘hey, guys, I’m gonna be the lightning rod and I’m gonna be the bad guy, so, everybody be angry with me, I’m gonna make this decision, then its made.’ We haven’t had that. I don’t know that we want it.”

“It’s true,” conceded Mama, a fellow All-Star. “The functioning of the team… we are so diplomatic. You’ll roll your eyes at how much we have to find out that everybody is O.K. with every little thing. We have to take a vote on whether or not we should vote on something and then we take a vote on [all] the options. That’s one of the great things about the team; you can’t complain about anything that happens because you’ve had your opportunities for feedback.”

Which seems true, unless you weren’t selected for the All-Star squad.
Derby is a world where these women can evince the full spectrum of femininity, because they make the rules and carry them out. They can make themselves up all dolly and girlie and then skate around pummeling each other for an hour and half and there is absolutely nothing manly, unfeminine, or contradictory about any of it, because it’s all theirs, made with their bare hands.

“I like the idea of different bodies. It’s liberating,” said SparKills. “You’re out there, you’re being tough, you’re being aggressive, really being aggressive, not like playing basketball aggressively. You’re being aggressive. That’s not very feminine, but you’re very feminine while you’re doing it. You don’t have to get masculine to have this masculine trait of being aggressive.”

The documentary film Hell on Wheels portrays the inner-workings of the Austin roller derby league. The derby women of Austin often use the word “empowerment” when they talk about what’s rewarding about their sport.

“The sport itself is empowering. I wouldn’t say that the extra work that goes into the business or the league is,” Machete said.

But SparKills sees it differently.

“One of the things I loved about being part of management was, it felt so good to be making this happen for us. ‘You tell me what you want and I’m gonna go try to make it happen. I’m gonna find insurance so we can get in that space. We’re gonna do this,’” she said.
The Dames, to a woman, are protective of the world they have built, and they carefully insulate it from intruders, whether it’s a nosy reporter or the fact of their everyday lives. The women always call each other by their derby names, and when I asked one of them what another did for a living, she told me she didn’t know, which was hard to believe considering the amount of time they spend together. But it confirmed the hunch I had that the Dames are a sisterhood. They take an immense amount of time out of their lives to get this thing right for each other, giving, in almost all circumstances, all members, skating or non-skating, a vote on every team decision. Then, a few nights a week, they inflict contusions and bloody noses on each other.

Which is another thing that separates the Dames from the dudes, the relentless physical abuse they endure. Lindsay Davis, a former TV broadcaster who heads up community relations for CDD, has yet to bout for the team and hasn’t been able to skate the last couple years, after breaking her tibia and fibula while skating a skills test, when she was still fresh meat. Her broken bones required two surgeries, seven screws and a plate in her leg, the hardware of which is prominently visible just beneath her ankle skin, which is tautly stretched over the head of a bolt. At a June 23 bout in Fayetteville, North Carolina another hapless Dame broke her leg in three places.

It’s not only the major injuries, however, that plague the Dames. The litany of day-to-day annoyances is the same you hear from hockey or football players. A torn ligament here, chronically sore ribs there.

“You can’t do anything about it unless you just quit, and sometimes your knee pads slip down and your knee just hits the concrete,” said Bone. “One girl that used to play fell so much on her hip that it went numb and she couldn’t feel anything in it ever again.”
“I just constantly hit myself in the shin,” said Beat Box. “Always with my knee pads, so I have constant shinbone pain.”

Everybody deals with deep muscle bruises that keep getting pounded on the exact same sore spot over and over, never get to heal, and just become lumps. Guys and girls are tough in different ways, and you can see that real clearly with the Dames. Rex, a lifelong athlete who played football, ranks the women among the toughest athletes he’s been around.

None of the ladies related when I tried to draw parallels between their thing and, say, Fight Club. And maybe that’s because the fight club was a guy thing in the way that inflicting violence, while relishing in the self-aggrandizing suffering of it, was such a self-obsessed personal breakthrough. A large percentage of these women came to derby with little or no organized sports background, and fewer still ever participated in behavior anywhere near as aggressive. They just kind of take the rough stuff as part and parcel of the sport. There’s no discernible eagerness to hand out an ass-whup-pin.’

They dish it out, they take it and it just gets rolled into a larger phenomenon. It’s what tough women have always done, abide and endure. It reminds me of the old adage about Ginger Rogers, that she “did everything Fred Astaire did, just backwards and in high heels.”

Despite the physical maladies, all the jammers said they would skate derby, “at least ’til I’m 40,” or “forever,” but don’t take my word for it.

“At this point, I cannot imagine my life without it,” Machete said.

Beat Box, who came up from Miami to attend UVA, said, “I would have been out of Charlottesville for sure. If I didn’t stay in this sport, I would not be in this city.”

“Me neither,” said Bone. “[Derby has] changed my life and I’ve learned more from it than any job or any class or anything else in the world I’ve learned from.”

“Charlottesville can be a hard place for people to connect, if you don’t know anybody,” Mama said, reflecting on the role derby plays in the women’s lives. “It can be a little snooty.”

And then the last word. Like the newest initiate in a gang enforcing the rules.

“Any of these people on this team would do anything for you, anything,” said Beat Box. “I know I could call 30 or 40 girls and they would do anything for me. And that’s really awesome, to know people for such a short time who would do anything for you.”

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