In recent months, I've been making trips to watch the Carolina Rollergirls. While roller derby has begun to go mainstream—indeed, a city without a roller derby club is a city falling behind the times—I wanted to find out more about the culture and technique of women's flat track roller derby. The Carolina Rollergirls is a club with two teams: the elite All-Stars and the Bootleggers, a squad of up-and-coming players.
Last month's game between the Carolina All-Stars and Montreal's New Skids on the Block was the first-ever international match for the Rollergirls. Their first international victory will have to wait, though, as the Canadian visitors won by an astounding score of 135-29.
The run of play is complex, but the teams are composed of five players each, with four assigned as defenders. These four circle the track in a pack, while each team's outlier, or "jammer," is charged with pursuing and fighting through the other team's defenders. Points are tallied for each defender passed. The winning combination seems to be the union of speed, stealthy footwork and a good defense, and as I watched this match unfold it got me wondering about the alchemy of the sport itself.
Maybe the first thing you notice about a Rollergirl—and certainly one of the most iconic elements of derby in general—is the tights. They may be fishnets, they may sport skulls and crossbones, they may be glittery or animal print, but they are almost certainly ripped.
A novice to derby might assume that the wearer ripped her tights intentionally to add a rough-and-tumble je ne sais quoi to her ensemble. This could not be further from the truth. Tights are protection, and the goal is to keep them whole as long as possible—and that isn't very long.
There's even a strategy for how to wear those holes. Since you're more likely to fall on your left side in the counterclockwise circumnavigation of the track, acquiring holes on the left side is counteracted by flipping your tights around. Putting tights on backward moves intact fabric to the left side, protecting scraped skin and shifting vulnerabilities to a less threatened location. As you might expect, girls on the team compare notes about where to buy tights and which tights to buy; but it's not because they found a killer pattern and they want to match, it's to get tights that withstand the strain and that run as little as possible once they've taken a trip across the surface of the track.
Derby is a complex sport, but the names are easy to grasp. Mostly sinister, often retro, always clever, a Derby name is a point of pride. When you look at the roster on the Carolina Rollergirls' website, it is easy to be impressed by how many entendres will fit on the back of one jersey. Names like Celia Fate and Trudy Struction can inspire you to come up with your own derby moniker. Even the referees have derby names.
Be creative and beware—a derby name is an identity, and these girls don't share. That means there is a master roster (www.twoevils.org/rollergirls) of all roller derby names in use—currently totaling 19,498—complete with rights associated with each name and rules for how to add new ones. Spellings or pronunciations that are too close to existing names are rejected. The roster is even outfitted with a search tool that lets you check a name's uniqueness. This makes picking a name part of the rite of passage of joining a derby team.
After the match, I met a skater named A. Fox, one of the newly recruited skaters from January's open tryouts, and she turns out to be the perfect person to tell me about a new trend in derby alias selection—using your real name. While she happens to have a name that already lends itself perfectly to derby, she says going without a nom de wheels is gaining in popularity. Her take: It may be a matter of staking a claim to the legitimacy of the sport itself.
This ain't no skate in the park. The Carolina Rollergirls take their sport seriously. For some, derby is their life; for others, derby is their "other" life. For all, their involvement signifies a serious commitment. The list of skills it takes to try out is intimidating: crossovers, jump turns, a speed test and squats (on skates, of course). Even then, some of the new additions to the team get there only after repeated trips to tryouts.
Once you are a Rollergirl, there's still no telling how long it may be before you can compete as a Carolina Bootlegger or a Carolina All-Star, the Rollergirls' two interleague teams. The All-Stars are the elite squad, a 20-member subset of the more than 60 active Rollergirls. To be an All-Star, you have to meet a number of skills criteria and you must be a familiar face. Ten practices per month is the minimum required, although with five practices per week (totaling 7.5 hours) there are many opportunities to make it happen.
Once you've secured your spot, you've got to hold on to it. The rosters are reviewed regularly, and All-Stars have to make the grade every time, helping the Rollergirls put their best skate forward against opponents who are becoming more and more competitive in the growing realm of derby.
Fans going to see the Rollergirls for the first time may get more than they bargained for. Due to the open floor format in Dorton Arena, there is plenty of room to sit trackside, close enough to the action that if sparks flew from the wheels of passing skaters, they would set your T-shirt on fire.
As with an honest-to-goodness roller coaster, there is a warning in the program that pregnant women and those under the age of 18 cannot sit in the front row. Everyone else should try viewing the game from this vantage. For the squeamish, it may be advisable to move back far enough that the crack of bones or the snap of tendons isn't clearly audible, because chances are it's going to happen at least once during the night.
The Rollergirls have a fervent fan base. Handmade signs, black and red pom-poms and derby-themed outfits abound. Audience members always get the chance to participate in their own high jinks—halftimes and breaks between games are opportunities for events like the hot wing-eating contest that occurred last month. A tie for first place resulted in an impromptu settlement by arm wrestling, the strongest man leaving the track with a full belly and a gift certificate.
The antics and the athletes unite after the match. Whether you were being chased around the arena by a man in a bacon costume, or on the rink getting leveled by Deviled Legs, everybody's bringing sexy back once they pull up a beer and a corner on the dance floor. After the bout, the Berkeley Cafe in downtown Raleigh went from empty to instant party as Bootleggers, All-Stars and their victorious Canadian opponents filed in. You can tell a derby lady at an after-party because even if she's changed out of her fishnets and jersey, she'll still have her number written in grease pen just below her deltoids—if you can make it out on top of the tattoo, that is.
One truth about the women of roller derby is that they love to talk derby. It's not hard to learn about the intricacies of the sport and the culture from women who love what they do and have fun telling you about it.
Anybody drawn to a pastime this physical can't stay still for too long though, and before you know it, the dancing starts. Dancing Rollergirl-style is bound to have its own flair, and it didn't take long for a circle to form on the dance floor around Princess America, one of the All-Stars' MVPs of the night, as she dropped to the floor to do one-armed pushups. The mixture of fierceness and camaraderie is essential to this squad, which is why watching the Rollergirls may even come close to the fun of being one.