Los Angeles Derby Dolls

The Dolloseum, Los Angeles, CA

Names like "Fleetwood Smack," "Rebel Killson," "Sheezus," "Shockme Amadeus," "Absolut Jayhem," and "Marina del Rage" might conjure up a band of pun-loving connoisseurs of violence, but the truth is... well, somewhat close.  These are members of the L.A. Derby Dolls, Southern California's premiere banked track female roller derby league, a full contact sport offering thrills on wheels and a group of kick-ass ladies who embody sporting toughness.

Blockers and jammers line up at the starting line of a jam.

Roller derby has been a sport since the 1930s.  Popularized by Leo Seltzer and Damon Runyon, this American-invented competition slowly grew in popularity into the 1970s and 80's, where derby bouts were often played in front of tens of thousands of spectators in stadiums and arenas across the country.  At the same time, the popularity of roller derby led to scripted "sports entertainment" versions, complete with wacky storylines and fabricated behind-the-scenes drama to drum up interests.  Programs like the short-lived RollerGames series filtered theatrical spectacle into the sport (this is a show that featured a gator pit as one of its elements), and with the athleticism overshadowed, the sport fell into relative decline in the decade following.

A Varsity Brawler jammer gets ahead of the pack and sprints forward.

Sometimes, the lead is not so close.

Fortunately, over the past decade and a half or so, roller derby has seen a grassroots revival across the country and has grown again to become a legitimate sport offering the grit of smashmouth football and the thrills of NASCAR collisions.  The Los Angeles Derby Doll league was founded in 2003 and today comprises four adult teams and one junior team across L.A. and San Diego.  Teams in the main league battle each other across a half dozen "bouts" throughout a season, with the top two facing off near the end of the year to determine the league champion.

Fans watch as the ladies tussle around a turn.

As a blocker attempts to hip check, the red-clad Fight Crew jammer shifts to evade the check.

All that padding is needed, because tumbles certainly happen.

Although the action is fast-paced, and exact scoring can be hard to keep pace with, roller derby itself has rather simple rules.  Each bout is comprised of four 12-minute-long quarters, and within each quarter, there are "jams" lasting up to 60 seconds long.  Teams typically skate five-on-five in each "jam," and the goal is to tally up the most points. 

Fight Crew captain Remix to Submission strikes a menacing presence.

A team consists of one "jammer" who serves as the point scorer and four "blockers" who battle each other to prevent the other team's jammer from passing them while allowing their own jammer to break through the pack.  Jammers start by lining up behind the blockers, and a jammer can score on point for each person on the other team she passes after breaking through the pack the initial time.  Scoring ends when the lead jammer calls off a jam by waving from shoulder to hip or when the 60 seconds ends, and strategy often comes into play where a lead jammer will end a jam prematurely to prevent the other jammer from picking up points.  And as with any sport, there are penalties that can result in derby skaters sitting out a jam in the penalty box, which can result in free points for the other team. 

More spills as blockers battle to stifle the opposing jammer (with the star on her helmet) while letting their own jammer pass through.

Sometimes, if you're gonna fall, you might as well fall in style.

That might sound a little complex in writing, but there's a nifty scoreboard in clear display, and it becomes easy to pick up after observing for a few minutes.  Plus, the Derby Doll announcers do a great job of explaining the rules, schemes, and scoring--all while providing entertaining snark and a don't-care-if-it-offends attitude.  There's nothing overly mature here, but in general roller derby is recommended for the PG-13 crowd.

The jammers at the ready position, prepared to skate forth seconds after the blockers begin.

This past Saturday, I had the pleasure of attending a roller derby bout featuring one of my friends from college (the aforementioned Marina del Rage), who has been doing this for quite some time.  Her team, the Fight Crew, was taking on the Varsity Brawlers in a bout with playoff matchup implications.  A win would put them in control of their own destiny toward the championship bout, while a loss would place them in a deep whole unlikely to result in a playoff berth.

Jammers can use their own blockers as protection or to help and sort of propel them forward.

A busy and loaded Dolloseum greeted me as I enterered.  After the skater introductions, the "Star Spangled Banner" was sung, and then, it was time for the action.  The Fight Crew flew out to an early hot start, aided by a few timely penalties, including a "power jam" that sent the Varisty Brawler jammer to the penalty box, preventing them from scoring that round.  The Fight Crew took quick advantage, busting the game open by stretching the jam to its full length and scoring five points off of three laps passing the opposing team (four points per blocker passed plus one for the jammer). 

Sonia Sotomayolo flies around a turn, ahead of the pack.

The Fight Crew had excellent jamming throughout much of this bout.

NY Sk8ofmind (get it?) chases down opposing jammer Moon Bootz.

From there, the Brawlers were never seriously in reach, though they did fight valiantly and rally a couple of times throughout the bout to close the gap toward the teens.  Varsity Brawler jammer Jägerbomb was a pinball through the circuit, darting and skirting around Fight Crew blockers multiple times to score points for her team.  However, the Fight Crew's offense proved more than able to hold off their rivals, with Sonia Sotomayolo breaking into open sprints of her own to lap the Brawlers and score points.  Blockers like Remix to Submission, Belle Scorcho, Lusty Loveless, and Rage worked well in tandem to form walls clogging up Varsity Brawler lanes, and generally stifling their other jammers.

These ladies are tough.  They may fall down...

...but they immediately get right back up and keep going.

The final score of 124-72 underscored the toughness of the battle.  Though the Fight Crew led comfortably most of the bout, a lot of the final difference tallied up near the end of the game.  Both teams displayed the competitiveness and contact aggression that has made this sport so fun to watch.

There's no time to feel sorry for yourself when you take a crash.

Sotomayolo waits at her starting line.

The season continues toward the end of this year, with two bouts in each of the next three months leading up to the championship in December.  Tickets are pretty affordable, starting at $15 per person for standing room ($10 for children, students, seniors, and military) and ranging to $35 for bleacher seating.  They can be purchased online at the L.A. Derby Doll site or at the door.  There is paid parking a block west of the venue or street parking for those who can find it.  The area is relatively industrial-looking and might look a tad shady, but it's actually fine.

As soon as one jam ends, the next group of blockers immediately rushes out toward the railing to jostle for prime position.

Roller derby is an exciting and unique competition and a fun way to spend a Saturday night.  It has its own solid and raucous following, but lack of mainstream attention means it also carries a sort of hip and edgy vibe.  At the very least, the sport is entertaining, and if this seems interesting to you, head over to East L.A. and check out a bout!

And the cycle begins again.

Here are additional photos from last Saturday's Fight Crew vs Varisity Brawlers derby match.

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