Charlotte Roller Girls, the Queen City's oldest and largest roller-derby league, are gathering for their final practice of the year. It gets rowdy. Between the All-Stars (starters), B-Dazzlers and new recruits, the league boasts about 70 active members, ages 20 to 48. This night, about 30 skaters are in the house and the camaraderie is thick: they're high off their last bout of 2012 — a blowout against Little City in Johnson City, Tenn.
"We usually don't allow spectators at our practices — don't want anyone getting a skate to the face," jokes Total Lizaster, the friendly blonde in charge of publicity. At least, I think she's joking.
Derby names are like a cross between wrestling and rap personas. Newbies must commit to 20 practices before they can choose one, and all names must pass the board's family-friendly criteria. That hasn't stopped skaters from picking handles like Botoxic Bruz' Her, Rita Maneata, Quad Z Moto, Thor Loser, and more.
This evening, new recruits mix with the "grandmas," and all of them wear roller derby-ized holiday gear: tutus, ripped red and green tights and tattoos. It's like second shift at Santa's workshop, except these are the elves who make gifts for the naughty kids. Derby is a rough sport, but for the athletes involved, the benefits outweigh the bruises. Besides the rigorous physical workout, skaters report a boost of confidence in their professional and personal lives that may just stem from kicking butt on a regular basis.
Teams are made up of jammers and blockers. As the only position that scores, jammers are all about strategy and technique. Jammer coach Ella Titzgerald teaches me the proper derby stance: low center of gravity, knees slightly bent. There's one jammer per team on the track during a bout, and they score by passing their opponents while the blockers try to protect their own jammer and derail the other team. It's a dizzying combination of offense and defense.
Looking around at the skaters, who range from elfin to full-figured, I wonder how they'd match up against me. At 200 pounds, I'm feeling a little cocky. Don't be, Coach Titzgerald warns. "A little girl with the right technique can come up against you and knock you right off the track, or get you off-balance and pass you."
A group of 19 successfully passed tryouts last month to become the next class of Roller Girls, and it wasn't easy. Before tryouts, prospective skaters attend clinics that teach derby basics like endurance, stops and lateral moves. They then have to pass a series of assessments, such as completing 25 laps around the track in less than five minutes.
They also have to learn how to drop safely and fall on their pads — until it becomes second nature — and watch out for penalties. But what about legal hits? "That's our whole goal," says Rosie Cheeks, one of the longest-standing members, "hitting someone without a penalty." Legal hits include body checks using the entire side of the body. "The goal is learning to hit where you use all the power you've got."
Cheeks suffered a torn ACL back in November, but she's still at almost every practice, helping out. She keeps a sense of humor about it: "There are risks in every sport. You can live without an ACL; it's just not as fun."
Injuries don't seem to faze the skaters, who talk about their scars with definite notes of pride. Elly Mae Slamett, named after Elly May Clampett of The Beverly Hillbillies, sports tights and a sparkly pink and green tutu. Not too long ago, the 48-year-old also sported a mean shiner. "I had a sweet black eye," she says. She had to wear sunglasses to work, but it turned out to be useful at her next bout: "The other girls were scared of me and kind of got out of my way."
May Burgos, at 20, is the youngest and newest team member, and nowhere near earning a derby name. The UNC Charlotte junior had only used inline skates before, so attending the clinics before try-outs helped her get comfortable with the equipment.
Speaking of which, roller derby is no small investment. Burgos's skates ran $200, but some team members have custom wheels that cost around $1,000. Dues are $35 a month, and each skater must also take out a separate insurance policy on top of their regular health insurance, to cover any injuries from the sport.
The bubbly newbie says she's still not entirely comfortable on traditional skates, but she's getting there. "When I skate, feeling the air hit my face, it's the most amazing thing ever."
Trainer Gerald Bacon — his real name — moved to Charlotte from Minnesota a few months ago and pretty much fell in love with roller derby right away. "It takes passion to hit someone or cut through a pack. Some skaters have to sit on a bench until it sinks in: You get out there and hit a girl. This is roller derby. You're not out there shaking hands."
The sport also develops leadership skills skaters can take off the track, Bacon says. "They bloom into aggressive, powerful beings," Bacon says. "It's an inspiration to watch."
Slamett agrees. "As a parent, I used to base my success on my child's. Now, it's the things I accomplish. We change into something else. Our derby names give us a façade to go behind. That first hit was the first time in my life I'd ever wanted to physically hit someone, other than my sister."
"What scares a lot of women [away from roller derby] is the idea of getting knocked out — laying on the ground with the wind knocked out of you," says Katch Her in the Rye, who trains the B-Dazzlers.
Rye, who has asthma, appreciates that fear, and says there are other ways to get involved. Volunteers are needed to referee, coach, officiate and help with the community outreach efforts the team coordinates annually. This year, they sponsored Girls On the Run, a nonprofit that empowers girls through exercise.
"We have a lot of people that help this organization to run who never strap a pair of skates on their feet. They're important," Rye says. "The thing I like best is everybody can find their niche where they belong."
Training starts back up in January 2013, when Charlotte Roller Girls will host their Derby Prom, and bouts begin in February. For more information, go to www.charlotterollergirls.com.