Stateside: Hitting the rink with Detroit Roller Derby
On the seventh floor of the Masonic Temple in Detroit, there’s an old-fashioned gymnasium with big steel beams curving overhead, some rickety bleachers, and a well-trod wooden floor. Being alone in there on a normal day might feel a little spooky. But if you go on any given Saturday night, you’ll find a menagerie of screaming fans, beer, face paint, fish net tights, and roller skates: the Detroit Roller Derby.
Detroit Roller Derby has been around since 2005, but the league has had a worldwide claim to fame since the 2009 movie Whip It featured some of their players and shot scenes around southeast Michigan. Even though the antics from the film aren’t quite how bouts play out on Saturdays in Detroit, there’s still a healthy dose of fanfare. Players take on names like Biscuits n Crazy, Breaker’s Dozen, or Payne Gretzky that gleefully hint at derby’s long tradition as one of the only full contact sports dominated by women.
That’s what first drew Amy Ruby, aka Racer McChaseHer, to the sport in 2006 after years of competitive speed skating.
“It was a good stress reliever, for sure. I’m a lawyer by day, so having a bad day at work and then coming to take it out on your friends is great because they’re expecting to get hit.”
At this point, Ruby has played derby all over the country and world. But after almost 20 years of lining up and taking hits, the camaraderie and friendship in the Detroit derby scene are what keeps her coming back.
“There’s a place for everybody. If you think about basketball players, they’re typically tall. If you think about track athletes, they might have a certain physique. But with roller derby, you find literally everything. And I think that’s the best part. If you don't know how to roller skate, we'll teach you if you want to learn. And if you don't want to roller skate and you don't want to learn, that's okay too. You can volunteer, you can be an official, you can be a nurse. There's always something to do.”
Every summer, the league runs a bootcamp for those curious about playing. There’s also a junior league in Detroit, similar to the one where Amelia Greco first learned to play after going to bouts as a kid.
“It was just scary and so cool at the same time. It was often the case that I’d be running into a wall with people I’d watch and they would sign my bout programs. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, I have to hit you now.’”
But after the nerves subsided, Greco found dozens of new friends in a city that had previously felt a little lonely.
“I just get to come and have fun with my friends and hang out with people that I would’ve never met otherwise. Some of my best friends are 20 years older than me. I think it’s just such a cool, unique thing. There's not really any other sports that are truly full-contact for female bodied people, and it's really a queer space. It's just a cool community.”
Despite its reputation as an alternative, DIY sport, Greco said the best part of derby is its draw for people of all ages from totally different walks of life. That was certainly the case at the sold out, standing-room-only bout we went to in January.
Check out the league’s season finale this Saturday, February 11 at the Masonic Temple.