It’s a Saturday night in a neighborhood just west of downtown L.A. known as Historic Filipinotown or Hi-Fi. Nearly two-thousand fans have traveled to a fifty-five thousand square foot warehouse that once cranked out ice-cream cones—a place affectionately dubbed The Doll Factory. This is the home of the Los Angeles Derby Dolls—the city’s all-girl, banked track, quad skate roller derby league.
Outside in the parking lot, gals in a red, yellow, and blue Hot Dog on a Stick Truck sell corn dogs and lemonade. A local pizza parlor dishes out slices, as a ska/punk band plays on a makeshift stage underneath a canopy of tall palm trees.
Among this crowd is just about every type of person you could hope to meet in southern California. Heavily tattooed biker boys and hipster girls with bright blue hair mingle with grandmas in wheelchairs and young high-powered Hollywood types. There are die-hard muscle-bound sports fans and folks so un-athletically inclined they’d likely guess Yogi Berra was a cartoon character.
Stepping inside The Doll Factory is almost like that first color frame in the “Wizard of Oz”—where Dorothy finds herself transported to a marvelous world of Technicolor fantasy. Derby Dolls, are everywhere—working the door, selling merch, wandering through the bleachers with raffle tickets. True to their name, many of these women are dolled up—in team uniforms or other costumes, in bustiers and hot pants, in wigs or face paint. There is no shortage of fishnet stockings.
As a DJ plays thumping electro-punk in the background, vendors hawk necklaces made out of old soda caps, paintings of pin-up girls with skulls for faces, and t-shirts that read “I’m Not Gay, But My Derby Wife Is.” Bartenders do brisk sales out of rolling coolers filled with tall cans of Tecate beer, all bathed in the pink light of a four-foot tall roller skate made of neon that hangs on the wall.
Suddenly, the lights dim and everyone flocks to track, a beautiful one hundred by sixty foot wooden beast designed and built by skaters, friends, and family. It’s shaped like the sort of track you likely ran on in school, but in this case the outer edges have been raised anywhere between three and five feet and propped up by a series of vertical rails and posts.
Fans crowd around every inch of the track and fill up bleachers and stands on all sides of it. Perched in a corner high above the track is a booth where two announcers introduce the two teams skating. On this night, the police-themed Sirens are facing off against the team that pays tongue-in-cheek homage to the Girl Scouts, the Tough Cookies.
The Sirens are dressed in dark blue skin-tight numbers no LAPD officer would dream of wearing while on patrol. The Tough Cookies are clad in short pleated skirts and button-down uniform shirts adorned with badges for busting heads and breaking hearts.
Skaters have names like Paris Killton and Feara Nightly, Gori Spelling and Venus D’Mauler. They’re fully covered in protective gear: helmets, mouth guards, elbow pads, wrist guards, knee pads . . . some even wear shin guards. They all move on roller skates as if they were born with wheels on their feet.
The crowd stands for the national anthem. At The Doll Factory, the “Star Spangled Banner” has been performed by everyone from celebrity transgender Alexis Arquette to a band of female kazoo players to Gene Simmons. Tonight it’s an adorable local singernamed Audra Mae with a sparkly smile and a voice like velvet. She belts the patriotic tune out like a modern day Bessie Smith.
By the time we get to “and the hoooooooooooooooome of the braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaave” the crowd is bouncing with excitement. The announcer, Evil E, ducks her head down to the microphone and asks the crowd, “Are you ready . . . for . . . roller derby action?” The audience explodes with wild screams as the moment they’ve all been waiting for finally arrives. Game on.
On a stretch of the track about six feet long, eight women—four from each team—position themselves in a group. They’re crouched low, eyeing each other malevolently, bodies pressed together tightly—as if they’re in an elevator built to fit only four. A whistle blows, and they take off together. As they skate, they slam their bodies against their opponents trying to knock each other over. This fierce and violent throng of women is called a pack.
Moments later, a second whistle blows and two skaters poised behind the pack take off in a quick sprint. These skaters are the point scorers called jammers. The jammers charge toward the pack and do their best to skate through it. They try to juke and jive past hip-checks and through human walls of skaters lined shoulder to shoulder. Once the jammers make it out of the pack, they race around the track and approach the pack again—this time for points.
A jammer earns a point for each member of the opposite team she skates by after the first pass. That’s why skaters in the pack try desperately to beat the living crap out of the jammer from the opposing team. They’ll do just about anything to make sure she doesn’t pick up any points. There are huge wallops, big spills, pile-ups, and collisions that make hockey look as tame as a round of nursing home shuffleboard.
And, there are points scored. Without any balls, bats, sticks, or nets, bouts are won and lost by the ability of women to pass each other on the track. Each time a jammer scores, the crowd goes insane.
At this Sirens/Cookies game, tension quickly mounts as each team takes turns eking out a small lead over the other. Finally, with just twenty-six seconds left on the clock, the Sirens are leading with a score of fifty-one to forty-eight. A guy dressed in a full body Cookie Monster suit runs back and forth in front of the bleachers—desperately trying to rally fans of his beloved namesake team.
And then, in the last few seconds of the game, the Tough Cookies pull it off, scoring enough points to win the game. The crowd rushes in, arms outstretched over the lip of the track, offering high-fives to skaters taking victory laps. The Sirens take a few laps too and the crowd is just as excited to cheer them on despite their defeat.
Afterwards, skaters exit the track to give sweaty hugs to friends, family, and fans. Then it’s off to the bar for the after-party where derby girls prove they take their celebrating just as seriously as they do their skating.
This is the sport of roller derby.