Sparty Winner for Feature Coverage: Merin McDivitt
Cacaw! Cacaw! Bird calls echo through the packed gymnasium as a muscled woman on wheels sidles up next to the strong Vixen. With a quick movement of her hip, putting her miniskirt in motion, she knocks the skater down to the ground. She falls slowly, as she’s been taught, but the impact as she hits the floor makes her see stars. As the world spins around her, she hopes for a huge bruise instead of a broken bone. She gets back up and says, “Nice Hit!” to the woman who knocked her down.
This is derby.
A fad of the 70s, roller derby was revived in Texas in the early 2000s. The sport’s popularity has grown at a rapid pace internationally since then. In fact, roller derby has become so widespread that its first world cup will be held in Toronto this December. The competition will include teams from Argentina to Scotland to France.
Roller skates, helmets, pads, fishnets, and miniskirts are worn as the athletes zip around a flat track. The style is described by Lansing Derby Vixens member Julie Yingling as “sexy-strong.”
Fearsome and fun alter egos are chosen by the players, often based on a celebrity or a pun. Yingling is known as Ludacrush. Some of her teammates are Lil Miss Cheeky, UR His Tori, and Lil Hitaly.
But flippy outfits and tough names only skim the surface of real derby. This is a women’s full contact sport. Knee injuries, torn ligaments, broken bones, and especially bruises are not uncommon.
“People just keep going to the hospital because of me,” Yingling said.
She tags along with them. Yingling herself has sustained two serious knee injuries in the past year.
But hurting your opponent is not the point. Roller derby is a real sport, and here are the basics. There are four “blockers, who skate in a pack around the track. At the sound of a whistle, two speedy “jammers” from opposing teams take off. For each blocker that a jammer passes, one point is earned for their team. There are penalties, as some parts of the body cannot be used to knock down, and tripping is not allowed.
Blockers and jammers knock each other down frequently, with legal moves like hip checks.
Roller derby is a different kind of sport. There is a huge community of inclusive girls who have a great time at practices. The Vixens make bird sounds for fun, and often hang out or help each other outside of their tri-weekly practices.
During one of Yingling’s knee surgeries, three team members showed up early in the morning to take her to the clinic, take her home, and spend all day with her. When team rookies are nervous, co-owner and bench coach Regina Calcagno, or Lil Hitaly, makes them sandwiches, pizza, and other comfort food.
“I not only found forty friends,” Calcagno said, “but forty women who you can
call in the middle of the night…”
Everyone starts playing derby for different reasons. Some, like founding members Yingling and Calcagno, wanted a community of women who could support one another and have fun.
Yingling, a graduate student at Michigan State University, said, “Roller derby just seemed like a cool alternative to lame graduate student life.” On their website, the Vixens also said “every cool city has [roller derby].” Others, like newer player Kim Layman, known as UR His Tori on the track, wanted to continue playing derby as a way to get fit.
She found the team through her personal trainer, a Vixen herself called Gluteus Maxine, who leads workouts for her teammates. Whatever reason players have for doing derby, the sport has had a significant impact on their lives.
“It’s a real confidence booster,” Calcagno said. Her teammates agree, and
Yingling adds that she likes the “camaraderie” on the team.
Roller Derby has not only boosted their confidence, but Layman said that it has made her more outgoing as well. In derby, curves and bigger hips are an advantage; the women say it had improved their body image as well. Yingling has become more comfortable with her body, saying “There is a place [in derby] for women of every body size.”
Along with their self image, the Vixen’s popularity has grown. Their first home game, called a “bout,” was sold out. The girls have found fans among friends, family, and coworkers. Yingling said that her fellow students come out to see their bouts.
Layman, a credit card administrator, also has many fans in coworkers and family. “Everybody in the county knows that I’m a derby girl,” she said. The network of support, the fans, and the sport itself have had a positive effect on these women’s lives. Layman doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon, and said she would like to continue playing “until I can’t walk.”
They are fiercely loyal and proud of their team, especially their coach, Ryan Knott, whose derby name is Rexxx Manning. The Vixens say that when Manning is complimented, he shrugs it off and talks about the team.
With a home bout on Saturday, the Lansing Derby Vixens are ready for action. When asked what was next for the Lansing Derby Vixens, member Kristen Apaendter answered, “World Domination!”
It sure looks like it.