Talk Derby to Me

I was skeptical when a girlfriend insisted I go to a roller derby bout.  I imagined it to be like WWF on skates: loud, tacky and above all staged, with rough looking half-naked women putting on a display for the sole amusement of drunken men.  I thought it was anti-women, and I put it off for as long as I could.

When I finally gave in and went to a bout she gave me the “I told you so” look: I was mesmerized.  All of my impressions had been wrong in the best possible ways.

Hell Marys vs. The Hustlers 2011

Hell Marys vs. The Hustlers 2011. © Felicia Graham Photography.

Okay, it was loud, that impression was accurate.  It wasn’t tacky, though.  Tacky implies that you’re the unwitting target of ridicule or a joke. Roller derby was in on the joke, and made you laugh at YOU for being such a judgmental prude.  Roller derby didn’t try to be Wimbledon on wheels: it embraced the campy.  If it wasn’t the outfits, it was the skater names, like Miss Conduct or Punky Bruiser.  Then there were the fans: many looked like regular people you’d see on the street, but just as many were decorated with tattoo sleeves or multiple piercings.  I saw mohawks and shaved heads, and the men looked unconventional, too.

 Hotrod Voodoo Doll 2011

Voodoo Doll, Hotrod Honey 2011 © Nadia Caffresse – Full Tilt Photography

There was a lot for this chick from Mr. Roger’s neighborhood to gawk at.  But once the bout started the rest of it became background noise, because all I could watch were the skaters: they were awe-inspiring.  They weren’t bimbos; they were athletes.  Or maybe some were both, but that was the most appealing part: they were strong and tough and aggressive, and yet they didn’t sacrifice any of their femininity.  I’d never seen a sport that fully embraced both the athlete and the woman at the same time.  And there wasn’t a single body type that excelled at the sport: I saw every possible shape out there and all were equally effective.

I left excited and inspired, and thinking there was no way I could ever do what those women did.  I hadn’t even skated in nearly 15 years!  Six months later I’m at open tryouts for TXRD, the banked track roller derby league in town.  I made the first cut and spent the next 30 days being terrified and exhilarated twice a week.  I learned to fall properly, how to hit, where to do crossovers on the track to gain maximum speed, and how to use the track’s banked angles to your advantage.  Unfortunately, I also tore my left shoulder in a rather unremarkable way when practicing falls. (This was largely due to my own lack of physical conditioning.)  Still, I kept practicing because I didn’t want to get cut: I wanted to be like those women I saw skating at my very first bout.

I got cut. This was a good thing, because it allowed me time to have surgery on my shoulder and also to find my true love: Texas Rollergirls Flat Track Roller Derby.  About a year after my failed attempt on the banked track, a girlfriend told me that Texas Rollergirls was starting a recreational league.  I had written off my skating ambitions, but I showed up for a practice anyway and got hooked all over again.  This was different: it was a flat track at a roller rink.  There were no banks to use for gaining speed, it was all you (or a push or whip from a teammate).  The skaters training us were legends: Rice Rocket, Derringer, and Sparkle Plenty.

Hotrod Honeys vs. Honkytonk Heartbreakers 2011

Hotrod Honeys vs. Honkytonk Heartbreakers 2011. © Nadia Caffresse – Full Tilt Photography

I skated in the recreational league for two seasons, and met some of the most amazing and talented women I’ve ever known.  They were nurses, accountants, teachers, entrepreneurs, retired skaters, you name it, all ages and sizes and backgrounds.  The moms in the rec league arranged for a group sitter on-site so they didn’t have to sacrifice cherished skate time due to child care concerns. That’s the other beautiful thing about roller derby: there’s no “type”.  We were all just woman who wanted to push ourselves and see what we were really made of.

Texas Rollergirls Recreational League 2007

Texas Rollergirls Recreational League 2007. Photo by Amy Wood.

Eventually some of us opted to try out for the “big league” and become Texas Rollergirls.  The tryouts were nerve-wracking and the probationary practices grueling, but I was fortunate enough to make the final cut. I was a Texas Rollergirl on the Hell Marys!  I couldn’t have been more thrilled: some of my heroes had skated on that team (and continue to do so).  I got to skate with women like Muffin Tumble, Lady X and Bloody Mary.  I busted my butt (often literally) to acquire the requisite athleticism needed to compete at that level.  There was a Skater Code of Conduct and the ever-evolving official rule set to memorize.  I also learned how much work it takes to make a league successful from a business standpoint: it’s 100% run by the skaters and that means everyone has a job.

The author and Hell Marys 2009-2010 Season. Photos © Bill Smotrilla.

The author and Hell Marys 2009-2010 Season. Photos © Bill Smotrilla.

For 4 years I had a front-row seat to watching this sport evolve, and it still gives me chills. WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association) really came into its own as the governing body.  My league helped more than a few budding leagues get started across the U.S by leading bootcamps, helping them come up with training drills, and outline a business structure.  Leagues were popping up across the pond, too!  That’s the best part about derby: you might be competitors for a few hours one day, but we’re all skaters at the end of the day.  I routinely saw women battling it out on the track and sharing a beer after the bout.

 Texas Rollergirls 2011 Season

Texas Rollergirls 2011 Season. Lower right © Bill Smotrilla, others © Nadia Caffresse – Full Tilt Photography

I retired in 2010, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.  Around this time of year I get nostalgic: this weekend is the WFTDA Championships, “Continental Divide and Conquer” hosted by the Denver Roller Dolls in Broomfield, Colorado.  Championships is always an amazing spectacle of the best skater athletes anywhere, and the smartest derby you could hope to see.  Watching these teams compete is like watching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution with skates strapped on: it changes how derby is played every year and forces everyone to adapt or die.  The Texas Rollergirls all-star team Texecutioners took first place in the 2011 South Central Regionals, and now they’re going to be taking on teams from other regions across the U.S. to determine who wins it all!

 2011 Texas Rollergirls Texecutioners

2011 Texas Rollergirls Texecutioners. © Jules Doyle – Type2BPhoto

Texecutioners Watch Party flyer

I highly encourage everyone to check it out online, or better yet, join some of the skaters at Black Sheep Lodge to watch all the Texie games from a live, high quality feed! The first Texie game will start at 10:30am on Saturday, Nov. 12, and they’ll be taking on the winner of the Minnesota v. Charm City game.

It will change your life in all the best ways if you let it!

2 thoughts on “Talk Derby to Me

  1. Jesse

    I was at the Art car parade in Houston when I saw these girls skating by passing out leaflets for roller derby. I thought to myself yea if you go people will think your a pervert just there to see the girls in skimpy outfits.But seeing these women give it their all to put on a good show and not getting paid , is refreshing.I love the energy generated and freedom of expression. Sports and artsy display, what a nice combo. I could not get enough and travel to Austin when I can to watch roller derby as well
    . Hoping to see Baby Face in action next season with Hell Marys. Roller Derby girls everywhere you are a turn on , I will be cheering the Texas teams on and hopefully in Austin on saturday.


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