Dames, see them rollin'

Dames%2C+see+them+rollin%26%23039%3B

In order for the Druid City Dames to take on opponents, they have to meet a certain number of requirements laid out by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. CW | Shelby Akin

Sam West

Feeding off the energy of the crowd, Lola pushed herself and finished her final lap just under the buzzer. The room filled with applause. She had surmounted the most difficult part of her training and was well on her way to being able to compete with Tuscaloosa’s only roller derby league.

This team, the Druid City Dames, is just a few months old. They lack a practice space of their own and have yet to be recognized by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, but they have the camaraderie and spirit of a group that’s been around for years.

“When they first started here, I went to the first meeting at Druid City [Brewery], and it was like finding 35 friends,” said Heidi Benstead, who goes by “Ebola Lola.” “You’re going to hear a lot of that – ‘Derby saved my life!’ But it’s the most amazing and positive group.”

The Dames were started by Megan Gunter, known on the rink as Valhallaback Girl. Before founding Tuscaloosa’s team, she commuted to Birmingham to be a part of their group, the Tragic City Rollers. She decided to gauge local interest in the sport on Facebook and received a surprising number of responses. Through social media, Gunter met Kelly Wolfe, also known as “Assault E. Senorita” or “Salty” for short, who now acts as the team’s coach.

Before the team can even think about taking on opponents, they have to meet a certain number of requirements laid out by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. These tests include the speed challenge Ebola Lola passed earlier in the night. Wolfe thus spends most of a practice drilling players on these skills.

“Even in the two months and a week and a half that we’ve been doing this, we can already see skill levels starting to expand from one level of the spectrum to the other,” she said.

As a coach, Wolfe strikes a balance between stern and friendly. She’s more comfortable skating than I am walking, gliding effortlessly between groups of women to correct their mistakes as well as encourage them.

An important part of the sport’s culture are players’ roller derby nicknames. In practice and competition, a skater becomes her alter ego and doesn’t go by her street name at all. These handles are usually designed to be tough- or clever-sounding. A few other skaters I met had monikers like Apocalyptic J, Edgy Thrashgood, and Slaughterhouse V.

But for all its humor, competition roller derby has a surprisingly complex series of rules. It involves two teams of five: three blockers, one jammer and one pivot. You score points by having your jammer pass members of the opposing team. The blockers play both offense and defense, assisting the jammer and preventing the members of the other team from scoring.

Contrary to the popular belief, it’s not permitted to roughhouse or attempt to knock people over. You can bump a player’s side, but using your hands or elbows to hit is a foul.

“Everyone thinks of the 1970s movies, with violence, or they’ll think everyone wears tutus and fishnets and that’s really not the case,” said Julianne Davenport, also known as “Dolldemort.” Davenport is a non-skating official who is helping the Dames prepare to compete under regulation.

Violence might be a pop cultural myth, but roller derby is still a contact sport, and tumbling over seems to be common. Every Druid City Dame competes and practices in full protective gear. Players are also taught to jump and land while skating, so they can leap over fallen competitors during the heat of a match.

Davenport said she thinks that roller derby is popular because there are few competitive sports for women. To her, the game strikes the right balance between rivalry and friendship.

“It’s competitive for women, but it’s not tearing-you-apart competitive,” she said. “Really, how many organizations are for women to go out and be tough and still be cool with each other?”

However, the future of the Dames seems to be up in the air. They’re currently practicing at the YMCA, but at the end of the month, their space will be given over to local basketball, leaving the team without a home.

“We’re looking for a new location, and if we don’t find one… we’re going to have to be playing in parking lots,” said Gunter. “I always said, if we have to play in parking lots, we’ll play in parking lots.”

The team has begun the search for a new location, but hasn’t yet found the right one. Even in the worst case scenario that they have nowhere to turn, Wolfe still feels they’ve accomplished a lot during their time together.

“We have some girls who are stronger than they ever would have been if they had not started roller derbying,” she said. “They know how to be a part of a team, they know fitness, they know endurance… everybody’s much stronger for it.”

The group is still hopeful, however. Wolfe said that her dream scenario would be for the Dames to own their own space and be able to compete on the same level as Birmingham’s team.

“I want to be bigger than Birmingham,” she said. “We’re Tuscaloosa. We’re the Crimson Tide… we’re supposed to have the most awesome roller derby team in the state of Alabama. It’s just supposed to be that way.”