Derby Dreams

Across Metro Detroit women are getting into a business in which it is completely acceptable, encouraged in fact, to push people aside, knock them down and, if necessary, do bodily harm in the name of winning.

The whip-it world of roller derby has hundreds of Metro Detroiters from all walks of life -- nurses, social workers, engineers, stay-at-home-moms, fashion designers -- assuming aliases -- Devil Kitty, Racer McChaser and Elle McPhearsom -- strapping on helmets and pads as they carry out business plans and bylaws for sports leagues that are growing at double-digit rates.

The same can be said of team growth and fan bases around the country, as women's roller derby, mostly what's known as flat track roller derby, is strong-arming its way into the hearts of fans.

"It's growing fast enough that I can't tell you the number of leagues off the top of my head," says Juliana Gonzales, executive director of the Women's Flat Track Association in Austin, Texas, which, according to its website oversees 109 member leagues and 53 apprentice leagues. Michigan alone boasts at least 15 derby leagues, many operating under the slogan: "Built by the skater, for the skater".

There are veterans like the Detroit Derby Girls, the Grand Raggidy Roller Girls, the Flint City Roller Girls, and there are more recently established teams such as Kalamazoo's Killamazoo Derby Darlins and Jackson's Jack Town Rollers.

And then there are the newbies, like Ann Arbor Derby Dimes, and the Bath City Roller Girls from Mt. Clemens. "Fresh meat" in derby lingo. They are just beginning the long roll down the track to becoming full-fledged leagues. Mt. Clemens chose flat track while Ann Arbor aspires to become one of Michigan's few banked track teams (they'll start on a flat track).

"It's very grass roots, DIY, not owned by businesses or outside owners. As a result the players work together to make the team succeed," says Gonzales.

The relationship between the established teams and the start-ups is like that of a teacher-student, with the veterans showing the newcomers the way. Needless to say, for Metro Detroit the Detroit Derby Girls have the admiration of pretty much all new leagues.

"We look up to them and what they've accomplished," says Karyn Watson, AKA Deborah Hitz'em, co-founder of the Bath City Roller Girls. "They've really taken the sport in Michigan to a whole new level."

Not your grandma's derby

The cooperative spirit is an intentional part of this sport. Yes, it is a sport. Banish the 1970s vision of fake entertainment. Today's derby is a return to the original form, a by-the-book observance that's in the 10th year of a resurgence, stoked in part by  the movie Whip It, with jammers and blockers and a pivot making way for their team to score.

"I think that team mentoring by veterans is more common in roller derby than in other sports," Gonzales says. "We all want the sport to survive and do well. On the track part of it is to bring the competition level as high as possible. Off the track it's about helping the sport as a whole."

But not all derby teams are alike. Some are more family friendly. Others more wild and edgy. All focus on themes that reflect their community and regularly host public events -- especially in the formative years -- and work with local charities.

"It's very common to orient themselves with what's going on in their communities. Austin, for example, has a big focus on live music," Gonzales says.

The Ann Arbor team has so far focused on art and nightlife during public events and fundraisers. Mt. Clemens is playing up the city's history for its mineral baths that drew visitors from around the country seeking restoration.

"We're trying to do about two a month, fundraisers and events," says Kellee Gallardo, co-founder of the Ann Arbor Derby Dimes, which officially formed in August 2010. "We've had a craft fair, which was really successful. We've had some night events for recruitment. We've had a garage sale for the Salvation Army and helped out with the organization that works with homeless youth, SOS."

She and a friend, Milinda Villegas (not a skater but acting as the team treasurer), formed the league after finding over 50 interested skaters. They formed a board of directors and in January branched off into two teams, one for rookies, the other for more experienced skaters. The teams practice four times a week.

Starting a team requires organizing a board of directors and deciding whether to operate as a non-profit or for-profit organization. It requires finding a place to skate and practice and hold business meetings. It requires practices, and rounding up of players, referees, equipment and a system of training. It's a heck of a lot of work -- before you've even held your first match.

Once the team starts attracting a public following, it holds public events and eventually scrimmages within its own league until it becomes an official apprentice to an established league. After a year or two, and following a curriculum set by the organization, membership can be granted and bouts can be waged league to league, around the state and country.

As you might expect, learning the ins and outs of both the sport and the business takes assistance from those who've been there, done that.

"Actually we have some (Detroit) Derby Girls in our league... and players who have come from other leagues too. So that experience helps," says Gallardo, who goes by the Derby Dimes skater name ChaCha Chingona (Spanish for bad-ass). "We have reached out to some leagues... The Lansing Mavens have come and helped us out with training. That's the thing about roller derby, people are always willing to help you. People are always willing to give you good advice even if they're going to play you."

Derby love

And the spirit of cooperation extends to the rink.

"It's derby love," she says, using a popular phrase in the sport. "Even if you're knocking people over, hurting people, they're telling you, 'Nice job!' It is kind of crazy."

Gallardo, a social worker, got into the sport by playing for the Jackson league at the invitation from a friend. She pulled out after her hours were cut at work and the cost of gas became too much. "That's when I came up with the idea to make something more available to me," says the mother of four. "I feel like a team would have happened here in Ann Arbor eventually. I mean it's growing so much."

It's the same story an hour away. Watson, co-founder of the Mt. Clemens team, decided to form her own team closer to home after playing in nearby Port Huron. Watson and her sister Sandra Campbell, aka Dusty Muffin, co-founded the team. "We did a lot of research," Watson says. "We sent out email to other leagues in Michigan and Ohio." The responses helped get them started.

"There's always going to be competition, but it's one of the few sports teams I've been in where everybody wants to help," Watson, a commercial loan assistant and mother of one, says.

Since the Bath City Roller Girls formed in September 2010, the roster has grown to about 35 members and a rookie team has formed. The team's first intra-league bout comes April 9 at Great Skate in Roseville. On May 14th, the Lansing Derby Vixens come to town for their second bout.

Finding players, it seems, isn't all that hard. Interest in derby is high, Watson and Gallardo say. The words empowerment, supportive, and sisterhood are common across leagues.   

"I get emails every day," Gallardo says. The Derby Dimes have so far attracted nearly 80 women. Interested prospects are tested for skills and physical fitness level before winning a spot on the team and practice time.

"When you get there and you're going through boot camp, you are challenging yourself to do things you never thought you'd do," Gallardo explains. "It's really empowering. And there's the sisterhood bond. You have this instant support group."

Interest is also high because of fan enthusiasm, skaters say. For the hardcore set, most derby bouts offer "suicide seats" that give the best view and best chance for contact with the players. "It's fun to watch. The crowd gets really into it. It's an athletic competition, but it's different than the traditional basketball-football-soccer. Those are great, but it's definitely more edgy," she says.

There is also the potential for commercial success. Detroit's Derby Girls have demonstrated just how popular the sport can get. The league recently moved their monthly bouts from Detroit's Masonic Temple to Cobo Arena.

"I believe it can be a successful business," says Gallardo. "Right now we're working on building a stable foundation for growth. I think in Ann Arbor we're going to have a pretty awesome fan base."

Watson sees a similar fate for the Bath City Roller Girls. "We've reached out to a few of the charities in Macomb County... Our next step is reaching out to [the] Chamber and things like that," she explains. "We have some fans and we're getting more and more. From there it can keep on growing."

Kim North Shine is a Detroit-freelance writer on her way to see her first derby bout this weekend. She is also the development news editor for Metromode. Her previous story was Metro Detroit Aerotropolis: Why You Should Care.

Send your comments or questions here.

All Photos by David Lewinski Photography

All Photos Taken at Skate World Roseville-Bath City Practice

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