I was expecting rabid, beefy women clad in leather and chains. But when I got to the Masonic Temple’s Drill Hall one sunny Sunday morning in Midtown Detroit, I found mothers, teachers, and nurses.
The players are impressive. They spend hours upon hours training, drilling, and wearing down their skate-wheels to the bare-metal bearings.
“It’s real. You [can] see the intensity of game, which is always exciting,” says Claire Van Poperin, a Derby Girl player since 2007.
To experience this intensity firsthand, I laced on a pair of borrowed skates, noticing, as I did, the grapefruit-sized bruises covering the legs of players suiting up next to me. What had I gotten myself into? The last time I was on roller skates was in the seventh grade. I’ve studied dance, but I’ve never played an organized sport in my life.
There I was, clumsily fumbling with my wrist guards and sounding tipsy due to my oversized mouth guard. With all this protective padding, I felt like a sumo wrestler on wheels. This was not going to go well.As the new recruits warmed up, I skated around the rink’s edges at a grandma-like pace.
Skate on one leg, they instructed. When that attempt sent me crashing into a row of chairs, I called it quits and traded my skates for more stable footwear. My derby career had lasted roughly 15 minutes.
Back safely on the sidelines, I watched veteran skaters and new recruits go through drills together and was surprised at the nurturing environment. Many of the recruits had little experience on skates, and went through the basics of learning to stop and bend to one knee, their expressions timid and earnest. Like mother hens, the vets came to their rescue, taking the hands and hips of the recruits and guiding them around the rink.
The nurturing relationships aren’t only between new and seasoned players. Derby Girls also find kindred spirits among their seasoned teammates and other women in the league.
“All of us skaters are truly friends, and we look out for one another, kind of like a sorority,” says Danielle Simone, a derby girl who coaches high-school cheerleading and manages a wedding shop.
Although each team has its own identity and culture, the derby girls acknowledge the importance of league unity. “We come together for things like Derby! U or a travel bout, and the team affiliation really becomes secondary,” says Valerie Weiss, a player since ’06. “It’s always league first, team second.”
What makes the league especially unique is that it’s “skater-owned and operated,” Simone says.
Every player in the league donates time doing administrative duties for the league, and receives no pay for the hours spent assembling newsletters or updating the Web site. Each member serves on a league committee, such as organizing boot camp or other events.
“I’m a nurse in real life, and I put together the med kits,” says Laura Livingston, who also helped write the league’s code of conduct.
“At every practice, I’m usually the first responder if someone falls.”
The league’s impressive grass-roots operation sets derby skaters apart from other sports organizations. “It’s really empowering to be part of [the roller derby] community,” Livingston says. “It celebrates strong women who work together and who want to create something fabulous.”
The women aren’t going unnoticed, either. Since its inception, the league has steadily been gaining attention. Detroit Derby Girls typically sell out every regular-season bout.
They became a women’s flat-track roller-derby league in 2005. Since then, four home teams have competed locally on a regular basis, and two travel teams have played all over the country.
They’re on a mission to do more than win. They want to legitimize their sport, and there’s an ongoing effort to separate roller derby from its campier past while also differentiating it from the entertainment sport leagues like the WWE.
On bout days, the 900-seat Drill Hall is filled with players’ family members, derby fanatics, and curious newcomers. Many players believe that the game’s family-friendly aspect adds to the league’s success. It’s an appeal that’s not unlike minor-league baseball.
Of course, a little Hollywood never hurts.
Whip It, directed here in town by Drew Barrymore, used Detroit Derby Girl players as extras, something that has the potential to put the sport, in general, and the Detroit team, specifically, on the mainstream sports map.
The movie will also show the uninitiated just how tough the game really is.
As for the future of roller derby in Detroit, some players believe a few changes are in order. “There’s an interest in moving toward using our real names,” says player Valerie Weiss. “I love the derby subculture, but there’s also an element of wanting to be recognized as individual skaters.”
Claire Van Poperin is one who would abandon the colorful nicknames. “I’m interested in how it develops at the national level,” she says. “Because when — not if — it becomes an Olympic sport, I want it to be my real name, not my derby name.”