Helen Killer, Sock-It Wench, Michelle O’Bomb Ya, Skim MILF 0%. In roller derby, a skater’s pseudonym can be as lurid as the bruises that result from this all-female, full-contact sport. The mock-violent names play up the action of a game in which skaters use their hips and shoulders to hit opposing team members. There are, too, moments of grace: skaters dodge blocks, accelerate, abruptly change course, and squeeze through narrow and momentary openings in the wheeled pack. A roller derby “bout” is full of falls that make you wince, as well as displays of athleticism that make you cheer.
You’re mostly wincing for the other girls, since the local league, the Ann Arbor Derby Dimes, is really good. (“Dime” refers to a “perfect ten,” or drop-dead gorgeous gal.) The league comprises three teams: the C-team Ypsilanti Vigilantes, the B-team Arbor Bruising Co., and the A-team Brawlstars. Two recent home bouts in late July pitted Arbor Bruising and the Brawlstars against teams from the Chicago Outfit. Both local teams skated laps around their Windy City opponents, with final scores of 299-79 and 351-124, respectively. Earlier in July, the Vigilantes had walloped the Oakland Derby Diamonds, 297-121.
Watching the Dimes’ agile skating, I assumed most members had been lacing up since a young age. Not so. “I was hesitant to join at first because I could barely stand up on skates,” writes Spilli Vanilli, the Dimes’ art and merchandise chairperson. She admits to having been a “wall hugger” at the league’s open skate sessions before attending their Fresh Meat Boot Camp. “I was absolutely amazed at how far I came after a few short months,” she says. Courtnasty hadn’t skated for more than ten years before she helped found the Dimes in 2010. She is currently the Brawlstars’ captain and head of training for a league that welcomes skaters of all levels and abilities.
The first Dimes bout I saw was a blur of helmets and fishnets. Fortunately, the Dimes, anticipating cluelessness such as mine, provide a helpful illustrated introduction to roller derby in their programs. In brief, each team fields five players: one jammer (identifiable by her star-covered helmet) and four blockers. The two jammers compete to pass successfully through the pack, scoring points for each skater from the opposing team that they pass. The blockers, meanwhile, switch between offense and defense as they work to allow safe passage for their jammer and obstruct the opposing jammer.
The Derby Dimes are a completely DIY, skater-owned league. In three years membership has doubled, from fifty to more than 100 skaters and volunteers. Their popularity is evident in the loud and supportive crowds that attend their home bouts. You’ll get your chance to cheer the Bruisers and the Brawlstars on to victory at the final home bout of the season, on September 21 at Buhr Park.