USA: LA Derby Dolls: Super heroines of Historic Filipinotown

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Words and photos by Dionesio C. Grava

Some said she was going 25-plus mph easy. I thought it could have been faster, the image a blur as the demon jammer whizzed by. Didn’t get her name but who does. Everyone of them are aliases, names like Smarty Pants, Haught Wheels, Windy City Rollers and so on and so forth.

Basically it’s badass girls in hot pants and colored shirts uniform plowing through other badass girls of a different uniform. A fastpaced action initiated by jammers jamming to score points while the blockers block. How simple can that be? Contact sports? Go see football and the likes. What we have here is collision sports. One can just imagine the sores and aches and occasional bruises. Most amazing, they’re all chicks!

Actually the players appeared to be enjoying in what they were doing — falls and all. And the tightly packed crowd roared their loudest at every hit and spill, many obviously helped along by the abundance of beer in the vicinity. An abundance of security personnel was also around just in case. The venue: The Doll Factory located just a stone throw from the FACLA building in Historic Filipinotown.

The encounter evening of March 10 was billed as a special exhibition bout between the Los Angeles Derby Dolls (LADD) and their perennial opponents, the San Diego Derby Dolls (SDDD). If it was an exhibition bout, I shudder at the thought of the real thing. LADD was hosting its four-day 3rd Annual March Radness Training
Camp. Lucky camp attendees were to be selected to earn a skating spot on either team. A new player is called raw meat. A new player is called raw meat and that speaks much of the sport.

In that game the LA Derbies were looking to avenge two previous losses. They didn’t disappoint. The visitors were bullied into submission, 134 – 115. Disappointing, too, was the fact that only small point-and-shoot cameras are allowed inside. As a result photos taken and used here are less than respectable.

A Resurgence

Like me, perhaps, most people have never witnessed roller derby games before. I’ve heard that the Raquel Welch movie Kansas City Bomber was about it. There was also the Hell on Wheels, said to be the true tale of an all-girl roller derby league in Texas. And there’s the recent Whip It! starring Ellen Page and Drew Barrymore.

According to the authoritative Derby News Network, “in the 1930s up through the 1950s and later, classic roller derby was a basically legit and very popular sport. Through the 60s and into the 70s, theatricality and predetermined outcomes became more prevalent.”

Its philosophy then was spectacle over sport just like pro wrestling. The game faded from popular consciousness in 1973 and attempts to revive the sport in the 80’s and 90’s failed. In 2001 it got a second leash of life — the term used was reinvented — in Austin, Texas. The fakery and choreography of old were dropped and real contact became the in thing using consistent and enforced rules, safety standards and tournament structure of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA).

Scott Gold, writing in the Los Angeles Times, reinforced that observation. Today’s version, he said, “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.”

Today, roller derby is said to be the most rapidly growing sport with over 500 women’s leagues in 16 countries (all over North America, to Europe, Australia, and Brazil).

The game can turn violent even during practice, it was said. And I thought of that hurling mass of feminine beauty employing the force of velocity to crash through the opposition trying to retard her progress. In the Times story, Rick Fox, a chiropractor who is in the faculty at the Southern California University of Health Sciences and the league doctor of LA Derby Dolls, is quoted: “Broken bones. Gashes. Concussions. Dislocated shoulders. Blown-out knees. In one night two months ago we had a bruised liver and a possible fractured spine. They get knocked on their ass. And they love it.”

How It’s Played

According to DNN, players on quad roller skates skate counter clockwise around an oval track. Games, referred to as bouts, consist of two 30-minute periods. Each period is divided into 2-minute long jams. Teams can have five players on the track during each jam consisting of a pivot, jammer and three blockers.

Pivots wear a striped helmet cover and skate at the front of the pack; they set the pace and are the last line of defense. Blockers work to keep the pack in a tight formation as they work to defend the opposing team’s jammer while also trying to assist their jammer through the pack safely. They are largely responsible for the constant contact as they engage in checks and bumps. Jammers wear the star helmet cover and are positioned at the back of the pack. It is their job to work through the pack to score points by passing the opposing team’s skaters.

A jam starts when the referee blows the whistle. At that command, the pivots and blockers begin to roll forward. The jammers begin racing through the pack at the second whistle (double blast). The first jammer that gets through the pack without committing a penalty is the ‘lead jammer’. After the initial pass the jammer is eligible to start scoring points. A jammer receives one point for each player of the opposing team that he pass. The ‘lead jammer’ has the option to stop or call off the jam before the full 2 minutes is up if they so desire.

Question: Why do the skaters use funny, fake names?
Initially the alias or “derby name” was meant to complement the over-the-top spectacle envisioned by the Austin revival’s progenitors. The names have stuck even as modern roller derby quickly evolved toward pure competitive sport. However, a handful of skaters have elected to skate under their legal name often out of a desire to further emphasize the modern sport’s legitimacy.

The L.A. Derby Dolls, formed in 2003 by Rebecca “Demolicious” Ninburg and Wendy “Thora Zeen” Templeton, is considered the West Coast’s premiere women’s banked-track, quad-skating roller derby league. Within the league are four teams constantly competing with each other for dominance: Fight Crew, Sirens, Tough Cookies and Varsity Brawlers. A fifth, the Ri-Ettes, is the All Stars team composed of the best LADD athletes in case visiting leagues want a confrontation in the oval.


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