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Belles of the Bay (Read)

on March 7, 2012

Eight women in helmets, bulky protective pads, tight spandex and rollerskates gather in a pack. Just behind them, two girls — the jammers — are side-by-side, preparing to attack the rink in front of them. A referee blows a whistle twice, sharply, which is followed by a clacking of skates and the soft thud of bodies slamming into each other. The Richmond Wrecking Belles were off to a fast start against The Oakland Outlaws in the Bay Area Derby Girls’ roller derby season opener on Febrary 25.

Chantilly Mace, one of Richmond’s top skaters, is the first jammer up for her team. She acts quickly, improvising how to push through the pack ahead of the Outlaws’ jammer. Whichever one of them does it faster will become the “lead jammer,” who can strategically end this round of game play whenever she wants. Then, after she passes the other players, the jammer will gain a point for every opposing player she laps.

A collision during the season opener game causes a pile-up on the track. (photo by: Lexi Pandell)

The Outlaws try to block Mace and other Belles with the fleshiest parts of their bodies, sticking their butts as far as they can to guide players out of bounds, or throwing their shoulders into the paths of oncoming skaters. But Mace moves effortlessly, darting between blockers and jogging on her toe stops, the rubber block on the front of her skates. She gently pushes past the other skaters and emerges through the pack before the other jammer. Her small pigtails stream behind her as she speeds away.

On the sidelines, the crowd roars every time a jammer dodges past blockers and sucks in their collective breath when someone tumbles to the ground. Some girls fall gently on their kneepads and spring up quickly, but others collapse in tangled heaps, their bodies smacking sharply against the floor.  A few thin girls are stronger than they appear and send bigger players flying through the air. Green, blue, orange, pink wheels whirr onward like a low-flying swarm of bees.

If women had a sports equivalent of football, this would be it — except everything from sprinting to dodging to shoving is done on roller skates.

Games, called bouts, consist of 30-minute halves made up of two-minute shifts known as jams. Each team puts five women on the track per jam, including one jammer for each team who’s the only person who can score points. The other four players, called blockers, use their arms, hips, butts and shoulders to open the way for their team’s jammer or to block an opponent’s jammer.

Close up with the Belles' skates. (photo by: Lexi Pandell)

Minor penalties are awarded for a foul that entails physical force but does not greatly affect the game—for example, going out of bounds to get around a blocker. Major penalties are assessed when a player racks up four minor infractions or does something that could seriously hurt another player, like elbowing, punching or purposefully falling. Major violations result in one minute in the penalty box per infraction. If the jammer from one team is benched for a major penalty, the play is called a “power jam,” meaning that the other jammer is free to score as many points as she pleases before the jam concludes.

In its original form, roller derby was more spectacle than sport. The “rules” were the same except bouts were choreographed much like WWE wrestling. Girls donned sexy short-shorts and fishnets, and the game was more about fake fighting than actual athleticism.

But all that has changed in the modern, much more serious iteration of derby. “The women took the sport back and re-envisioned it,” Mace says. The first ever Roller Derby World Cup was held in Toronto last December and proponents of the sport are vying for it to be included in the 2020 Olympics.

The Bay Area Derby Girls league, also known as B.A.D. Girls, is one of the most competitive in the West. The skater-owned and operated nonprofit started in 2004 with just two teams, the San Francisco ShEvil Dead and the Oakland Outlaws. Since then, it has grown to include two additional teams, the Richmond Wrecking Belles and the Berkeley Resistance.

For Eva Menace, a Wrecking Belle and head of public relations for B.A.D. Girls, derby today is less about sexy girls on skates than showcasing strong women athletes. “It’s actually about being an athlete, having tough physical and mental fitness, and just going out there and sweating,” she says.

Demanda Riot, a member of the Richmond Wrecking Belles and the Bay Area All Stars team, is a fierce competitor on the track. (photo by: Lexi Pandell)

The Belles pulled off an undefeated season last year. They owe their success in part to a roster of veteran players, like founding captain Liza Machete, a blonde with tattoos decorating her upper body and gauged, or stretched, earlobes. Another weapon in the Belle’s arsenal is the nationally famous Demanda Riot, known for wearing her hair in long dreads and painting her face with great smears of black and white before every match. Sometimes she even inks her teeth. She is rarely seen off the track without her signature make-up. She is fierce.

The Belles hope to repeat their success in 2012. Including the season opener, the Belles will compete in at least six bouts before the B.A.D. Girls Season Championships in August. Five of the Belles will compete on the 2012 B.A.D. Girls All Stars team, a composite group of the league’s 20 best players also known as the Golden Girls who will go on to the western regionals in the fall. Those top players will go on to represent the Bay Area in national competition.

But first the Belles have to return from an off-season of rest and recovering, and they have five new players on a team of 19 skaters. Even though the Belles bested the Outlaws last year, the Outlaws still have four skaters on this year’s All-Stars Team and drafted a number of new players.

Anything could happen.

A few days before the season opener, the teams held a scrimmage in the B.A.D. Girls’ center, a big warehouse in West Oakland decked out with posters for Pabst Blue Ribbon and signs that say things like, “Let your girls play” and “Ring my Belle.” The old-sweat stench of a gym hangs heavy in the air. Between practices, scrimmages and bootcamps, the warehouse is used every day of the week. A track is delineated by pink tape and a disco ball dangles from twine above the center of the rink.

A Belle waits on the sidelines for her turn to scrimmage. (photo by: Lexi Pandell)

The girls call each other by their derby names, funny or fear-inspiring nicknames that define a player’s alter ego, like Lusty Malice, Baron von Punchausen and Skatelyn.

It’s a team sport, but each skater projects her own individual style. The Golden Girls from the All Stars team often wear sparkly gold helmets to show their status. Others decorate their helmets with their names or provocative stickers like, “You’re not a hemorrhoid, so get off my ass.”

Derby is known for attracting punks and Bettie Paige look-alikes, but girls of all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life are welcome. Some of the players discovered roller derby after watching the 2009 Drew Barrymore film Whip It, while others have been skating for many years. A few girls look like they could barely be served a beer at a bar while others are well into their 30s. Angel Maker, a Belle and a single mom, even brings her young son to practices. At the scrimmage, he sits patiently on the sidelines while his mother coasts around the rink.

Some girls are covered in tattoos; most are covered in bruises. Roller derby is not a sport for the faint of heart. Injuries are common, as they are in any contact sport, but especially one that throws roller skates into the mix.

First up for the pre-season scrimmage were the ShEvil Dead and the Belles. As the action began, the players on the sidelines screamed, “Get her, get her!” At one point, one of the Belles shouted at a ShEvil Dead player, “Stop being so mean!” The women just practiced a few rounds, but it seemed like the teams were well matched.

The Wrecking Belles huddle up to talk strategy during their scrimmage. (photo by: Lexi Pandell)

At the end of the scrimmage, the Belles gather to talk strategy while the Berkeley Resistance and the Outlaws start warm-ups for their own practice. “What did I do wrong that f**ked my team and what can I do to change it?” Liza Machete said to her team as they gathered on the sidelines. The Belles nodded in agreement, reflecting on their performances.

The Belles end their talk by throwing their hands into the middle of their circle and lifting them with a loud “Whoooo!”

Two days later, at the Belles v. Outlaws season opener in the Craneway Pavilion, derby fans overflow both the bleachers and foldout chairs alongside the ring. Many sit on the ground, up close and personal with the suicide barrier—a bumper just a foot tall that separates the onlookers from the skaters.

The announcers, members of the San Francisco ShEvil Dead, introduce the Outlaws, calling out each skater’s name and number over the loudspeaker. The group glides around the ring with black bandanas tied around their faces. The Outlaws stay in a close formation and skate back and forth slowly, menacingly. Next, the Belles come onto the track. The girls smile and wave their arms in the air as their names are announced.

The Oakland Outlaws keep in a tight formation as each player's name is announced over the loudspeaker. (photo by: Lexi Pandell)

The Belles start the season opener on top, with Mace securing lead jammer during the first jam and scoring four points before ending the shift. After those first few points, Oakland never catches up. The Belles quickly rack up 21 points to Oakland’s zero. Soon, it’s 43 to 5 as Belles’ skater Chiquita Bonanza speeds around the track during a power jam.

“I love how when Chiquita leads, she gets a big smile like, ‘Yay! I’m lead jammer,” one of the announcers says.

All roller derby players have to pass a minimum skills test before joining B.A.D. Girls, mainly to demonstrate they are capable of abiding by basic safety rules. But they also have to prove that they’re fast. Anyone who competes in the league must be able to do 25 laps in a mere five minutes. That’s a minimum. Give one of these jammers the opportunity to score as many points as she can, and she will rack them up quickly.

Some Belles slap a high five as they are being introduced to the crowd. (photo by: Lexi Pandell)

“Nice whip from Little Miss Masochist,” says an announcer as the Belles’ Little Miss flings Kutya Cackoff, the jammer, forward by the arm to propel her ahead of the group.

At halftime, the score is 111 to 25. Clips from past warm-ups and games flash on a big screen suspended above the track. Outside, a food truck serves up Mexican-American fare while inside vendors range from Girl Scouts selling cookies to artists promoting their work. Some older folks seated in the VIP section chat about the game, a few punks sip beers up high in the bleachers, and a group of hipsters rests on blankets on the ground, playing a board game they brought to pass the time. “Bad Girls” by M.I.A. blasts on the stereo and a girl with tattoos dances with her arms in the air. A young couple nearby embraces, swaying awkwardly, and a guy with pegged pants, black commando boots, and thick-rimmed glasses taps his finger to the beat on his cup of beer.

Rejuvenated after the break, the skaters charge back onto the track. The game starts up again and Metric’s indie rock anthem “Help I’m Alive” injects new energy into the game. I tremble. They’re going to eat me alive. If I stumble, they’re going to eat me alive. Can you hear my heart beating like a hammer? Although the Belles don’t overpower the Outlaws as much as they did during the first half, they maintain their strong lead.

At 118 to 32, “Let Me See Those Hips Swing” by Savage blasts and the Belles, comfortable with their advantage, decide to have some fun. Players switch roles. Demanda Riot, normally a blocker, takes a shot at jamming. Despite playing with an ankle injury, she rushes at the other jammer with eyes that could kill and pursed lips. “She’s coming for her! She’s got that look on her face!” one announcer exclaims.

Mace tries her hand at blocking, too. She keeps her eye on the jammers and easily throws her compact body in the opposition’s path. “She was beating them up,” the announcer says. Mace is competing on a pulled hamstring, although nobody can tell the difference.

Baron von Punchausen leads some team members through warm-ups before the game (photo by: Lexi Pandell)

Although the Oakland fans still whoop and holler any time Oakland makes lead jammer or scores points, it looks like the winners have been decided. Oakland makes up some more points, but the game concludes at 167-71. The girls’ arms are red from slamming into each other and it looks like each player will take home a few new bruises, but Richmond is elated. “Undefeated again!” declares one announcer.

“They’re currently undefeated, again. Undefeated in addition to being undefeated last season,” responds the other announcer.

The Belles and Outlaws skate around the ring for a round of high fives with the crowd. Players flash extra big smiles for their friends and family. The Belles then congregate by their benches and give each other hugs, jumping up and down on their skates and congratulating each other. A few spectators step onto the track and the Belles take photos with fans.

Exhilarated from their win, the Belles head to the dressing rooms to unlace their skates, peel off their spandex uniforms and prepare for the after party.

To find out more about upcoming B.A.D. Girls’ games or how to become a derby girl, visit the B.A.D. Girls’ site at 

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