Roller derby spotlights tough women

Many people have a difficult time accepting that women participate in contact sports. Perhaps because of that, female sports, especially those in the “contact” category, are rarely mentioned in media. When was the last time a newspaper had a feature on women’s lacrosse? How often does the WNBA appear on TV? Women’s soccer? Tackle football?

Derby dames · Though the 2009 film Whip It called attention to women’s roller derby, many L.A. teams keep the sport alive today. – | Photo courtesy of Jess Reynolds

Nevertheless, girls are joining contact sports teams in greater numbers. In the case of roller derby, they dominate. And with the L.A. Derby Dolls, the local league comprising five women’s teams, competing in their championship game this Saturday, it’s time to give attention to the sport.

Roller derby was at its most popular in the 1940s, when professional roller derby had upwards of five million viewers in over 50 U.S. cities. It soon became, however, more about entertainment than actual sport: Theatrics took precedence over sportsmanship, and the derby eventually faded away.

Then, in the 1990s, roller derby was reincarnated. Today, there are now a few male and mixed teams scattered throughout the country. Women, however, are still the main players.

The L.A. Derby Dolls consists of five all-female teams: Fight Crew, Sirens Roller Derby Squad, Tough Cookies, Varsity Brawlers and the all-star team, the LA Ri-Ettes. Founded in October 2003, it’s one of only 13 leagues that compete on a banked track, which offers players a unique challenge.

Laci Knight  (aka Lace N’ Arsenic), head coach of the LA Ri-ettes, head of the L.A. Derby Dolls Training Team and co-captain of the Varsity Brawlers, said, “I think women have become the primary players because it became something we could own and control. No other sport has ever been originated by women; it was men’s first and then women came in and started playing. This, however, became something that was ours first.”

Only about one decade old, the modern form of the sport is still in its amateur phase: It needs more time to perfect its rules and the game itself. Regardless, the sport is growing.

Alex Cohen, co-author of Down and Derby: The Insider’s Guide to Roller Derby, former L.A. Derby Doll skater and choreographer and consultant for the film Whip It, said, “I would say all skaters take the sport quite seriously, as professionals do. But most derby skaters care most about the sport and aren’t in it for the money, which is why so many thousands of women are happy to skate, even if it’s an amateur sport.”

Modern roller derby is often stereotyped as simply a violent race among punk rock girls. The reality of the game, however, is much more complicated. Each game, or bout, consists of multiple jams, or mini races, where the jammer — the designated point scorer — must lap around the opposing team. It is a multifaceted sport with an emphasis on teamwork and community with a do-it-yourself attitude.

Roller derby skated into pop culture with the 2009 film Whip It, which portrays a young teen finding her calling at a local derby league. Though the film was not completely accurate — mainly in respect to the rules and the number of teammates -— it still displays the emotion of the sport.

On such error includes the rules of the game. Each roller derby league has variations on the rules — The L.A. Derby Dolls their own 35-page rulebook — but despite these differences, details on legal and illegal moves often overlap. Even with a guidebook, roller derby is a contact sport, so injuries are inevitable and brutal. Certain moves, such as fighting, tripping and elbowing are always illegal. Additionally, the number of teammates on the bench is usually around 15, as opposed to the small number in the film.

Ignoring these technicalities, Whip It does a great job showing the dynamics of derby athletes.

“The film captures a lot about derby — the spirit, the camaraderie, the DIY aspect of the sport,” Cohen said.

Similar to the way the Hurl Scouts and Holy Rollers organize their bouts in Whip It, the leagues organize every facet of the sport themselves.

“We train ourselves, manage our bouts and run the league,” Knight said.

This DIY attitude no doubt stems from the third-wave feminist attitude often attributed to derby girls. In a nutshell, third wave feminism emphasizes the empowerment and equality of all women from all races and sexual identities. Most importantly, it doesn’t have one solid philosophy, keeping itself open to change as culture grows.

But the Derby Dolls  league also take a more direct route in spreading their female-empowerment philosophies. From raising money for the AIDS walk to hosting junior derby camps for young girls, the Derby Dolls give back to the L.A. community.

The junior derby focuses on female empowerment, physical fitness and teamwork. The weeklong camp not only trains the girls in the sport, but also gets them involved. The girls raised more than $2,000 for Los Angeles Children’s Hospital in a double-header fundraiser bout back in April 2011.

With the way the Derby Dolls members put their own spin on female empowerment and teach young girls the meaning of true athleticism, it’s clear that badass girls and women will be battling for victory for years to come.


The L.A. Derby Dolls compete at the Doll Factory. Doors will open at 6 p.m. for the championship game.