Robin Savinar doesn't mince words when describing how she feels the day after a roller derby bout — "Like I've been run over a truck." She catalogues her injuries: black eyes, bruises, hematoma, and a nasty, skin-reddening, pustulating thing called "rink rash," which, she surmises, must come from the layer of scuzz that sticks to the surface of the rink — something the skaters call "manratfur."
"Injury is one of the main things that depletes the roster," said Savinar, adding that she's seen broken ankles, mangled knees, torn ACLs, and a lot of bruises "that get way way sore and last way way long." When Savinar's team ShEvil Dead played their Sacramento rival, Sacred — in what was appropriately dubbed "the domestic violence bout" — one of the Sacramento players got sent to the hospital.
And lest you doubt the brute competitive nature of women's derby, take note of the players' alter egos: Sassy Slayher, Taxi Scab, Sergeant Bashin' Butter (actually a police officer in Alameda), Kitt Turbo, Lusty Malice, Liza Machete, Mexican Jumping Mean (who always wears a Mexican flag taped to her uniform), Diane Rött (i.e., "Die and Rot"), Messy Jessy, Demanda Riot, Mercy Killing, Roxy the Riveter, Coach Pia Mess. Savinar goes by the alias Exquisite Corpse, which derives from a Surrealist writing technique. In real life she works for a San Francisco PR firm.
So clearly, as the players are fond of saying, this ain't your parents' roller derby. A 20th-century invention, roller derby became a TV spectator sport in the 1950s. In those days it was played on a banked track and involved a lot of zany stage antics, said Savinar, "like players flipping each other over." After leaving television in 1973, the sport went underground for a while but continued evolving to form a well-developed network of leagues. The 21st-century marked a new renaissance for roller derby, perhaps loosely related to new wave burlesque and other nostalgia-based trends.
Savinar's team is part of the Bay Area Derby Girls (aka B.A.D. Girls), a nonprofit women's league founded in 2004 that includes two other teams, the Oakland Outlaws and the Richmond Wrecking Belles, in addition to San Francisco's ShEvil Dead. The teams meet three times a week for two hours of drills, strategizing, and scrimmages at the Dry Ice roller hockey rink in East Oakland. Some players drive from as far away as San Jose or Davis. Some, like Savinar, get to bed at 2 a.m. after the Tuesday night practices (which last from 10 p.m. to midnight), and drink coffee all day on Wednesday. On a recent Sunday Sergeant Bashin' Butter came to Dry Ice after working all night at her police job in Alameda. Her nose bore a V-shaped red gash, incurred from a nasty run-in with Savinar.
In real life, the players represent a wide spectrum of women, ranging in age from their early twenties to their late thirties. Some have graduate degrees; many have kids; some are gay; some work behind the counter at a cafe or fast food joint; one writes for the San Francisco Chronicle. Many of them don't look like the type of people who would chew you up and spit you right out. Take Savinar, who is teeny-tiny and thus gets knocked around a lot — hence the mottled, purplish splotch covering her left hip at a recent Sunday practice. (After a few days it had come to resemble the bruised part of fruit.) Savinar is a jammer, meaning she's the player who dashes to the front of the derby line, trying to pass as many players from the other team as possible to earn points for her team. Whilst jamming, Savinar has to quickly weave in and out of the line, trying to dodge the opposing team's blockers, who will body-shove her out the way. "They pile up on each other," Savinar said. "There's a lot of shit-talking that goes on up there."
Modern roller derby is a combination of skateboarding and tackle football, with a burlesque element thrown in. The bouts are really a series of two-minute jams, during which the teams' most agile players (the jammers) try to get past a line of blockers (eight, in total, from both teams) as many times as possible. Similar to a quarterback in pro football, the jammer is, in many senses, the team celebrity — the one who scores points but moves defensively, and literally stands apart from the other players. As point-scorer, the jammer is the only player who is capable of making "grand slams," which happen when she passes ten to fifteen opponents.
There's a theatrical dimension to roller derby that some players take to extremes, perhaps to create an individual cult of personality. Some players like to wear low-cut blouses, stylized mod hairdos, or a real lipsticky look. Most have tattoos and piercings. Everyone wears fishnet stockings and a Dickies dress. Pandamonium draws tar-black circles around her eyes to resemble a ghoulish panda bear. Some players cut a real menacing figure (Sergeant Bashin' Butter's web profile: "When this sergeant's in your rear view, you know it's bad news. You better get out of the way or she'll call you to attention and lay you out,") while others emphasize the Sassy Magazine-ish minutiae that makes them memorable (Messy Jessy's "turn-ons" are "Bad boys, old cars, English accents & wit;" her "weaknesses" are "chocolate and old movies.").
B.A.D. puts its own third-wave-feminist spin on the game, not only with all the gender-bending (in the form of painted-on mustaches and tough-posturing alter egos) but by emphasizing sportsmanship and mastery (anyone who makes it through tryouts has to undergo a three-month apprenticeship before being drafted). There's a girly dimension to the game that makes it appealing in the same way burlesque dancing is appealing, but that part usually gets supplanted by all the virile aspects of the sport. Most teams come together for some kind of reconnaissance the night before a bout, during which they often make signs to taunt the other players — i.e., "Oakland: All Ass, No Class" or "Crusty Phallus" (meant as a hit on Lusty Malice).
And as for the injuries, most players wear their scrapes and bruises like a badge of honor. Oakland Outlaws co-captain (and jammer) Kitt Turbo even remembers a player named Mad Maxinne who ran into the rink wall and cracked her two front teeth in half. She took a self-portrait with her cellphone before getting them fixed.