Getting to Know the Detroit Derby Grrrrls
They rock. And they roll. The Detroit Derby Girls are just one of some 63 all-female owned and operated roller derby flat-track leagues across the country. For years I’ve heard about the Derby Girls, their commitment, their camaraderie, their community-mindedness, their overall coolness. But it wasn’t until I witnessed it for myself that I learned what it truly means to be a Derby Girl.
Roller Derby began as a note on a napkin inside a Chicago Johnny Rocket’s in 1932. After that, the national derby scene exploded over decades of increasing showmanship and ratings boosts, under the leadership of Leo Seltzer. Its popularity ultimately became its downfall, as derby became more concerned about the spectacle than the sport, and by the ‘90s it had faded off into oblivion. That is until 2001, when the sport of roller derby was resurrected in Texas, conceived as an all-female athletic event. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) was born, which regulates the national flat-track roller derby rules and offers the chance for inter-league bouting and championships. The Detroit Derby Girls were officially formed in January 2005, and were ready to play their first bout in February 2006. They now stand over 60 skaters strong with four home teams, a travel team, and a “B” team.
There is so much to learn and understand about the sport of flat-track roller derby that it can be daunting as a newcomer to take it all in. But the bottom line is this: it’s a sport. A real full-contact sport with real injuries, real risks, real (but few) fights, and real athletes. The Derby Girls practice for several hours twice a week in addition to their regular bouts. Members make a significant time commitment to the league, and they do so happily. What struck me as being so impressive about the Derby Girls was their obvious commitment to their team and the other members; by signing up for the Derby Girls, you’re effectively joining a new family. They will embrace you and uplift you, but they will also keep you on track (literally and figuratively). Derby Girls train hard, they play hard, they reach out to the community and partner up with businesses and nonprofits, they support each other, and they kick ass on a flat-track. And that’s pretty much what you need to know about derby.
For a league that began as an idea at a New Year’s Eve party inside the home of player Scarlett Fever, these girls have come a long way. Starting out with no money for rink rental or to absorb the costs of organizing a sporting league, their practices were first held inside the Bohemian Social Club (now the Bohemian National Home) in Corktown, while it was still very much under construction. Through fundraisers, meet-and-greets, and by reaching out to friends and the tight-knit local music scene, the Girls were finally able to rent out a “real” rink for practices, and then were able to host their first bout at the Masonic Temple “Drill Hall” (where they have played ever since). This inaugural bout was in front of a sold-out crowd of 800, and they’ve been selling out the Masonic consistently ever since. From day one they were their own fundraisers and promoters, and the buzz they were able to create from the beginning has led to a fanbase of thousands of die-hards and fascinated observers.
It is this DIY spirit which makes the Derby Girls who they are, and it manifests itself in every aspect of their play. They enjoy playing on a flat track (a track that is set on the floor, as opposed to an elevated banked track) because it allows them to be closer to their fans, to slap high-fives and shake hands with them and allow them to feel as if they’re part of the action. (Trackside seating is at your own risk, of course.) Though they bout against each other, all the teams that are part of the DDG league train and practice together, and they all push each other to be better skaters, better athletes, so that together they can develop and grow as a unified league.
But you just can’t truly understand the sport until you see it first-hand. On Saturday, March 14th, I had the chance to see the D-Funk All-Stars battle the Detroit Pistoffs in a bout that was (to me, as a derby virgin) fast-paced and thrilling. Make no mistake, this sport is hardcore—the Girls hit, shove, trip, fall, skid, slide, bruise, and occasionally break. The action is intense, and even if it is your first bout you’ll find yourself holding your breath to watch the Jammer (the only player who scores by breaking away and lapping the pack) break through, cheering on as the lead Jammer (the first one to pass through the pack) repeatedly dodges the other team’s defense to lap them again and again, wincing when a defensive player gets shoved and goes skidding into the crowd, and smiling at the clear camaraderie that exists between the players as they help each other, look out for each other, and show each other signs of encouragement.
The crowd is a clear example of roller derby’s wide appeal, as well as the Derby Girls’ all-inclusive attitude. The crowd was full of children (in fact, children under 12 are admitted free), elderly folks (many of them parents of the players), couples of all orientations on dates, groups of college-age students, punk rockers, artists, and rabid sports fans. Black/white, gay/straight, male/female, young/old—if you can cheer them on, they’ll welcome you in, and you’re guaranteed to have a good time. (My favorite moment was witnessing a woman in her 60s pour a beer into a funnel for a quadriplegic man to drink, and him griping at her when she wasn’t pouring fast enough.)
While the Derby Girls are all about the sport and the sportsmanship, there is certainly a fair amount of quirkiness that is present at any bout. The referees for the bout (there are five on the track at any time) looked like a demented Greek chorus, sporting togas and gold metallic short shorts. The Motor City Rah-Rahs are the DDG’s official goth/punk cheerleaders, and the intermission is filled with punk rock music. Yes, the girls do wear fishnets and short skirts, but it is not about being provocative or exploiting their sexuality—it’s all about self-expression and unleashing some excitement (besides, what else are they supposed to skate in, pants?). And no, they’re not tattooed man-hating lesbians. Some have tattoos, and sexuality has nothing to do with the sport. The Derby Girls have doctors, waitresses, engineers, teachers, accountants, hair stylists, wives, and moms on their league. Derby attracts women from all backgrounds who are interested in a highly athletic, competitive sport which encourages diversity and promotes community involvement. The sport has wide appeal for athletes and an even wider audience appeal…plus it’s just plain fun.
Another thing which impresses me about the Girls is their involvement in the community. They make regular appearances at festivals, concerts, and various events to introduce themselves to people, promote derby, and hang out with fans. Every bout is a benefit for DDG’s featured charity; this season’s featured charity is Alternatives for Girls, a nonprofit organization based in southwest Detroit which serves homeless and at-risk girls and young women through various programs of empowerment. The Girls are looking out for the girls of the community, and for that they deserve the utmost respect. They’re not in this for the money or the fame, but for the love of the game.
The bout ended with a score of 112-57, a win for the D-Funk All-Stars. By the end of the bout, watching the players hug, high-five, shake hands, and mingle with the audience, I felt as if I had truly experienced being a part of something. The sense of inclusion and teamwork is pervasive and infectious, and as the Derby Girls always say, “our fans have helped the DDG get to where they are today…Detroit wouldn’t have Flat Track Roller Derby without [them]!” At a Derby Girls bout, you’re not just an audience member or a bystander; you’re a part of the sport, a part of the event, a part of the excitement. It’s no wonder then that derby fans can be as vocal and as animated as a hockey fan at a playoff game, when they themselves feel that their team’s win is their own. And for the Girls on the track, derby isn’t just a sport—it’s a way of life. They live it, they breathe it, they are it. And with such strong examples of leadership, teamwork, sportsmanship, and philanthropy, I really can’t think of a better code to live by—short skirts, fishnets and all.
Get to know a Derby Girl:
Carey Finn/Cookie Rumble Team/position: Captain of the Detroit Pistoffs, Blocker/Jammer/Pivot City: Ferndale How/why I got to be a Derby Girl: Funny story actually….my old roommate used to bartend at the 2500 club. The DDG was having their first fundraiser (the HOT party) and I happened to be up there the same night. I was awestruck by these awesome women and what they were trying to build, but too chicken to sign up. So my friend signed me up behind my back. I got a call from Scarlett fever telling me when they were going to be at Riverside for open skate (she pretty much scared me into going) and the rest, they say, is history. What I do when I’m not kicking ass in the rink: I work at Origen Financial Services to fund my derby habit. When I’m not working, I’m either playing derby, thinking about derby, dreaming about derby, or eating burritos. Derby derby work derby derby burritos. Repeat.
Krista Wollam/Elle McFearsome Team/Position : Detroit Pistoffs – Pivot and Jammer City: Livonia How/why I got to be a Derby Girl: My sister (Cookie Rumble, also of the Detroit Pistoffs) was “recruited” by one of her friends (who signed her up without her knowledge). After she participated in the first official Detroit Derby Girls practice at the Bohemian Social Club, she couldn’t stop talking about how much fun it appeared to be and how nice the other skaters were. So, having always been an extremely active person, I was immediately jealous of her participation in this new sport, and not having any other athletic commitment at the time, decided to attend the second practice. I was hooked, and have been playing ever since. What I do when I’m not kicking ass in the rink: Is there something besides Derby? Actually, I spend my days working as a systems analyst at the University of Michigan, supporting my 10 year old son, Kyle, in his scholastic and athletic endeavors, and in general, trying to balance them all without mentally exploding…
Laura Livingston/Roxanna Hardplace Team/position: D-Funk All-Stars, Jammer, etc. I am on the D-Funk Allstars home team. I tend to play Pivot, Jammer, or Outside Blocker. City: I am from Ann Arbor How/why I got to be a Derby Girl: I have always loved to skate. I grew up as a figure skater, and although I still love to figure skate, as an adult I was ready to try a different kind of skating. When I heard that Detroit had a Roller Derby league, I decided that this may be a good way to keep skating in my life. I also have always enjoyed team sports. Being a part of a Roller Derby team provides a sense of group purpose and unity with my teammates that you don’t get from individual sports. We all have one purpose when we are on the track. Knowing that you have the support of your team to cheer you on when you make a great hit, or encourage you to keep trying when you have a difficult jam, is one of the many reasons why I love this sport. What I do when I’m not kicking ass in the rink: I am a Pediatric Nurse, so when I am not playing derby, you can usually find me at work in the hospital. That is what is great about Roller Derby. I can be tough and hit other skaters as much as I want on the track, and then go back to real life and provide care and comfort to my patients.