The last time I had been to a roller rink, a fifth-grade boy asked me to hold his hand and skate along to the Backstreet Boys. The most intense competition of that night was when the entire rink gathered for a game of “red light, green light” — and there was certainly no body-checking.
A decade later, I didn’t exactly know what to expect when I entered the Doll Factory for a roller derby exhibition game between the Tough Cookies and the Varsity Brawlers.
As I waited in line, I took stock of the people around me. Directly ahead, a woman with waist-length dreadlocks chatted with a short-haired blonde whose shirt was emblazoned with the words “Roller Derby is so gay.”
I knew I looked out of place when a volunteer (I could tell she was affiliated with the Derby Dolls by her outfit of tattoo-sleeve tights, spandex booty shorts and combat boots, which stood out even in this crowd) came up to me specifically and asked if I needed help. Wearing jeans and a blazer, I wondered if I could quickly put on some more eye makeup to blend in just a tiny bit better. Or, as Felon D. Generous passed me by, if only I had a cool nickname. I scanned the crowd and spotted a man in a green polo shirt — a comrade in the mundane. We made eye contact and acknowledged each other with a slight nod.
The converted warehouse now known as the Doll Factory was painted black with smatterings of hot pink skulls decorating the walls. Past the giant blow-up Tecate beer can and various posters rested the banked track, above which hung a roller skate-shaped disco ball. I leaned up against a railing and watched the Tough Cookies and the Varsity Brawlers warm up, skating and jumping and twirling around each other.
One of the referees, Oliver Clothesoff, skated to the starting line and 10 girls lined up on the track — eight in a pack and two a few feet behind them. With the first whistle, the eight girls — the “blockers” — began skating, jostling for position on the track. Seconds later, another whistle blew. Two “jammers” with starred helmets sped off, trying to battle their way through the pack.
On the first turn around the rink, Gori Spelling, jammer for the Tough Cookies, was rammed into the padded railing by a rib-cracking hit from a Varsity Brawler. It was the kind of hit that, in a football game, you would hear on TV. No one blew a whistle; no one took a second look. The pack was off — and so was Gori Spelling, racing to make up the few seconds of time lost while getting her bearings.
The rest of the match went much the same way. The announcers explained that a team can only score points after its jammer passes every blocker of the opposing team, assembled in the “pack.” The blockers help their own jammer break through the pack while attempting to impede the other team’s jammer from getting past. Once a jammer gets through the pack, she races around the rink in order to lap the pack, scoring a point for each opponent that she passes a second time.
Blockers, who must stay within 20 feet of the pack, cannot use elbows or any part of the arm below the elbow to block. It is illegal to block above the shoulders or trip another skater. Penalties for doing so include having to sit out of the next round, or “jam.”
Even with these rules, the hits are brutal. In the second half, a Varsity Brawler was knocked off of the outside of the track, falling to the ground about three feet below. A big “oh!” came from the crowd and play stopped. Her referee’s whistle in hand, Gia de los Muertos’s stunned expression was visible even through the skull painted over her face. But the Varsity Brawler climbed right back into the rink and the game continued as if nothing happened.
With drama like that, it is easy to see why Shauna Cross, who stumbled across roller derby while searching for a tennis partner on Craigslist, felt the need to chronicle this spectacle in her book Derby Girl and the subsequent screenplay, Whip It!.
“I had never experienced a sport where you can be as competitive as you want to be, as feminine and as sexy and loud or not loud and tough,” said Cross, who skates under the moniker Maggie Mayhem. “It was just too good not to write about.”
The indie comedy-drama, which marks actress Drew Barrymore’s directorial début, stars Academy Award-nominated Ellen Page as Bliss Cavender, an off-beat 17-year-old desperately trying to find her niche in her rural Texas town. That niche? Roller derby.
According to Barrymore, as both a first-time director and derby skater, she “tried to film it, cinematically, the way that it felt.” Her respect for the derby girls was undeniable.
And who wouldn’t respect a group of girls who, as Zoë Bell put it, have an after party to “appreciate the fact that [they] just kicked the shit out of each other.”
Page and Barrymore trained for three months before the production of Whip It! began, alongside real Derby Dolls Kristen Adolfi and Rachel Piplica — or Krissy Krash and Iron Maiven, respectively — of the Tough Cookies, who play Bliss’s teammates in the film. And the actresses had battle scars to show for it.
Barrymore recounted a wrestling bout with another skater in which both of their body weights landed on her thigh.
“I had a bruise that — I’m not kidding — was a foot long and a foot wide. My entire leg was covered. I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s a merit badge. That’s cool,’” she said.
And, as Barrymore said, “there’s nothing better than a girl fight.”
But beyond the bruises, there is an aura about the derby that the cast wanted to capture.
“I’m looking at the crowd and there’s a yuppie couple and a grandma and grandpa of one of the derby girls and then like a 19-year-old alterna-boy,” Barrymore said. “I looked around and I thought that there’s no one who is not accepted in this arena for who they are, their ethnicity or their economics or their style. There was such an unjudgemental world and that’s a party I like to go to, and that’s what I wanted to show.”
And in that crowd, the girl wearing the jeans and the blazer felt like she belonged at the party, too.