Nestled within one of the smallest cities in the country, near a 5-mile stretch of primarily industrial buildings, lies an underground competition like no other. The nightlife in the city of Vernon is all but non-existent, so you’d never simply stumble upon it unless you got lost on your way to downtown L.A., but the Derby Dolls have given Angelenos a reason to descend on the uneven Vernon streets and run-down railroad crossings regularly. One Saturday a month, hundreds gather in an unassuming sports complex, aptly nicknamed “Dollhalla,” to watch 30 athletes whip around and jam each other on one of the few remaining banked-track roller derby leagues in the U.S.
Born from punk rock feminist origins and an early culture of fishnet stockings and rebellious pseudonyms, the Derby Dolls have a 20-year history of not just national championships and raucous home crowds, but creating a unique competitive outlet for women of all ages and backgrounds. As the pastime of roller skating enjoys a renewed interest in 2023, roller derby offers an exciting spectator experience.
The moment you enter the warehouse-like arena, you can feel the energy with fans anxiously awaiting the start of the bout as dozens of skates roll around the track, creating a wave of sound similar to an airplane awaiting takeoff. Then you hear the whimsical voice of longtime announcer Else “Evil E” Duff blaring through the speakers as she rattles off the skaters’ often-irreverent nicknames, such as “Alpaca Punch,” “Vanessa Bludgeons” and “Whorechata.”
At any point of a bout, you can watch a skater slam into the masonite track to a roaring thud and a barrage of oohs from the crowd. Similarly, a skater can get barreled into the side barrier, making you worry they’ll fly off the track, as you jump off your seat to check that everyone’s OK. It is that controlled violence, along with the speed, athleticism, strength and strategy that keeps fans returning and selling out the bouts month after month.
“Between whistles, you’re not my friend,” Barbara “Sweetie” Sazama says while detailing the in-game experience. “I don’t even think about who you are. It’s, ‘What chess piece are you?’ in that one minute.”
Texas Roller Derby (TXRD) in Austin is often credited for founding the current, women-led version of the game that has since gone global. The Dolls took that style and added an L.A. flair, as jammers, distinguished by the giant star on their helmets, attempt to bully (or finesse) their way through a wall of opposing blockers for one minute at a time, getting a point for each blocker they pass in that time. The jammers are the point-getters, and a good one will use every bit of experience and athleticism to maneuver themselves through the blockade of girls in front of them.
“When we started, it was TXRD and we took on their style. It was women’s roller derby and it was unscripted,” says Duff, the skater-turned-announcer who has spent 20 years with the Dolls. “Purely athletic roller derby. Women have never been second to men.”
Since its peak in the 1970s, roller derby in Los Angeles has always broken gender norms in sports, with coed play at even the professional level. While not coed, the dolls keep with their own gender bylaws that are more accepting of the LGBTQIA+ community. Skaters’ gender identities are kept confidential and any person who feels women’s roller derby best fits their identity is welcome to the Dolls’ programs and given a fair shot to compete.
“If women’s roller derby is what you identify with, then you are welcome,” Duff says.
Men are welcomed to the Derby Dolls’ recreational gameplay, but the league itself has been a source of empowerment for women since its inception in 2003.
“There are women who have completely changed their careers and their lives; they’ve gotten out of abusive relationships, all because they were empowered by roller derby,” Duff says, as she reflects on what she has seen through the decades in derby. “It’s like that all around the world.”
Duff has lived through every transition of the Derby Dolls, from a handful of punk rock girls learning how to skate and putting together fundraisers to the well-oiled organization it is today.
“We started off on a rooftop in Chinatown and then moved it down into a factory, then we moved it down into what was an abandoned bowling alley in Little Tokyo, then eventually what was a former factory in Historic Filipinotown,” Duff says, reminiscing on the league’s origins. “Most of us were kind of in our 30s… we were also starting to get some younger people in the league who weren’t necessarily familiar with roller skating and some older people who had only skated for a little bit of time. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from roller derby, it’s that there’s a place for everybody.”
The Derby Dolls league currently has four teams consisting of the Scream Queens (previously named the Sirens), Varsity Brawlers, Fight Crew and Tough Cookies. While it is more common to see roller derby leagues such as Angel City Derby and the RebelTown Roller skate on “flat tracks,” due to lower costs, maintenance and accessibility, the Dolls play on the more visually appealing and often more physically demanding “banked track,” which caters to faster gameplay.
The Dolls’ iteration of roller derby is a little different than what you might have seen on TV from the 1960s through the early 1990s with the world-famous Thunderbirds. The Los Angeles T-Birds took the game’s popularity to new heights in that timeline, selling out arenas, traveling the globe and gaining a monumental fanbase for its hard-hitting games on local television. This traditional version of roller derby, which was first called “roller games,” is best remembered for its hockey-like violence, which often led to fist fights, as well as professional wrestling-style promos that gave Ric Flair a run for his money and predetermined outcomes that took the game from sport to scripted entertainment.
Scott Stephens, a former Thunderbirds player and author of “Rolling Thunder: The Golden Age of Roller Derby & the Rise and Fall of the L.A. T-Birds,” has kept the team’s memory lit through his book, and by maintaining its social media accounts and official website. Roller derby has been an integral part of Stephens’ life and he made it his mission to keep a historical record of the game and more specifically, its impact on Los Angeles.
“The original game started out totally legitimate and then they started adding showmanship and theatrics,” Stephens says of the coed games. “Roller derby… took it to an extreme that was more towards wrestling, but they drew huge crowds. The Hispanic skaters in roller derby, as well as the African American skaters, were heroes in the community and they meant so much — skaters like “Skinny Minnie” [Gwen] Miller and Ralphie Valladares and different skaters like that captivated the crowd in a way that’s just hard to describe.”
Stephens, known as James Scott on the track, has fond memories of the T-Birds selling out the Los Angeles Sports Arena before it shut down and the “Fabulous” Forum in Inglewood before it got branded by Great Western and now, Kia. He also recalls traveling to Mexico and playing in front of crowds of 25,000 people at the peak of the team’s popularity. The T-Birds played their last game on Feb. 6, 1993. Battered and bruised, many left the sport behind, but carried on debilitating injuries, such as the Thunderbirds’ first team captain, “Terrible” Terri Lynch, who notably retired in her prime due to injuries in 1972.
“There was a lot of flexibility in allowing the skaters to do what they do out there and the really confident skaters would dominate on the track, would win fights, would knock the crap out of other skaters, and all of that was as real as it gets,” Stephens says. “I had so many injuries. I had broken ribs, a broken jaw and everybody I knew had serious injuries. Some skaters are crippled today and don’t have everything functioning.”
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The dropkicks, punches and theatrics did not make it to the current iteration of roller derby, but the Derby Dolls are carrying the torch with their own brand of physicality and display of athleticism, using painful blocks to the chest and countless slams to the floor.
“The L.A. Derby Dolls are kind of the leader, to me, in the L.A. resurgence,” Stephens says of the league that is now carrying the torch to a new generation of rollers.
While the Dolls have operated mostly as a local grassroots secret, their wheel tracks were all over derby’s resurgence in pop culture in the mid-2000s, when Drew Barrymore became a fan and sought to bring it to the big screen, producing and directing the film, Whip It starring Elliot Page. The movie was centered around Texas roller derby, but it was based on screenwriter Shauna “Maggie Mayhem” Cross’s experiences with the Los Angeles Derby Dolls, and the movie’s screenplay was actually an adaptation of her novel Derby Girl.
“[Cross] was my carpool buddy,” Duff says. “She was writing Whip-It as a young adult book while we were going to practice. She was a great skater, too. She got drafted to the Sirens. She was a really aggressive skater and she could cover the track with her long legs.”
The Derby Dolls took part in training Page for his lead role as Bliss “Babe Ruthless” Cavender, making the trek to Detroit, Michigan, where most of Whip It was filmed.
“I went with ‘Mayhem’ to Detroit to see what it was like because basically, we’re seeing our lives put on screen,” Duff recalls. “If you look at the sets… like the display case we used for our merch, the whole warehouse look. So much of our culture was in it. A lot of our skater names were in it.”
As roller derby in Los Angeles has had its booms over the years, and players come and go, the foundational women in the league have dedicated their lives and bodies for years. A prime example of that dedication can be found with Stephanie “STEFCON 1” Azores, who’s played with the Tough Cookies since 2007. Being an athlete her whole life, Azores was fascinated by the Dolls and knew it would scratch a competitive itch she longed for since she played volleyball in college.
“As soon as that first whistle blew and they started hitting each other, I was like ‘Oh, hell yes! I want to do this,’” Azores says. “I was excited that I could wear bright red lipstick, look cute and beat the shit out of somebody.”
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Azores says roller derby checked off a lot of boxes for her interests in athletic competitions as an adult. She never felt her skills were respected while playing coed sports and combat sports were a bit too violent, but roller derby hit the Goldilocks sweet spot and was just right. With more than 15 years playing for the Dolls, STEFCON fervently works on her skills and continues to work with a trainer, something she said is crucial to keep up with new, young players who enter the league.
“I’m not the biggest girl out there, but I can use physics to make my hits harder,” Azores says. “I might not be the fastest, but I can use physics to become faster.”
The Derby Dolls are in the midst of their first full home season, post-pandemic. Like the rest of the world, the Dolls shut down and there was uncertainty about the future of the league, as Angelenos were not allowed to gather indoors during COVID’s height and in the early stages, could not gather, period.
“We’ve been through losing facilities, we’ve been through losing key players, we’ve been through changes in ownership… I didn’t really feel like it was going to go away, but I knew it was going to be hard to get back to where we were,” says Sazama, who teaches an introductory eight-week adult skating course for the Dolls called Derby Por Vida. “I had a lot of faith that we would survive because we had done so before. As the pandemic went on, it was like, ‘Oh, it’ll just be six months’ and then all of a sudden, you look back and it’s been freaking years.”
Slowly, but surely, the Dolls are returning to normal. Future dolls are also being produced through the Junior Derby Dolls, a league for girls ages 7 to 17. The Junior Dolls were assembled in 2008, originally as an outlet for the adult Dolls’ daughters to have another athletic option. Now they’re in a league of their own, with junior versions of the Scream Queens, Tough Cookies and Fight Crew battling their little hearts out a few hours before adults come out to play.
“There’s so few opportunities for girls’ sports,” Duff says, of the junior league she helped develop. “When girls do sports, they realize they’re strong. They don’t necessarily need that man to kill the spiders and open the jars for them. They can do it themselves.”
While the younger players may hit forks in the road when they become adults, the lessons they learn with the Dolls can be transferred anywhere and Duff is grateful for the Junior Dolls league provides for these girls.
“Being my age, turning 54, I feel like every wish I ever had as a kid just came true,” an emotional Duff says. “I’m looking at these kids… you think of things you wish for, like happiness, love and friends and anything you ever think of when you’re lonely or sad. Everything is right here for these kids to enjoy. It’s so awesome.”
Right now, the Dolls are fighting through their home season, which runs through December. Their all-star travel team, made up of the top players in the league, typically travels to play other leagues. However, bank-tracked leagues in other cities such as San Diego and Phoenix, Arizona are still finding their way back after the pandemic. They will continue to be a safe haven for women, the LGBTQ community and children who will surely obsess over the sport as they come up through the junior league.
“I think Los Angeles should be really proud of the Los Angeles Derby Dolls – that we keep going. Just think of everything that comes and goes – the Derby Dolls keep going,” Duff says. “It can be a bit overwhelming and it takes over things. It definitely takes over people’s lives, but for me, it’s always been worth it.”
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