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Talk derby to me

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Manic Attackers' blockers form a wall at UIC Pavillion Photo by Colin A. Hill
Manic Attackers’ blockers form a wall at UIC Pavillion Photo by Colin A. Hill

You can’t get into the Batcave. That’s the informal name the skaters give to their secret practice space on the West Side. By day, they’re women of many different ages and backgrounds. But a few nights a week, they enter to the Batcave to put on another persona: as the fast, formidable athletes of the Windy City Rollers, Chicago’s roller derby league.

Paying civilians can see a roller derby game – “bout,” in derby language – at the UIC Pavillion, where the league has played since 2009. But the private practices between the league’s four home teams in the Batcave are even more intense when viewed up-close. The women of roller derby assume creatively-named alter-egos and wear punk outfits, but they’re doing it while playing a sport that’s nothing less than combat on roller skates.

“We all share this fire-breathing athleticism that keeps us together as a team,” says Minerva Damage of the Double Crossers.

Flat track roller derby has plenty of rules, but here’s the essence of it: Five players from each team line up on an elliptical track the size of a basketball court. Each team has one player who can score called a jammer, who takes position behind the other eight. When the whistle blows, everyone skates at high speed around the track. The jammer has to push her way through the pack, and as soon as she does, she skates all the way around the track to do it again. The rest of the opposing team, called blockers, slow down and form a wall to stop her, while her teammates attempt to force open a hole. What follows is a battle of a hips and shoulders (but no elbows or tripping) as the jammer fights her way through a tangle of body parts, sometimes leaping, or skating backwards, trying to score: one point for for each opposing blocker passed.

Janicide Joplin and Beaux Dozer look on as players on the track skate by in a blur. Photo by Colin Hill
Janicide Joplin and Beaux Dozer look on as players on the track skate by in a blur. Photo by Colin Hill

Frequently, players are flung off the track towards the spectators.

“That’s a lot of explosive power,” says Minerva. “You slow down, you speed up, you bust through people. You have to hit people to get around them, and they want to take you out.”

photo by @colinmhill
At the practice arena, the league takes a break from skating to discuss rules. Photo by Colin Hill

A corps of referees on skates keep up with the melee from the track interior, on the lookout for illegal contact and other rule breaking. They have derby names too, and are practically athletes as well; officials “do more than half the skaters,” says Dinah Party, a player for the Fury.

The energy stays high in the Batcave throughout the practice, first a scrimmage between the Hell’s Belles and Manic Attackers, then another, Double Crossers versus Fury. The room only goes quiet when an official is injured; the players kneel and wait in silence until the medic gives the all-clear. Everyone chuckles, and the battle on skates resumes.

Roller derby is an amateur sport, and Windy City Rollers players range in age from the minimum of 21 to their 40s. They identify themselves as professionals, students, moms and more. Right now, the league is just looking for a bigger space to replace the Batcave. But given the chance, some of players say they would go pro.

“Eventually I believe it will become professional, but for now I’m happy where it is,” says Janicide Joplin, a player for Fury and the All-Stars team. She adds that one day she hopes it will be an Olympic sport.

“It is changing, it’s becoming more mainstream every year, with more teams starting [around the world],” says Trouble Helix of the Hell’s Belles, though she confesses going pro would conflict with her career as a medical researcher. But, she says, “it’s easy to start. All you need is a floor about the size of a basketball court, and skates.”

Every month, the Windy City Rollers pull up the track in the Batcave and move it to UIC Pavillion for a double-header. The league’s events calendar and tickets can be found here. 

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