The Derby Dolls at Skylight Books

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Axles of Evil and Kasey Bomber, two of the leading members of L.A.’s roller derby league the Derby Dolls, brought extra splash and pizzaz to their Monday night reading at Skylight Books. Their book “Down and Derby: the Insiders Guide to Roller Derby,” which officially hits shelves Aug. 3, is part manifesto, part invitation.

The co-authors -- known in their everyday lives as Alex Cohen and Jennifer Barbee -- brought along a video projector and showed slides and videos of roller derby in action. Because while reading about the funky nicknames, the up-and-down history and on-track anecdotes is certainly fun, it doesn’t pack quite the same punch as watching roller derby in action.


Please note: from what I know of roller derby, which is admittedly very little, punching is not allowed. Not that it doesn’t happen, but it means a judge will send the offender to the penalty box.

In today’s roller derby, women, in campy, skimpy costumes, race around a wooden track at top speeds, slamming into one another. For fun.

I had expected to find the bookstore packed with women who were both cooler than me and who could kick my butt. And they were, and no doubt could. But that same anxiety -- that roller derby was too cool or tattooed or Suicide Girls or tough or exclusionary -- was something both Cohen and Barbee feared before joining up with the L.A. league in 2003, in its earliest days. Yet both said again and again that what they found instead was community, and that the community was one of the most important things to them about roller derby. The regular applause, laughter and nods of agreement from the very full room indicated that their friends and fans agreed.

At Skylight Books, the crowd was equally split between the men who love them and Derby Dolls themselves -- although since none were dolled up, they had a hard time recognizing one another. The derby-skating audience included novelists Pamela Ribon and Ernessa T. Carter.

Contemporary roller derby got rolling in 2001 in Austin, Texas, and now can be found in almost all major cities. Cohen, who is a KPCC radio host and was once a radio reporter, did a story on the Austin roller derby league and knew she’d found her tribe. “They were skating, they were sexy, they were beating the crap out of each other,” rhapsodized the 5-foot-2 Cohen.

At first, Cohen and Barbee imagined writing an Idiot’s Guide to Roller Derby, but a literary agent told Cohen that they should do a “celebration book” instead. At first, she balked, finding the idea too feel-good, “kind of antithetical to everything we do in Derby that’s raw and aggressive.” Barbee, too, emphasized that the sport -- which is physically demanding, if not brutal -- allows women to be aggressive, in a good way.


Cohen and Barbee, who both served as consultants on the roller derby movie “Whip It,” will be making additional appearances up and down the West Coast and in Minneapolis for “Down and Derby.” And you might also catch them at the next Derby Dolls match, on Aug. 28 at the Doll Factory in Los Angeles.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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