“I love that derby is utterly unprissy with an underground edge to it. It’s a very serious sport now—none of the fake fights like there used to be—but there’s still a sense of fun and bad behavior.” Jenni “Hella Gizella” Higginbotham
So you think just because you went to that girl’s roller rink party in third grade, you looked cool in the skates’ lace-up boots and you loved it, you’re qualified to be a Derby Girl?
Well, it’s possible—you could be. After about seven or eight months’ worth of dedicated hardcore practice.
We’re talkin’ virtual never-say-die roller warrior women, all ages, sizes and shapes, skating full maniac speed, gliding in and out of the pack in a hypnotic cobra dance, a whole string of teammates passing a skater hand to hand like she’s a baton, one skater screeching to a halt at a human wall, belligerently elbowing through, falling but right back up again and, crouched, running on the tips of her skates in long-legged lunges to catch up to the pack.
Derby girls never lose their signature sassy, gutsy audacity, a raucous knock-’em-down, nothin’-personal style, with infectious high spirits and humor. It’s gravity defying; it’s been dubbed “brutiful.” It’s Where the Wild Things Are—and they’re on eight wheels.
“From the sidelines, it can look like an aggressive sport,” says Santa Fe Disco Brawlers captain Angela “Killer Queen” Reece, “but, for the most part, the other skaters are like chess pieces to me. I very, very rarely look at the opponent as someone I don’t like or want to hurt. It’s more of an attitude of ‘that person is in my jammer’s way and I need to move her’ or ‘that jammer needs to be stopped.’ It’s such a mental game, and it changes from second to second.”
Newbie Jenni “Hella Gizella” Higginbotham, an artist working for a local fine art publisher, has been a Disco Brawler since last summer. She’s never previously played any sports. “The women in this league are so friendly and supportive—it really is an honor skating with them,” she says. “I showed up at my first practice in some terrible $40 skates, and they lent me the rest of the equipment I would need for the day. I love that derby is utterly unprissy with an underground edge to it. It’s a very serious sport now—none of the fake fights like there used to be—but there’s still a sense of fun and bad behavior.”
While roller derby doesn’t compromise its integrity for superficial entertainment value, Jenni explains, “there’s still an element of performance to the games. Many skaters wear uniforms with a punk rock aesthetic. There’s something rebellious about painting your face, wearing ripped up fishnets, some crazy hot pants, and careening into people on roller skates. At least, that’s what I plan on doing!”
The season goes March through October. During the winter, teams hone their skills and teach new recruits the basics. Angela, an event planner for a local catering company who’s starting her sixth year of skating, had to commute to Albuquerque when she first joined the Duke City Derby girls, formed in 2005. She loved it so much, she brought derby up to Santa Fe. Last year, the Brawlers won the league championship with only eight skaters (a normal roster can consist of up to 14).
“It was a brutal game,” Angela says, “but we came through it being a stronger team, knowing that we can really work together. That’s the reason why we won.” Her goal is to bring them another championship—“and more than eight skaters on the team!”
Derby teams typically practice a daunting six hours a week or more. “It can be a lot,” Angela admits. “But! I’m in the best shape now that I’ve ever been in my life. One of my most favorite things about derby is it’s so challenging. It’s helping motivate me to cross train so I can reach my full potential.”
Everybody at a recent Monday night practice is wearing ultimate protection: knee and elbow pads, wrist and mouth guards, helmets, and flashes of fluorescent-colored duct tape wrapped around their boots. They’re dressed in shorts, skirts, leotards, you name it; piercings and in-your-face tattoos are rampant. As everybody slowly stretches the kinks out during warm-up, there’s lots of laughter and a barrage of banter (“This better give me a butt!” “I’ll be 43 tomorrow—remind me again why I do this?!”). Throughout the nonstop two hours, no one ever loses that kidlike good cheer.
In fact, mid-way through, as the coach whips them into further frenzy and it seems as if all reserves of energy must surely by now be spent, the skaters are inspired beyond the beyond-beyond by one fanatic visitor from the Taos Whiplashes. With short, cowlicky hair and an almost lunatic focus, this Peppermint Patty–like skater literally launches herself faster and faster around the ring, glancing back over her shoulder at her sisters, a glint of joyous abandon in her eyes, as if exhorting them all to follow in hurtling themselves off a cliff. I’m suddenly reminded of this plaque a friend gave me: “Be reckless in the expression of your ideal and it will never betray you.” This x-treme depth of aliveness, foreign to most mortals, is absolutely, charismatically compelling. Reckless is a good thing? Hell, yeah!
Not surprisingly, there’s always a risk of danger—skaters can get teeth knocked out, thumbs broken and worse. But no fighting is allowed, there’s always a minimum of six referees on the track at all times during games, and they have no hesitation about sending miscreants to the penalty box.
To join the team, you have to pass a skills test that includes memorizing 40 pages of rules. Asked to provide a derby-for-dummies version, Angela says, “We skate in a pack around the track. The jammers, one from each team, have to pass through the pack a first time.” This is when opposite team members link together in pairs and groups, forming walls to block the other team’s jammer. “After they’ve passed through the pack, then lapped it, every skater the jammers pass from the other team is one point. They can keep lapping the pack, or trying, for up to two minutes of the jam.”
Besides the Ho-Bots, Dooms Dames and DIA (Derby Intelligence Agency) in Albuquerque, the Taos Whiplashes and Santa Fe’s Disco Brawlers, there’s a traveling team, the Munecas Muertas, made up of members of these five teams. Their jammer is “HBomb,” aka Heidi Romanshek, who began in 2004 as a blocker with the Minnesota Rollergirls. When she took a several year break from derby to become a massage therapist, she missed it terribly: “I even cried.” She loves the instant community that forms among the players and the opportunities to meet adults outside of work or school. “Duke City Derby has a reputation for being scrappy, independent, tough and thriving on few resources. We train in some pretty tough conditions—on a concrete basketball court outside in January at high altitude. That gives us a competitive edge, in my opinion.”
“My team is the best,” says Angela, about the Disco Brawlers. “We have minimal to no drama and we all respect and really like each other. I consider my teammates to be my family. I would do anything for them.”
Whiplashes’ Luz “Ruca de Reckless” Peralta-Pino, Forest Service employee and mother of two, started skating about a year ago. “My 10-year-old daughter adores what we do. She wants us to start a kids’ junior league up here!”
Undeniably, the biggest confirmation of roller derby’s appeal comes from one young player who keeps sidelining herself during practice. “I just had my tonsils out,” she explains. “I’m not supposed to do any physical activity for two weeks. But,” she grins, coughing as she heads back to the floor, “I can’t help myself. I gotta skate!”
Story by Gail Snyder
photos by Kate Russell