Back on a roll in L.A. with Derby Dolls
The hipsters have taken to calling it “Hi-Fi,” but long stretches of Historic Filipinotown are quiet after dark. Even on a Saturday night, the only sound is the purr of the cars passing overhead on the 101; the only action is an old man pushing a shopping cart, a child’s pinwheel stuck in the end of his bedroll.
You’ve been told this is the place, so you turn in, off Temple Street. There is no sign. It’s a dingy warehouse where they used to manufacture ice cream cones; now it’s choked with graffiti and encircled with shredded tarps. Step inside, though, and there’s little question you’re in the right spot. The first thing you see, after all, is a glorious, mirrored disco ball hanging from the rafters, in the shape of a roller skate.
The crowd, in overalls and bustiers, some with purple hair, some with no hair at all, is feverish. It’s so loud you can barely hear yourself drink. One woman is in a full Mardi Gras headdress; her date is wearing a Cookie Monster costume. The VIP section is cordoned off with yellow police tape.
The heroes here are all women. Their uniforms are ripped stockings and knee socks. Their names are Eva Destruction and Tara Armov. Their passion is roller derby, which -- long after being swept into the dustbin of kitsch, alongside Evel Knievel and that movie where Clint Eastwood is pals with an orangutan -- is back.
Riding a national resurgence, the L.A. Derby Dolls have been building momentum since holding their first event in 2004. The league has held its events on a roof in Chinatown and inside a mall in Little Tokyo but exploded in popularity after moving into this warehouse, northwest of downtown Los Angeles, in October.
The move doubled the crowd capacity to about 1,700, and every event held here since -- there is a match every month or so -- has sold out, said one of the founders, league president Rebecca “Demolicious” Ninburg.
“At some point it’s like: Who wants to go watch a bunch of millionaires? The crowd can relate to us,” said Else “Evil E” Duff, 38, who recently became the match announcer after breaking her ankle while playing. “Tomorrow, all these girls will be back here cleaning up. When you put your heart and soul into something, it shows.”
The Dolls are one of the best-known of the 275 or so roller derby leagues that have sprung up around the country in the last few years, but like virtually all of them, this one was founded on gritty, do-it-yourself spirit.
Ninburg, 38, recently quit her job as a film industry sculptor and became the league’s only full-time employee. Most of the athletes -- about 60 women on four teams, with another 60 waiting in the wings, known as “fresh meat” -- pay dues to participate. Several point, with considerable pride, to the spot where their blood stained the banked, Masonite track that they helped build from scratch.
The athletes are required to carry their own insurance, and they need it.
Roller derby is basically a race carried out on an oval track; two “jammers” try to outpace each other while fighting through a rolling, hip-checking scrum of “blockers.” Top skaters can reach speeds topping 30 mph and can do a lap in five seconds.
The result, according to chiropractor Rick Fox, a faculty member at the Southern California University of Health Sciences in Whittier and the league doctor: “Broken bones. Gashes. Concussions. Dislocated shoulders. Blown-out knees.”
The game can turn violent even during practice; one recent night a player was run over in a pileup and was left crumpled on her hands and knees at the center of the track. No one seemed to give her much thought.
“In one night two months ago we had a bruised liver and a possible fractured spine,” Fox said. “They get knocked on their ass. And they love it.”
Like the players, Fox is a volunteer. “It’s a labor of love,” he said. “I figure if they can donate their time and deal with the bumps and the bruises, I can donate my time to help put them back together.”
Back in the day, roller derby was little more than a show, with predetermined soap opera plots akin to professional wrestling. Today’s version still comes with the nutty outfits and stage personae, but participants are hard-core athletes. Practices routinely stretch into the wee hours, run by drill sergeants who order up grueling drills of push-ups, leg lifts and distance skates.
Partly as a result, today’s players are an unusual blend of feminism and punk, raw strength and campy theater. It is a game of strategy too, and many of the over-the-top track characters belie the athletes’ meek and highly accomplished real lives.
By day, for instance, Alex Cohen is a well-known voice on National Public Radio; by night, she straps on her skates and becomes “Axles of Evil.” “Killo Kitty” is a mother of five. “Broadzilla” is a mom too; she is also, according to her official bio, “armed to the teeth with lipstick and thermonuclear sass.” “Judy Gloom” is a librarian. “Paris Killton” is getting her doctorate in chemistry. There is one current member of the military and one veteran.
At the end of another practice, Sheila “Haught Wheels” Noonen, 31, took off her helmet to reveal a sweaty, pink bandanna atop a thick braid of hair. She’d just spent hours racing around the track, maneuvering through blockers and checking people into the rails. She was heading home that night to continue writing the curriculum for a new advanced literature class at Huntington Park High, where she is a teacher.
“This,” she said with a smile, “is just a very, very good use of one’s time.”
The niche of modern roller derby is divided between a smattering of banked-track leagues like this one and a larger group of flat-track leagues that typically play in roller rinks or even by marking out an oval course on concrete with tape.
Proving that nothing is simple, neither league seems to think much of the other; banked-trackers think of themselves as traditionalists but are sometimes seen as elitists because they draw fans and occasional acclaim. Flat-trackers, meanwhile, know that their skills have been called into question because without any banks in their curves, their game is far slower.
On June 28 and 29, their worlds will clash. The Dolls are hosting “The Battle on the Bank,” an invitational that will include all-stars from across the nation -- “the Kobe Bryants of every flat-track league,” Ninburg said. (Tickets and information can be found at https://derbydolls.com/la)
“We’ll find out where we stand,” Ninburg said at practice the other day. Then she leaned in, conspiratorially, and added: “But I think we’re pretty darn good.”
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