Derby Girls: Valkyries on Wheels

Illustration: Manuel Aguilar

I’m no Severin Von Kusiemski, but there is a strange primeval pleasure found in the company of a woman who is capable of beating my ass to a pulp. Last week I was watching tryouts for the Salt City Shakers—The Salt City Derby Girls All-Star team—and I heard a story about an unidentified Shaker, nearly banned from the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association for hauling off and punching some high-falutin harpy from Los Angeles square in the face. Valkyries on wheels! Sleeve-tattooed Vixens! Be still my heart!

Okay, so I’m exaggerating a little. Still, there’s a lot of entertainment surrounding this sport. In fact, compared to the snooze-fest that is a baseball game or golf, roller derby can deceptively appear as though it is a Russ Meyers film shown two minutes at a time. In the early 70s, televised roller derby matches were comparable to professional wrestling—choreographed camp with some collateral bruising. However, since the sport’s revival in the early 2000s, roller derby has been slowly but surely gaining some overdue respect as a legitimate sport. A Junction City Roller Doll, known to me only as Stryker, defends the game rather vigorously. “This is an actual sport, and we are actual athletes. We train twice a week. We’re very competitive.” She recites a litany of injuries, incurred or witnessed, which is almost too gruesome for our readers. Rage N Red, of the Junction City Roller Dolls, dislocated her kneecap all the way to the other side of her leg. Seventy years ago, such an injury would have consigned her to a low-grade carnival freak show. “Any play can be your last,” Striker says.

Smack and Deck Her, a pivot who captains the Death Dealers of the Salt City Derby Girls league, also defends roller derby’s legitimacy, “A lot of people think it’s still the theatrical stuff from the seventies—throwing people over the rails or whatever—but we’re on skates a good eight hours a week, training. It truly is a sport.”

Derby takes place on a circuit track . Each team sends five players out to skate—three blockers, one pivot and one jammer. Blockers and pivots begin making their way around the track, setting the pace for the round. Afterwards, the jammers begin skating. The basic object of the game is for the jammers to break through the pack, scoring one point for each opposing team member they lap. Blockers and pivots try to prevent this, and this is where most of those gruesome injuries come from. At its sleekest, watching a jammer slalom through the pack is like watching salmon deftly evade the swinging claws of waiting grizzlies. At its worst, it’s a stampede, a mosh pit on wheels. Typically if one girl falls, a couple will fall down right over them.  

From where I’m observing, roller derby appears as much like a sport as any football or hockey game. Even if it were all pratfalls and staged slaps, the game would still require its players to skate at considerable speed, continuously for two minutes. After a half an hour, I’m starting to become dizzy just watching it, and I’m sure the effect is similar for those actually participating, plus all the exhaustion and sweat. A couple of times, I see a blocker quickly wheel over to the sidelines and fish out an asthma inhaler. Two quick puffs, a moment to collect herself and then she’s back amongst the throng.

“That’s not to say that roller derby can’t be entertainment and sport, because I think it can,” says Hannah Bull Lecter of the Junction City Roller Dolls. “The cool thing about derby is that duality of athleticism and camp. I think the camp is kind of important. It’s what sucks a lot of our fans in. And I think we like the campy aspects—we’re out here with funny names in our fishnet stockings, after all.”

Picking out a good nom du skate seems to be a huge part of that camp. While players like Julia Rosenwinkel (Chicago) and Sarah Hipel (Detroit) have begun skating under their own names, for many of the participants, choosing a good moniker is almost as weighty a decision as choosing to play the sport in the first place. The International Roller Girl’s Master Roster is filled with the grotesque (Anne Putation), the portmanteau (Swine Floozy), the scatological (Donna Rrhea), the pornographic (Barefoot Cuntessa), nine “Little Miss” Something or Others, fifty-plus “Lil’” somethings and a hell of a lot of “Lady,” “Kitty” and “Ivanna.” My personal favorite is Dirty Pirate Hooker of the Salt City Derby Girls own Leave It To The Cleavers. As if she has no time for such cutesy-poo things as puns. If I got a sex change and walked onto a team, I think I’d call myself Van Whoreison.

In addition to the personas, derby bouts can also feature elements of the burlesque. Photos for the Salt City Derby Girls team Leave it To The Cleavers and The Sisters of No Mercy capitalize on the forbidden fetishes of 50s TV moms and nuns, complete with frilly aprons and habits. In some cases, things get a little crazier. Take Fanny Fister of the Pikes Peak Derby Dames, who likes to send a message to opposing skaters by violently shoving her balled-up mitt up the exit only of a blow-up doll.

Such bawdy aspects of roller derby, combined with the fact that derby leagues are typically run by women featuring all-female teams, lead a lot of armchair philosophers to equate roller derby with the post-punk, owning-your-sexuality tenants of third wave feminism. Watching the teams run their drills, it seems a little far-fetched. I’m no Betty Friedan, but it seems entirely anti-feminist to assume that a girl playing sports enjoys less the physical activity in lieu of having something to prove to the patriarchal powers that be. Not once in my interviews and observations do the politics of sexuality enter the conversation. On the contrary, the only rhetoric I hear is akin to the verbally sparse aphorisms I heard as a defensive lineman in Houston, Texas—sports clichés regarding one-hundred-and-ten-percent about how one’s attitude, not one’s uniform makes a derby girl. “I think its a stereotype,” says Smack and Deck Her. “We enjoy a certain camaraderie, but it’s no different than a bunch of women getting together and talking about books, or knitting or taking an aerobics class. We just happen to be on skates, shoving each other around.” Says Hannah Bull Lecter of Ogden, “We could share that same point of view, I guess, but we don’t really have an agenda. We’re just having a good time.” 

Time commitment for roller derby is pretty intense. For Smack and Deck Her, being on Salt Lake’s All-Star team means two nights of practice a week, plus captaining her regular team The Death Dealers, up to seven hours a week. Being a board member for your city’s organization, says Hannah Bull Lecter, can be a seven-day-a-week obligation. It’s a big commitment, but both athletes are quick to point out that it’s a rewarding one. Especially with this season’s expectations. “We’re evolving,” says Smack and Deck Her. “We’re training to get to regionals, playing a few teams who are ranked and we hope to see the Salt City Shakers move up in the ranks. We’ll be hosting regular double headers at the Salt Palace. It’ll be an exciting season.” Add to this all the parties, fundraisers, and charity drives that Salt City Derby Girls participate in, and 2010’s season is pretty packed. Meanwhile, in Ogden, the Junction City Roller Dolls will be unveiling two new teams this year—The Hilltop Aces and The Railway Banditas. “We’re not as serious as some of the leagues, but we’re hoping to get more serious,” says Hannah Bull Lecter. “We’ll be hosting two double headers this season. Regionals would be nice, but we won’t die if we don’t make it. We’re having a lot of fun out here.”

Those interested in joining the ranks are invited to visit or, depending on your particular zip code. Although Salt Lake’s tryouts will have already happened by the time this article runs, volunteers are still welcome. Ogden, however, will be hosting tryouts on March 25, May 6 and August 12 at the Classic Fun Center in Layton. Players must be 18 or older. As for roller derby’s other requirements, the resounding answer from Striker and Hannah Bull Lecter is enthusiasm and being willing to learn. “People think we have to be tough or something,” says Smack and Deck Her, “but if you can skate, we’ll teach you everything else.”

On Saturday, March 13 the Junction City Roller Dolls will kick off their season at the Davis Conference Center. The Salt City Derby Girls will open their season with a bangin’ party and fundraiser on Saturday, March 6 at Club Edge.

Illustration: Manuel Aguilar Illustration: Manuel Aguilar