I was on time, but found no one else there. Waze led me to a row of desolate warehouses, and I had no idea behind which dark door I might find my point of contact, Slam Grier.
“I didn’t know I was this intense of a reporter,” I thought.
I was in an industrial park, literally on the far side of the tracks, hoping to talk with a few of the DC Rollergirls during a roller derby practice. I felt uneasy and near ready to turn around, but another car pulled up. A woman carrying a sports bag hopped out and went for one of the unmarked doors.
“Looks promising,” I thought. I steeled myself and followed her inside.
That was February 14, and my previous knowledge of derby had been limited to Drew Barrymore’s Whip It (2009) and word of mouth. I had been led to expect a WWE-like spectacle, but what I found felt like any other weeknight practice. There were no tutus or fishnets, only compression shorts. But that’s not what derby is about anyway, I realized. It has more to do with the Rollergirls’ motto: In derby we trust.
Inside, there were 15 or so women stretching and doing light calisthenics. I was directed to the far side of the gym, where I met Slam Grier, the woman I had been emailing with. Slam’s name is a reference to Pam Grier, known for her role in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.
“I wanted a name that was really strong and confident, because I didn’t always feel that way,” Slam told me. “But when I was on skates I did, so I wanted to have this big name, and Pam Grier is what came to mind.”
Slam never gave off the feeling of a lack in confidence. She was warm and maintained Tony Robbins-like eye contact. It was easy to see why she was just re-elected president of the DC Rollergirls. Whatever unease I felt was put to rest.
The DC Rollergirls aren’t the only ones bouting (derby speak for playing) in the DMV though. There’s also the NOVA Roller Derby in Northern Virginia and the Free State Roller Derby (FSRD) in Montgomery County. Like NOVA and FSRD, they follow the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) rules.
The skaters I spoke with all reiterated that they do flat track derby, as if to immediately dispel any association with the banked-track spectacle of the 70s, or even the banked-track spectacle of Whip It. Flat track is the modern incarnation of derby, which got its start in the early 2000s in Austin, Texas. The scripted fights have been done away with, as have the banked tracks. The flat tracks allow anyone with tape and gym access a chance to play.
I was able to speak with some skaters who remember derby as it was in those early days, including Yankee Scandal of the DC Rollergirls and Futz from NOVA. Scandal started skating with DC in 2009, but had her first experience with derby in 2005.
“I was living in Arizona and there was an article in the newspaper about roller derby,” she said. “I went and it was amazing. But I didn’t follow up. I was just like, ‘That’s a really cool thing; those girls are really bad ass.’”
Before she skated over, Slam had pointed Scandal out to me. On skates, she’s intimidating. Her strides are long and mesmerizing, and you feel somehow wild watching her. I imagined camping in Wyoming and stumbling upon a moose or bighorn – you can’t help but look, though you would never take a step closer.
But she was more approachable with her helmet off and mouthguard out. Scandal is a fish biologist by day and before moving to DC, she had refed some derby in Massachusetts.
“At that time, [derby] was just so glitzy and glam – the fishnets and the style. It’s still a very rough sport, but it just seemed so much more dirty and grungy. And the hits – people used to get wiped out.”
Futz said much the same as Scandal.
“I’ve been skating since 2010, and the game is nothing like it used to be. Derby was skate fast, turn left. There was very little strategy and a lot of big hits.”
Scandal said she misses some of the kitschiness and will still skate in a skirt for home bouts, but I never got the sense she thinks that derby’s lost something. Same with Futz. And I think that’s because regardless of the reason a skater may get into derby – whether it’s to “wear glitter and hit people,” as Scandal told me about one of her teammates, or just for the exercise – the derby community is what they stay for.
Scandal told me that in moving to DC for work, she didn’t know anyone and derby became her family. In fact, the girls she met in Fresh Meat Camp – an aptly named bootcamp for beginners held by many leagues – remain her best friends.
“I had literally nothing and I found a family,” Scandal said. “When my father passed away, one of the first calls I made was to my captain to let them know I was going away, and they sent flowers to his funeral.”
Futz described a similar level of support from her teammates.
“I’ve had people help with childcare, cook my family meals when I was sick, help me put air in my tires – you name it, NOVA probably provides it.”
In derby we trust.
The positive impact of the derby community extends to its officials. I was able to speak with the head referee for FSRD, Wagnarok, and he had a number of stories to share. It’s common practice for skaters to skate with local derbies when they travel, and because Wagnarok is in the military, he’s had the chance to participate in derbies around the world.
“The leagues have different cultures and traditions, but it’s not hard to break into it because we all have that roller derby family in common,” he told me. “Honestly, roller derby gives me friends and family all over the world. I’m still friends with people I met in Australia.”
Roller derby also helped Wagnarok get through a time when he was suffering from PTSD.
“Free State supported me through those times where I wasn’t as strong as I wanted to be – as an official and a person. I’ve tried to return the favor as much as I can. They stuck with me through the good and the bad.”
Flat track has done away with the scripts and now it’s just bad ass women – and bad ass people in general – still skating, still hitting and still saving some glam for home bouts, but mainly supporting each other in whatever they want or need.
Come for a bout and see why derby is still picking up fresh meat. The DC Rollergirls had their season opener February 24, NOVA has their first bout March 17 and FSRD has theirs March 25.
For more info on upcoming bouts and local teams, visit: