Ann Arbor Roller Derby Raises its Game

Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page sightings were the talk of the town four years ago when Barrymore shot her directorial debut, "Whip It," in Ypsilanti. But at that time no one knew much about roller derby, the unique sport that provided the film’s setting. Today memories of the film have faded, but derby itself has seen a meteoric rise in the Ann Arbor area and beyond.
"Now it’s just its own subculture," says Erin Roberts. "Derby is becoming the little bug in everybody’s ear."
Roberts is better known to Ann Arbor derby enthusiasts by the more colorful name of Michelle O’Bomb Ya. She’s one of the many formidable members of our local derby league, the Ann Arbor Derby Dimes. Comically threatening aliases and showy outfits are common to the predominantly female sport, but the game itself is all rough-and-tumble strategy. In a roller derby match (known as a "jam"), teams rollerskate around a track at high speed, attempting to physically block the opposition from lapping them to score points. 
"Roller derby has come out of this weird amalgamation of third wave feminism and the riot grrrl movement," says Derby Dimes teammate Hakuna Manslaughta. "There’s been a lot of debate about being professional about the game versus having your funny name and your fishnets. It’s reached a point where we’re very serious about the game but we still have fun names."
The Derby Dimes got started in 2010 with two teams comprising around 30 players, referred to as "Wave 1." League president Megan Foldenauer joined the league shortly thereafter as one of the new recruits of "Wave 2." Foldenauer, known on the track as Scargyle, has since seen the Derby Dimes expand to a group of 125 members across three different teams. There’s the traveling "A-team" known as the Brawlstars; the Arbor Bruising Co., which occasionally goes on the road to face other Michigan teams; and the home team, the Ypsilanti Vigilantes. The Dimes’ teams are just three of many statewide; Detroit, Kalamazoo, and Grand Rapids are only a few of the Michigan cities that also have leagues of their own.
"It’s just exploded," Foldenauer says. "The number of teams in our area is just gangbusters. It’s cool right now because it’s still so underground, but there’s a lot of folks who want to get it out there and make it an Olympic sport."
Foldenauer says the Dimes’ gameplay is consistently improving, thanks to considerable discipline across the board. New players, known as "Fresh Meat," are required to train for about four months and pass a skills test before they join the Vigilantes. All players must attend at least two two-hour practices per week, and "off-skate" conditioning is encouraged. And while the sport can get rough, everyone is required to play by the regulations laid down by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, derby’s national organizing body, which accepted the Dimes as an affiliate in 2012.
"There are a lot of rules that prevent us doing things that are egregiously stupid," Foldenauer says. "We don’t punch each other in the face or pull each other’s hair or anything evil. But you have to go into it knowing you’re going to be roughed up."
Sarah Walinsky is a member of "Wave 7," the latest crop of new players who began training in September. Walinsky says she started attending Derby Dimes events for a rather simple reason - the girl who told her about the league was "really cute" - but the sport has come to mean much more to her. Walinsky says she was immediately drawn in by the league’s established, but immediately welcoming and supportive, community.
"It appeals to a lot of people," Walinsky says. "We have students, we have moms, we have Ph.Ds, we have girls who are 18 and waitressing. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a bum knee. They’ll find a way that you can push yourself and still do it."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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