On a recent warm spring night, my friend Brent and I borrowed his wife’s Volkswagen Beetle and ventured out to a warehouse on a dead-end street in South Los Angeles. We were there to watch a “Fresh Meat” or beginner practice for the Angel City Derby Girls. A coach by the name of A-Lotta Backside puts the newbies through their paces.
Thirteen women and two men, one a ref, or “enforcer” in derby terms with the name “Julius Pleaser” on his helmet, and the other a former ice hockey player of a certain age turned wanna-be derby ref, all skated with grim determination as they circled around and around the track. The noise of the skates on the concrete floor was deafening, and Coach Backside had to shout to be heard. She’s known for demanding one hundred percent, and judging from the level of concentration on the track, everyone was prepared to give her just that, plus whatever extra blood, sweat and tears the Fresh Meat girls could muster.
The Angel City Derby Girls Fresh Meat practice in their warehouse in South LA. (Photo by Brent Whittlesey)
I used to watch roller derby back in the day when “cable television” meant getting a channel or two from New York and some local access programs in addition to the three network channels from Cleveland. I was never exactly sure what I was watching but I was pretty sure that if my parents saw me watching they wouldn’t be very happy about it. All I knew was that I was seeing some bad-ass girls on skates sporting some sexy-cool costumes while whaling on each other in front of a frenzied crowd, and I knew I really, really liked it.
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Now after all this time, I finally got to hang with the cool chicks because I found out that a colleague-turned-friend’s new girlfriend, Chelsea Steiner, is into—roller derby. Not only is she a successful scriptwriter and a black belt in judo, but she takes classes and volunteers with both the Angel City Derby Girls and their cross-town sisters, the Los Angeles Derby Dolls.
Chelsea (left) and teammate Amy Allison at Fresh Meat practice. (Photo by Brent Whittlesey)
The Derby Dolls are the better-known “banked-track” roller derby league in Echo Park on the east side of Los Angeles. The Dolls and the “flat-track” Angel City Derby Girls are not rivals, and indeed give friendly shout-outs to each other at game time. But the banked-track league, although much smaller than the nationwide flat-track league, is more familiar to most spectators because of the 2009 film Whip It.
Besides having their own building called “The Doll Factory,” The Derby Dolls also have some high-end sponsors. They have a lounge, live music, and a “Doll Mall” for merchandise, while the Angel City girls hold a bake sale and sell t-shirts from a folding table.
Chelsea, my new best derby friend and brand new Angel City Derby Girl Fresh Meat, was attracted initially to the sport because it was “so hard core and so cool.” Although she loved contact sports, she never skated as a kid. “I’d always been a terrible skater, it just wasn’t my thing,” she said. But after going to a Derby Dolls bout and with some encouragement from boyfriend Dan, she signed up for the Dolls’ “Skills for Thrills” program.
Chelsea recounts her initial class: “So I went to my first class and I just sucked! Sucked all over the place. I was pretty much the worst person in the class for my whole first session.”
Still, she found that the coaches “even if they seem intimidating at first, want you to learn how to skate and be the best skater you can be.” Her fellow classmates, a diverse group of women ranging from late teens to forties, students, professionals, and mothers, straight, gay and bi, were supportive. “Everyone’s very friendly. You’re there to support each other and it’s very pro-women.”
Even with the support, there was a brutal learning curve, she says. “It was pretty intense and a lot of people go the first week or second week and say, ‘you know what, this is terrible and I don’t want to do this anymore,’” she said. “I’d come home each day bruised and battered and with the crap kicked out of me but I kept doing it.”
A year later, after volunteering for both the Dolls and Angel City, and trying out twice for the “super-popular” Derby Girls Fresh Meat program (“maybe 80 girls tried out and ten got in”), she auditioned for the Angel City Derby Girls Fresh Meat program, which was openly recruiting at a local skating rink, and she was accepted.
Chelsea quickly learned that roller derby is a lifestyle, as well as a sport, she says. The leagues are non-profit, run by skaters. After passing a skills assessment test and making it on to a team (and choosing that way-cool derby name and number “a conversation that never ends,” says Chelsea), skaters pay dues and work as volunteers to help run the league. “It does take over your life,” says Chelsea. If the girls aren’t skating, they’re “selling raffle tickets or selling merch or working the front door.”
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And, of course, there’s defining your own look. “There’s no shortage of tattoos and dyed hair amongst skaters,” Chelsea adds.
One Saturday night, Chelsea and the rest of her Fresh Meat sisters were on volunteer duty at an Angel City bout. The Rocket Queens, the ACDG “B” team, were hosting the Bakersfield Diamond Divas at the official Angel City “home,” the Veteran’s Auditorium in Culver City. The girls had just gotten their brand-new Fresh Meat t-shirts so everyone seemed thrilled. Although, Chelsea looked more adorable than frightening in a black lace skirt and hair band with little devil horns.
Twenty minutes into the bout, the score was 58-13 in favor of the Rocket Queens, who were kicking butt. It looked like a rout. Veteran announcer Dumptruck called out “I want to see Bakersfield get on this board,” and the crowd, which would look perfectly at home at an indie rock concert or a monster truck rally, roared its support for both teams.
After half-time, the Bakersfield Divas, fifty points behind, began to get “on the board” led by a tiny little jammer named Poisonette and a frilly-skirted warrior named Mrs. Movin. With 16 minutes left, the score stood at 91-62. A few minutes later, with the score at 95-72, the drama and the aggression picked up. “I think the Rocket Queens could use a little support!” pleaded Dumptruck from the announcer’s booth. The crowd cheered and the Queens, who include Fresh Meat coach A-Lotta Backside, responded by racking up the points until the score stood at 100 to 96 with less than two minutes to go.
Although at that point the crowd needed no encouragement, Dumptruck called out, “Fans get loud for both teams right now!” And the fans did.
Roller derby is like that. Both teams. For all the whips, blocks, and blows, is a tough, physical sport, played in an atmosphere of acceptance and fun. It’s a team sport that prizes and celebrates individuality, not to mention lip gloss and fishnets. It’s the kind of sport that can only exist in a post-feminist modern era when crucial battles of women’s rights have been won, and now it’s time to figure out how to be tough, how to be an individual, and how to be a girl and proud of it at the same time.
The new roller derby isn’t exactly what I remember from television a couple decades ago. It is tough, exciting, athletic, fast, colorful and fun. Grrrl power at its very best. No wonder Chelsea wanted to be a derby girl. I want to be a derby girl. And you’ll want to be a derby girl, too.
Note: I covered the Angel City Derby Girls and the Derby Dolls on crutches, while recovering from a broken leg sustained in a non-derby related accident. Thank you to Gia S’Angry’A from ACDG and Joy Collingbourne from the Derby Dolls as well as my derby-loving friends who made this article possible. The view from the handicapped section is great.