story: Mellissa Gulden photos courtesy of Redding Rollergirls
REDDING ROLLER GIRLS ELBOW THEIR WAY IN AS A LEGITIMATE SPORT
Don’t let ‘em fool ya. Behind the body-baring outfits, pink fishnets and tattoos are mothers, wives, business owners and nurses.
These women all share a common passion: Roller derby. No longer the choreographed flying clotheslines and cartoonish body slams, the all-female roller derby renaissance is gaining steam — now as sport, not spectacle.
In its earlier incarnation, which started in the mid-1930s and had all but petered out by the early 1970s, roller derby featured teams of professional skaters, men and women, whose races along a banked track were leavened by pratfalls and punch-ups.
Then, about seven years ago, roller derby resurfaced in Texas as an amateur, women-only game, played on flat surfaces where a track could be laid out with little more than a roll of tape. Participants took stage names and wore miniskirts and fishnet stockings, adding a campy sexuality to the violent theatrics of old. Today more than 15,000 skaters compete in more than 300 flat-track leagues. About 250 grassroots roller derby leagues now compete on rinks and basketball courts from coast to coast, according to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). Statistically, it’s the fastest-growing sport in the United States, which has only made the sport more competitive.
Recently finished with their second season, the North State’s own Redding Roller Girls are always recruiting strong females. Skating expertise is not a prerequisite, but passion for the game and a good attitude are. According to team manager and co-founder Marie Lopez, aka “Ophelia Ballz,” skill can come later. “We want strong, empowered team players, good role models with good attitudes. We’re trying to create a more positive image.”
Unlike professional hockey players, the vast majority of roller derby participants are unpaid. Most actually spend money on the sport – they purchase their own equipment and pay monthly dues to support their leagues. Teams usually practice several times a week, and injuries are common.
Lopez had been commuting to Chico twice a week to compete with the Nor Cal Roller Girls when finally, she decided Redding needed its own league. Erica Waters, aka “Alotta Patron,” has been a member of the team for nearly a year. “This is the sport I’ve been looking for – nothing else ever felt right.” For Waters, it is a personal challenge. “You find out how tough you really are. And when you see something that’s right, you know. You feel it in your gut.”
HOW IT WORKS Brandishing helmets, elbow pads and surly attitudes, five skaters per team race in circles around a track, trying to knock enemy Jammers and Blockers on their butts. It’s like football on skates – you need to knock down your opponents because every time they pass you in the rink, they score a point.
Obviously, some skating experience helps, but these ladies say a skill can be taught. “You have to have the heart. You have to want to do it,” says Waters. And these women certainly have the heart. They even give a portion of profits back to the community. (They will host a fundraiser for Breast Impressions in May, and they often contribute to the Make-A-Wish Foundation).
As for the spectacle? Skaters still wear skimpy costumes, adopt bombastic derby names – Vanity Kills, Sin Sational – and exhibit elbow-throwing, Type A-personality aggression typically frowned upon by mainstream society. “When you put your skates on, you can be whoever you want to be,” says Lopez. “That’s part of the fun.”
However, the Redding Roller Girls have strived to make roller derby a more family-friendly event, adding halftime games for grandparents and children alike. “We keep it very clean,” says Lopez, “and safety is always first.” To keep the game from being chaotic, the girls do safety drills and practice maneuvering in tight spaces. Also, the WFTDA serves as the sport’s sanctioning body, conducting national championships and publishing a meticulous 27-page rulebook.
“This is not your grandmother’s roller derby,” says Lopez. “It may not get the attention that other sports get, but it’s definitely making a comeback.” Part of the struggle has been debunking the myths that it is staged, like the WWE. “It is a sport,” says Lopez. “These girls do get hurt, and they take it very seriously.” •
REDDING ROLLER GIRLS You can catch the Redding Roller Girls’ season opener on March 27 at Big League Dreams. Tickets are available for $12 at the door, or $10 at Fusion Pit on Churn Creek Road, at the Big League Dreams box office, or online at brownpapertickets.com.