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Derby Dames

I was pretty sure I was bitchin’. Dope on a rope. Wicked hip. I was fairly certain I had “badass” scrawled all over me. Then last week I met the roller derby chicks.

Half-scrambling, half-gliding around a no-frills rink in a concealed corner of Earl Warren Showgrounds, the Mission City Brawlin’ Betties learned me that there’s cool — and then there’s roller-derby cool. And while I may take the occasional lap around the former, I will never so much as accidentally roll downhill into the latter. That’s cooler than a polished concrete flat track in the shade. That’s cool on wheels.

I’m no slouch on skates. An only (lonely) child, I spent entire Hollywood weekends shooting the moon in hot pink denim. So when a couple of girlfriends told me they were trying out for Santa Barbara’s new roller derby team, I strutted over to check it out.

Invented in the 1930s, roller derby is a full-contact sport in which knee-padded, hot-pants’d gals race each other around an oval track at break-bone speed, trying to block opponents from passing them. It was huge in the ’70s, selling out arenas like Madison Square Garden, and has enjoyed a recent revival, with more than 75 leagues across the country. Drew Barrymore’s much-anticipated derby flick Whip It opens in October.

What’s not to love? I fell hard for the derby dames. Magenta satin bra straps beneath wife-beater tanks. Polka-dot short shorts atop fishnet stockings. Sparkly red helmets and argyle skull-and-crossbones knee socks. Mee-YOW.

Then there are the flirty-aggro nicknames. Ranging in age from 20 to 41, the Betties are known as Viva Violence, Danger Kitty, Nurse Perverse. There’s a tall redhead called Cherry Napalm. My friend, a diabetic, skates as Lo-Blo SugGrr.

“Everybody out there has fun hair colors and tattoos,” said Lo-Blo, who joined up for the exercise. Burning up to 600 calories per hour, they do squats, jumps, barrel rolls, and Superman slides — all with old-school shoe skates on the ends of their impossibly toned legs.

“It’s a tough game to play. There’s sort of a brutal aspect to it,” admitted Stray Cat, a PTA mom who plays for the Central Coast Roller Derby in Paso Robles. She’s trained more than 100 derby girls, including a few from northern Santa Barbara County. “When you first start, there’s the fear aspect of, ‘Am I gonna knock a tooth out?’ But once you’ve fallen a few times, it’s like, ‘Eh, no big deal.'”

Cat swears derby offers an “intoxicating” combo of camaraderie and confidence. “It feels like being in a very positive girl gang,” she said, “a cross between a sorority and a fight club.”

In Santa Barbara, the new recruits — alternately called “Baby Betties” and “fresh meat” — pant through wheeled calisthenics while pitiless, pig-tailed coach Dita de los Muertos bellows at them: “Don’t look at your feet, you’ll fall! Hey, pink helmet, I saw that! Head up!”

The veterans scrimmage in preparation for a Visalia bout on Saturday (a local match is still to be scheduled in September; check their Facebook page). Every lap or two, there’s a fall and a pileup of bodies clacking and “oof”-ing as they hit the pavement.

I’m told the chick in the star helmet is the “jammer,” and her job is to lap the rest of the pack. I have no idea what’s going on, but by the end, the dames’ once-white tanks are baseball-cleat filthy, their faces flushed, their clothes soaked with sweat.

Staring in awe from the sidelines, I’m not sweaty. Not even warm. And worst of all — now certain I could never summon the quad strength, or quash the wussiness, required to roll with the Betties — I find I’m not even within slapping distance of cool.

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