Los Angeles was burning the night I drank beers with women who like to participate in the rituals of hip-checking and slamming their bodies into one another. “I get really angry and I need to hit a bitch,” explained roller derby skater Dannia Alfonso. Alfonso was joined by her Reseda Wreckers teammates last December at the Empire Tavern in Burbank. Part of the San Fernando Valley league (SFV), the team’s practice had been cancelled as multiple fires burned throughout southern California. One of the blazes threatened the league’s track, so the team had an impromptu gathering at the bar. Chatting about an upcoming tournament and their collective performances, conversations soon turned to weeding out misconceptions about a sport that has seen a rise in popularity in recent years.
Roller derby is both aggressive and sexy, however, it is not to be confused with vaudevillian antics or hyper-sexualization. It’s a contact sport that requires skill. It is also, some teammates told me, duly lacking in diversity. As I later came to observe, the Reseda Wreckers is a team that is varied in both self-expression and ethnic identity. Pitting flesh and skates against other players, the team is challenging fallacies about the game, both on and off the track.
I first heard about the Reseda Wreckers when my best friend mentioned that her cousin, whom I’ve known sporadically the last 20 years, had taken up roller derby. Katia Rios is petite and polite, the opposite of my idea of the stereotypical muscled and foul-mouthed derby skater. I was surprised to hear that she willingly (especially given her small body type) played in an aggressive sport that threatened bodily harm. But once I saw her slam like a small cyclone on 8 wheels into a fellow team member at a practice session, my surprise turned to admiration.
Roller derby, Rios points out, is not just about body slams. Reciting her favorite quote, she explains that it’s “like playing chess while having bricks thrown at you at the same time”. It’s a contact sport that is both strategy and physicality. Wearing roller skates, two teams compete against one another on a circular track skating at high speeds moving counter clockwise.
Designated “jammers,” “blockers,” and “pivots” work offense and defense, constantly strategizing to score points and to also prevent the other team from scoring. That said, like any sport it does have its rules. You can “hit” another player using your shoulders down to your hips, but you can’t punch, kick or clothesline (think of slapstick comedy - extending your arm across a person’s chest or neck to knock them down). Rios and her teammates practice these skills and strategies on a piece of land that reflects LA culture.
Practice and home game tournaments for the SFV league are held on a flat track which has been dubbed “The Lot” harkening back to old Hollywood film lots. It’s an abandoned parking lot in an industrial part of Sylmar that resembles a backdrop of a dystopian cold war movie. Barbed wire encircles the track and large storage containers sit heavy and silent against the back wall. Large spot lights cast shadows on skaters that look like elongated ghosts keeping in time with body checks.
Standing out amongst these shadows are the matching team shirts worn by the Reseda Wreckers. The logo on the shirts was designed by teammate Morgan Perry. With input from her fellow teammates, Perry wanted to show the diversity of the skaters. The logo is a drawing of a woman with a half-shaved head who, Perry points out, “looks kind of multi-ethnic since we have like a crazy amount of [multi-ethnic] people on this team”. The backdrop is a bomb with a wick on fire and the profile is accented by a Wonder Woman “W,” the comic book heroine of yesteryear who beat up Nazis.
Ethnic diversity is also found in the derby names of some of the skaters who integrate their ethnicity with playfully aggressive verbs. Natalie Rankin, aka Tokyo Takeout (like the Japanese city), and Amber Javier, aka Gunner Ginzu (a play on Ginsu knives and a childhood nickname referring to her eye shape), were inspired by the skaters’ Asian ancestry. Both players have varied backgrounds; Javier is Filipino and Hispanic, and Rankin is Japanese, black and white-Spanish. It’s this diversity, the skaters tell me, that is unique in the world of roller derby.
“Roller derby is a white woman’s sport,” states both Rankin and Javier. Though the sport exists all over the world, Rankin elucidates that there are a lot of leagues, especially in the southern states of the U.S., that are lacking in diversity. The SFV league is an exception, she tells me, as the team boasts many different ethnicities, a reflection of the multi-cultural landscape of the Valley. Yet, even with these varied players, Rankin hasn’t been spared from racism. While in New Orleans for a tournament, she was at a jazz club with a former white teammate. The teammate confided that she was “uncomfortable” with the amount of black people in the room. Rankin after pointing out that they were in a predominantly black city told her, “You know I’m black, right?”. “It’s okay,” the teammate retorted, “because you’re mostly Asian”. Shaking her head Rankin recalls telling her, “I’m the same percentage black as I am Asian. You just can’t go around saying that.” Rankin’s current teammates find varied experiences and cultures to be an asset to their value as players on the team. Veronica Pacheco, aka Sammi Smacky-Yao (her derby name was inspired by the boxer Manny Pacquiao), explains that it was the diversity of the SFV league that attracted her. “This is where I was meant to be,” she recalls, emphasizing the support she has found among the league, “We accept anybody and everybody”.
This acceptance extends to the different body shapes and sizes of the skaters. Rankin explains that roller derby is a very body positive sport and that “every single body type has a genuine advantage on the track”. This is especially true for Javier who was a cheerleader in high school and felt pressure to be thin. But now in her late twenties, she finds acceptance in the Reseda Wreckers. Her full figure is ideal for blocking other skaters on the track. “I have a muffin top,” Javier states, adding “I don’t have any shame in that because that’s who I am”. This body positivity also allows for a freedom of expression with many players opting to wear fishnets, tight clothing or modest and loose workout clothes. Pacheco is quick to point out that with this expression the sport has often been sexualized. One misconception is that players are “half-strippers”. Javier interjects, addressing Rankin, “She wears booty shorts? Guess what, she just fucking kicked somebody’s ass on the track”.
The fire had begun to clear up and The Lot was left unscathed allowing for the home team tournament in early December to commence. The score board indicated that the Reseda Wreckers were playing against the Van Nuys Valkyries. Night had descended, and the smell of smoke lingered faintly in the air. The barbed wire and spot lights looming over the track lost its dystopian charm as children ran around and families lined up for nachos and soda. Spectators sat in plastic chairs that lined the track reflecting the ethnic diversity of both the SFV league and the San Fernando Valley. Men also filled the audience but there was no leering or cat calling, instead they gave directives to the skaters shouting, “Offense!” and “Defense!”
Many of the skaters from both teams sported war paint, wearing red lipstick pin-up girl inspired pouts, to drawing on exaggerated comic book Joker mouths. A flash of hot pants, fish nets and work-out pants skated by the track at full speed. All of the players wore helmets, knee pads and elbow pads, a reminder of the physical risks of the game. At times, the momentum of bodies resembled big enveloping waves. Helmets and swaying bodies moved up and down in unison until a crash toppled the flow. Rios was hit and left with a swollen nose, though she shrugged off the minor injury. Many were swift on their skates, weaving in and out like they were hovering just above the concrete asphalt. Pacheco, like her boxing namesake known for his fast punches, was quick and jabbing. The game soon ended, and time was called.
The Reseda Wreckers lost to the Van Nuys Valkyries, coming in fourth place at the tournament. But the loss doesn’t define the team. Pushing themselves both on and off the track, Javier told me, “These females make me want to be a stronger version of myself”.