A visit with the OCRollergirls
Huntington Beach, CA
Story by Richard Parks
Photographs by Roger Rohrdanz
Richard Parks and Roger Rohrdanz
Roger and I first heard about a new resurgence of roller derby at the Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona, California about three years ago. We saw a sign that said women’s roller derby, but there was no date or time listed. At the Suede Palace I came across a “retro” girl dressed in the traditional hot rodding style that is often referred to as the “rockabilly culture” and asked her if she knew anything. She mentioned a website and later on we checked it out. It would be a few more years before a break in our schedules allowed us to report on a very exciting and reinvention of an old sport. A little background is in order to show the history as we hot rodders remember it. Hot rodding is a lifestyle and we don’t just live for our cars. As a car culture it began to develop in the late 1920’s and that first generation carried over to the late 1940’s. Their children became the second generation of hot rodders and we grew up during the late ‘40’s through the mid-1960’s. By then the hot rodding culture, like most all other sporting groups had evolved into the modern professional leagues that we know today. Hot rodders involved themselves into these sports, as participants and spectators when they weren’t working on, racing or showing off our cars. We were accompanied by our girlfriends and spouses, who enjoyed a chance to get away from the heavy emphasis on the car culture. Women in sports and the trials that women face when their men are so obsessed with cars is a favorite topic of mine. We simply don’t write and report enough on how women feel about what they like and enjoy.
The hot rodders of my father’s generation understood that their addiction to cars was slightly dysfunctional and they realized that they needed to come home from the dusty and hot dry lakes or the oval dirt racing tracks, clean up and take their girlfriends out to more sociable activities. We weren’t a couch potato society back then. We had radio and we did sit around and listen to the fantastic drama, sports and comedy shows that were popular then. TV was in its infancy and the first set that we owned came around 1950 and therein lies our story, for it was the TV that caused a blossoming of individual and team sports. My father’s generation was very antsy and on the move. The Great Depression left most everyone in desperate straits and doing things outdoors was a cheap and inexpensive way to be entertained and especially to entertain the ladies in their lives whom they had mostly neglected during the week. This was the heyday of new sporting leagues; football, basketball, car racing found a new audience. Baseball, high school and college sports had been around for seven decades, but the other professional sports were in their infancy. Then World War II came to Europe and Asia in the late 1930’s and to our shores in December of 1941. Millions of men and quite a few women were taken into our military and our factories, farms and war plants needed a new supply of labor. That labor came from our mothers, wives and girlfriends. Women earned more money and had more empowerment than they had ever had before and it gave them a sense of control and purpose.
Women did not only work in war plants and industry, they also began to play on sporting teams to provide entertainment while the men were overseas. The big professional sports carried on with all male teams as best as they could, but there was a niche to fill and women did just that. Cagey sports promoters hired women to compete with other women and sometimes against the men. Hila Sweet grew up around cars and joined the women’s powder puff jalopy racing league. The ‘Lady Leadfoots’ as they preferred to be called were hard driving racers and they meant business on the racetrack. Promoters often had Hila match race against the well-known racers of the day, like Parnelli Jones, and Hila more often than not beat them. The crowds loved these inter-gender matches, especially the women in the stands. It was their chance to root for the underdog. Women played on high school and college teams, in car racing, field hockey, roller derby, wrestling and other sports. But hard and physical contact was often denied to them. There were exceptions; wrestling, roller derby, and a few other sports allowed contact, but often these were scripted shows done for entertainment only. One exception was the women’s baseball league portrayed in the movie A League of Our Own. That was a brutal and contact heavy sport and the women had their fair share of bruises, abrasions and broken limbs. But it was authentic and real and women loved the opportunity to participate.
There was a belief in society prior to the 1960’s that women couldn’t physically take the punishment of contact sports. It was believed that women were too fragile for contact sports. There was also the fear that if a woman was hurt or died in a contact sport that the league could find itself with horrible media publicity and a cry for outlawing the league. In car racing there were real and imagined fears that letting a woman drive a race car would lead to injury and death and a public outcry that would end racing forever; and so women were almost always banned. But the war had changed the thinking of women; they had found out that they could do what men could do and in ways that were often superior. They might have lacked muscle mass and weight, but they could offset that male advantage with finesse, strategy and a flexible grace. What I remember about roller derby in the late 1940’s and ‘50’s was the sheer excitement of the sport. Since we mostly saw boxing, wrestling, car racing and roller derby on TV, rather than in person, the sports always seemed so much larger than they were in real life. The roller derby track seemed so large and the camera could follow a special player around and around the track. It was also a hokey, entertaining, action-filled activity to watch. There were scowls, laughter, taunts and threats. We booed the ‘villains’ and cheered our hometown favorites. Strangely the home team always seemed to win and the bullies from out of town lost even though they tried every dirty trick in the book.
Today they call this ‘Old Style’ roller derby and even way back then we knew that it was staged and not real. We sort of knew that our team would wear white and win a close game at the end if they played at home. We gasped as a ‘bad guy or gal’ would grab a folding chair and smack another player over the head. It was as bad, or as good if you will, as any of those wrestling matches that we loved to watch. It was also a contact sport for women, even though the women never competed directly with the men. Roller derby had everything; flash, power, speed, excitement and physicality for the times, a bit of leering, for both sexes. Roller derby wrapped up all the good and bad about society itself. It was a serial, a drama, a morality play. Sometimes it was pure athleticism and at other times it bordered on the lewd and seamy. There were big men and women, who seemed remarkably agile for their size and brute strength. There were small and petite men and women who could twist, turn, slide, and even fly through the air in what seemed to be an impossible and highly dangerous maneuver. The object was to have two opposing players break free from the group and dash around to the back of the pile of some twenty players. If these two speedy players could get past their slower and bulkier opponents they would score one point for each opponent they passed. Of course the players forming a blockade would consider that to be a blot on their masculinity or femininity and do everything in their power to stop the invading duo. If that meant they had to ram them into the upright railings, slam them down on the track or run them into the benches in the infield, then so be it.
The women played against the women for a certain timed period. Then the men took to the banked track for their turn to score points or demolish their enemies. There seemed to be no difference between the men and the women; each were ferocious in their own ways. The jammers or scorers delighted the crowd with their ability to dart and weave and do things on skates that didn’t seem humanly possible. The defenders aimed blows; elbows, shoulder and hips sent skaters up and over the rail with a six or seven foot fall to the hard floor off the track. It was amazing to the crowd how these tough gladiators could stay upright on the banked track with all the shoving, pushing and outright violence that was coming out of this mass of people. The jammers were like speed skaters, with a grace, power and skill that seemed out of place with the pack of writhing bodies. It was also a sensual sight for both the men and women. These old style skaters were athletically fit and beautiful to watch. Spectators had thoughts of joining up and skating, until they saw a rough fall and that ended our desires to participate in roller derby. The pads, helmets and clothing covered most of the skin, but the tights left nothing to the imagination. It was ballet without the tutu and the muscles rippled through the tights. Old style roller derby was a staple on our TV schedule and a common sport viewed over the tube in most homes. Then one day it vanished.
No sport seems immune to changing viewing habits of people. Perhaps a third and fourth generation of young men and women simply saw the campy old style of roller derby as passé and reinvented the sport, which became X-games with their own variations of spills, thrills and jumps. Today you see these weird ramps in every city and thousands of fans and participants doing these incredible jumps. But it isn’t roller derby and it isn’t something from our past, which we older hot rodders miss. What we didn’t know is that a decade or so ago a new breed of skaters started to recreate the sport. We call this the New Style of roller derby skating and it isn’t your grandfather’s style of skating. The New Style reminds us of what it used to be like and the skating skills, scoring and banked tracks are similar. But refinements have taken place; it isn’t a professional sport played by a few and witnessed by huge numbers of spectators. Today’s style is almost entirely female dominated and is a participatory sport. New Style was created by women for women and the goals have adapted to the modern world. It gives women a chance to compete, to vie in a contact sport, to work off stress and exert one’s character and personality. It allows women to exercise, to learn skating skills, to develop camaraderie, loyalty and teamwork. The ladies make the rules and they live by them. Men are welcome and a few compete, but make no mistakes about New Style; it is a female contact sport and it is so much fun to participate and to watch.
Roger and I drove out to the sports complex to watch the OCRollergirls practice. The complex is at 5555 W. McFadden Street in Huntington Beach, California and was easy to find. We went in and found three huge roller hockey rinks and a huge number of fans watching the games and practices, but no roller derby. The air was ripe with sweat and pheromones, but we hadn’t come to report on roller hockey skating. We asked questions and found a large building adjacent to the roller hockey rinks. We entered a very spacious, high ceiling building and found two roller derby tracks; one a flat track and another, which was a high banked track with the juniors or younger girls practicing. Right from the beginning we felt the intensity of feeling in these skaters and coaches. We were right back in the 1950’s, at least in our minds. There were a few rules that we learned quickly; don’t hold onto the rails and watch where the skaters are at all times. Whether they are small or large, these ladies are moving fast and if they hit you the results won’t be pleasant. We also learned how friendly and eager these ladies are to share their sport with others. They also don’t mind if the young boys and men come in to watch them; in fact they encourage it. Roller derby isn’t only just for exercise, skating skills and competition, it is also a chance for the young girls and ladies to show off and they appreciate the attention that they receive.
We were introduced to Dirty Deborah Harry, one of the head coaches. She has a real name, one that is on her birth certificate, but all of the ladies choose a nickname or alias to go by. The league in this area tries to keep the aliases clean and wholesome because they want this to be a family sport that you can bring grandma and grandpa to the bouts (games). But these are free spirited and independent women and they want to have fun with roller derby and so their names are lively and zestful. They tell me that they hardly even know their friends real names; their alias is their alter ego and that’s what they go by. Dirty Deborah Harry is a name that is a play on words. She liked the tough image of the Clint Eastwood’s ‘Dirty Harry’ persona and that of the singer Deborah Harry. So she combined the names and Dirty Deborah Harry fits her personality to a T. She is also a kind and supportive advocate of roller derby both on and off the track, though she can be a terror on the track as well. “I have been a figure skater since I was five years old,” Dirty told me. “Roller derby went through a big decline and then there was a resurgence of the sport about eight years ago. The OCRollergirls League and the individual group teams within the organization were started around 2005 by a lady named Disco. We are mostly girls and women, with the younger group called juniors from the age of eight to seventeen years old. The adult division is eighteen and up,” Dirty Deb added. “After high school and college there are few sports for women to participate in and literally no contact sports. Roller derby is uniquely a female contact sport,” she said.
I tried to think about this, but being a man I rarely gave this much thought. There is women wrestling, boxing and mixed martial arts, but the numbers of women in them are only a fraction compared to the men. I did see a lingerie woman’s football league on TV and there were about eight teams with perhaps thirty women to a squad. The ladies had to wear these ridiculous outfits which I think that they resented, because they could play football and play it well. There are lots of sports that women can play, but very few contact sports and those sports that they do enter are often salacious and meant to earn a living at from gawking men. But exactly what sports are there for the athletic and competitive woman? Dirty Deborah Harry could see by our puzzled faces and hesitant questions that she had her work cut out for her in explaining this new sporting phenomenon. “Women are no different than men; they like to belong to a group, it’s great exercise, we like combat and contact and we like it when the guys come out to watch us. It’s our obsession, just as you like your cars,” Harry opined. It was easy to see how much she loved this New Style of roller derby and she was excited that we wanted to know more about it. “There are roller derby clubs, teams and leagues all over. We have played against the L. A. Derby Dolls, the San Diego Derby Dolls and teams in Bakersfield, Arizona, New Orleans and elsewhere. Our traveling team plays in arenas that are fully ticketed. Our coaches, referees, officials and supporters are all volunteers. Each skater must have their own health insurance, but the OCRollergirls have insurance against liability,” Harry iterated.
“Our OCRollergirls league has three traveling teams; the women’s team (Block Work Orange), JV team (Wheel Housewives of Orange County), and our third level team (Pulp Friction),” Dirty Deb continued. I noticed how innovative and fun these team and individual names were. Also in the local league were four non-traveling teams or home teams that play against one another; Psycho Ex-girlfriends, Orange Alert, Slice Girls and the Crash Test Bunnies (all adult team). Harry introduced me to the founder of the OCRollergirls, a lady by the name of Disco. Dirty Deborah Harry and Disco couldn’t be more different in appearance, which shows how roller derby can attract all women (and men) in varying sizes, shapes, ethnicity, viewpoints and athleticism. What they had in common was a love for this New Style of roller derby skating. Disco founded the league and skated in it until the demands on her time to run the organization made it hard for her to compete. Dirty Deborah Harry is the Head of Training. The head coach is Brian Hunt. The beginners coach is Albert Garcia and the head referees are McFly and Cameltron. Sometimes I would meet one of them and they would use their alias and at other times they would give me their real life names. This changing of names made roller derby seem like the edgy side of the Old Style school. Cool, I thought.
Dirty Deborah Harry and Disco were needed on the track and they sent Albert Garcia over to talk to me. Albert is a committed and dedicated coach who works with the young girls on the basics of the sport. He really cares about their training and their safety. The league calls this new group of beginners their Freshman class. I have to report honestly and roller derby does not shy away from terms, names and contact on the track. They realize that roller derby is not for every young girl or every woman. This is a sport for the lady who doesn’t fit in with the normal stereotype. They are tougher than the average woman and they do it with character and their own version of femininity. It isn’t fair to put men or women in a one-size-fits-all box. There are some people who simply dance to their own music and that’s all right too. Roller derby is an addictive sport and it grows on you. The more we watched it the more we understood that different is not bad; in fact being different is what makes roller derby so wonderful. “I was close friends with Dirty Deborah Harry and she invited me to come to the bouts (games) and the more I watched them skate the more that I thought that I could do this. They let me referee and when a spot opened up to coach the freshmen girls I took it and have been coaching them for the last three years. The girls and women have a lot of finesse and they are more natural and gentler than the guys,” Albert said. “The men are a lot stiffer and favor raw power in their skating. The girls and women have a grace that the men lack,” he added.
I was hoping to see some men skate as well just to gauge his comments and to remind me of the Old Style of roller derby that I remember from the 1950’s. There were about a hundred girls and women practicing and they put a lot of effort into their skating, but there were no men skating. “It is very hard to get men to skate in quads (four wheels aligned like an automobile),” said Albert, “they prefer in-line skating like they have in roller hockey. There aren’t a lot of women in roller hockey. That’s a man’s sport, very aggressive and fits in with men’s attitudes. In the old days roller derby was more entertainment and performance. It was a show put on for the spectators. Today’s roller derby is more spontaneous and unscripted. Nothing is rehearsed or faked. The New Style of roller derby is all about strategy. We don’t encourage jumping or having the skaters stand rigidly upright. Standing upright is the worst thing that you can do and causes a lot of falls and jumping can lead to injuries. Today we teach crouching and keeping our balance on the track,” Albert continued. “We have a huge Rollercon Convention competition in Las Vegas each year and the last event filled the Hooters Hotel and Casino. There are thousands of girls and women competing in the bouts and practices. There are multiple leagues and even more teams throughout the United States, Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan and elsewhere,” he told me.
“When new girls and women come into the league they are trained in the basics of roller derby skating; standing, skating, going backwards and forwards, crouching, turns, stops, balance, falling, etc. After they learn the basics then I teach them how to hit and block,” concluded Albert. He was called away and I met a charming lady who was a team mom. Her name was Lisa McDonald from Los Alamitos and she had brought her daughter to the practice. “My daughter is called Darby Crash and she skates on the junior team. Darby is a straight A student in school who had been teased a lot by other girls because she was different. She and a friend saw the movie Whip It with Drew Barrymore and roller derby perked up their interest. Darby asked around if anyone knew where they skated and asked me if I would take her to a bout (game) as her gift on her tenth birthday. She saw the bout and signed up and has been skating for a year now,” Lisa told me. “Skating in roller derby gave my daughter more confidence and the bullying stopped. She had tried other sports, but when she skated for the first time it was as if a light went on in her head. In roller derby there is no favoritism. The coach’s daughter has no advantage over any of the other players. This is a very positive sport. It took a bit of time for others to get over their fears for her safety. Her grandfather thought it was too rough and dangerous, but when he saw her play he was won over and exclaimed that she was a real pro. The girls get lots of training and private lessons. Disco and Dirty Deborah Harry give a lot of extra time to train the young girls, who are the foundation of the sport,” Lisa added.
“The sport of roller derby is growing by leaps and bounds. It is no longer the seamy sport of the past. The sleaze is gone and the New Style of roller derby is a wholesome, family oriented activity. The league wants to encourage everyone to come. At one time the lower age limit was age thirteen and up, because safety and coordination were important issues. But the demand grew and Disco and Dirty Deborah Harry did a lot of research to determine that the junior age could safely be lowered to age eight and up. The skaters wear protective gear. The girls kind of like the fact that it’s girl versus girl contact sport out there on the track. It’s a female sport that is uniquely their own,” Lisa continued. “I remember that the Old Style roller derby was campy. The skaters would do silly things like go over to the rail and drink a glass of vodka or smoke a cigarette. They would take a fold-up chair and bang an opponent over the head. It was wrestling on roller skates back then. I remember going to the bouts with my father but it didn’t inspire me to get involved in the sport at that time. But today is different; my daughter goes by the beat of her own drums. She is unique and likes to stand out. Here is a picture of her with bright maroon hair (she shows me a photograph that looks nothing like her daughter on the track right now). People worry, but they shouldn’t, as when there are a few injuries they are mostly just bumps and bruises. I’m called the ‘Derby Taxi’ and I bring a lot of girls to the practices,” Lisa said.
“These young ladies form a lot of very close friendships in roller derby. It’s normal for parents and grandparents to fear that the girls will get hurt, but we trust our daughters and the coaches. Roller derby brings my daughter a lot of joy. Part of the reason is the rarity of the sport and that makes her feel special and powerful. Her friends at school are really impressed. My daughter’s response to that is, ‘It’s cool.’ You may have noticed that everybody goes by their roller derby names. The girls pick out their names to fit their tough alter ego personalities. Her teacher saw her skate and remarked to me, ‘that’s not the girl that I have in my class,’ and it’s as if the tights and gear are like those comic strip superheroes,” Lisa concluded with a smile. I noticed how strongly the mothers and fathers were in supporting this rough and tumble sport for their daughters. I saw a few falls, but very few. What I did see was a lot of skating and that caused a lot of sweating and huffing and puffing. The coaches are tough out there on the track. Again and again they put the young girls and the more mature ladies through their paces. This is a cardio vascular workout that is fun and alluring. You could also sense that the girls were trying harder when the reporters and photographers were present. They were also more animated when the boys came from next door to watch. Somehow this seemed like a perfect sort of date night. A group that loved what they were doing and loved to show their skills off.
I left the banked track and wandered over to the flat track and asked a young lady what was the advantage of the flat track. She told me that the beginners practice on the flat track because it is a better surface to practice their basic skills. The bank track is faster and more exciting, but skills are better learned on a flat surface. I saw the girls do twists and turns, skate backwards and forwards and drop to their knees. I rarely saw a girl fall backward on her rear. Maybe they do, but it looked like they were trained to fall on their kneepads which took the brunt of the shock. The protective gear included helmets, mouth guards, knee pads, elbow pads, wrist and hand gloves. I think the tights that they wear also offered protection. I notice two men hard at work and found out that they were Cameltron and Dr Evil. “Five of us built the state of the art banked track from scratch and we are also referees. There are also twelve other such tracks throughout the nation. We used steel tubing, wood, plastic and other raw products and welded and shaped the track which weighs some 12,000 pounds. It will take a beating for somewhere around eight years. The ladies are lighter than the men, but they push off against the track in a constant and vigorous motion. The track was also built with enhanced safety features,” added the two men. “A man by the name of Bitchy Kitten found an old style L. A. Thunderbird track and improved on the design. The new style tracks are higher banked for greater speeds. His new tracks are what the roller derby leagues are using today,” they continued.
“One improvement is arching the upright supports out and away from the track and this stops skaters from breaking their legs. Another improvement is putting a coping around the edge of the boards on the infield so that fingers don’t get caught and causing serious hand injuries,” Cameltron and Dr Evil told me. I asked them how big roller derby is today. “I think there are about 10 men’s leagues and 700 women’s leagues and in each league there could be just one or maybe ten or more teams,” the two men concluded. This story wouldn’t be complete without talking to some of the young skaters. A group of the juniors had finished and were waiting for their mothers to pick them up from practice or because their mothers were on the track and practicing themselves. There were quite a few mother/daughter roller derby skaters and I was impressed by this. As was usual, I wasn’t going to get the names that they were known by at school. The first young lady was named Tattle Tale Strangler and this name seemed to fit her alter ego perfectly. She is twelve years old and has been skating for a year now. Her mother skates under the name of Bout Bot (like in Robot) and she has been skating for nine months. A delightful pair of energetic and bouncing twins were Little Miss Knockoff and Kitty Killer Go Zoom. They are eight years old and have been practicing for the last six months. Their mother is called Chanel Knockoff and she has been skating for eight months. She told me that her daughters may look alike but their personalities are miles apart. The next young lady was Cheyenne Shockwave and she is twelve years old and has been skating for a year. Her mother is T-Bone Takeout and has been skating for six months. It seems like a lot of the mothers may have gotten “the obsession” after watching their daughters skate.
Next up was Dez-Manian Devil, a take on Tasmanian devil, a pretty competitive little animal in its own right. Devil is eleven years old and has been skating for a year now. Her mother is called Dez Madre and has been roller derby skating for about a year. Sparrow is nine years old and has been skating for about 9 months. Her name befitted her lithe frame and I could envision her flitting and darting around the track. I asked the girls why they do this and they told me; “We can hit people and take out our aggression on the track. When we tell people what we do they say, ‘wow, that’s a tough sport,’ or ‘is jamming hard to do?’ They all think that what we do is really hard. We’ve tried other sports,” the girls told me. “We’ve been cheerleaders and played in girls soccer, but we get a lot of publicity and notoriety by skating in roller derby, which is an unusual sport for girls,” they continued. I asked them how much it cost to participate in roller derby. “It’s $65 a month for the fees and that’s for three practices a week. The equipment cost depends on the quality and sometimes we use skateboard gear. The skates are the most costly thing and they can start at $200 and up. The helmet, pads, suits and mouth guards run about another $200,” the girls concluded. Just then the twins mom skated over and I asked her about the cost. “My skates cost me $350, but the rest was only about $200,” Chanel Knockoff said. I asked her if she ever told the twins that they wouldn’t be allowed to skate if they didn’t clean their rooms or did their chores. “Yes, I’ve said that, but the girls are really committed to skating and so I’ve never had to keep them from practice,” Chanel beamed. Roller Derby is back and it is better than ever. I think what I have seen tells me that as a participatory sport, roller derby is a lot better today than the old style roller derby from my past. OCRollergirls can be reached at info@OCRollergirls.com or www.ocrollergirls.com