She laced her skates to fit snug; the blue and red strings worn a bit just like the wheels below the metal frame. This same pair of quad skates has taken her around the track, the rink and the town, many times. But this isn't a couples-only skate or some retro party—it's Red Stick Roller Derby.
Between two teams, Diables Rouges and the Capital Defenders, nearly 40 women participate in the toughest sport on wheels. On and off the track, they are a force to be reckoned with, yet a delight to see. Dressed in the classic attire, their uniforms are a proper juxtaposition of fire and flirt. It's where fishnet stockings and ruffled skirts meet decorated helmets and mouth guards.
The local derby team was founded in 2007 by a pair of LSU students eager to bring the sport to Baton Rouge after seeing it in New Orleans. In 2009, roller derby made its way into national pop culture with the film, "Whip It," starring Ellen Page. The local team rode off the film's popularity, making appearances at viewings, and promoting practices.
I went to a sneak preview of 'Whip It,' and the team was there," said English senior "Madie Sans Merci." "A friend of mine from high school was involved, but I never joined because I figured you had to be good on skates already. They told me I didn't, and they would teach me everything I needed to know."
With plenty of fresh meat, the Red Stick women had enough members to create two teams and have become one of the most successful teams in the state.
The first roller derby was seen in Chicago in 1935, on a banked surface. Then, it was more of an endurance test, rather than a competition. Over the years, the rules evolved into what they are now—as followed by the Baton Rouge team.
Currently, Red Stick Roller Derby is an apprentice member of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, or WFTDA. They must compete in a number of "bouts" (derby lingo for a match) with teams approved by the league. Until the team is a member of the WFTDA, the members cannot compete on a national level.
The object of derby is simple. Each team sends five players onto the track at once—four are known as blockers and one is the jammer, who sports a star on her helmet. The blockers for each team line up together in a pack, with both jammers 30 feet behind the group. At the first whistle blow, the pack takes off around the track. At the second blow, the jammers start. The jammer scores points for the team when she laps skaters from the opposing team.
Because there are so many players and positions on the track at one time, there are several referees in the center of the track to watch for fouls and penalties.
One referee, alumna "Panda Scare," said she didn't feel confident on her skates until she competed in two full bouts.
"I saw a derby flyer in a coffee shop, and it stayed in my mind," she said. "I was working with our head referee, who pushed me along. I had never seen a game, but I fell in love with it."
"People on our team have work and school. They are moms, wives, and students," said roller derby referee and alumna "Panda Scare." "It makes it so much harder because there's stuff outside of derby."
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Making A (Derby) Name For Yourself
Aside from the burlesque, yet powerful, fashion and the traditional skates, having the right derby name is an integral part of the sport. So, what's in a name?
"You don't want it to be too out there," Panda said. "Try to make it tough, yet family-friendly."
Panda's name seems like an obvious choice, given the black and white striped uniform, but she said it's coincidental.
"I love bears. They are awesome," she said. "They're like 'I'm cuddly' or 'I'm going to eat you'."
She said now that she knows the team by their derby names, they seem more fitting than the ones on their birth certificates.
"Once you get your derby name, why would you call them anything else?"
The Roller Girls
Like a beloved superhero, these women are one thing by day—LSU students, librarians, professors—and another by night.
"We're a pretty diverse group of women as far as ages, occupations and personalities, but we're all very supportive of one another," said Middleton Library Associate "Cup Quake."
The team assigns each other "Derby Wives," who serve as buddies for any needs in or outside the team activities.
"We're all the weird kids who had trouble finding friends," Panda said. "In the end, if I didn't have these girls, I'd be really lonely."
LSU graduate and derby vice-president "Schexorcist," who received her master's degree in forestry, said her education in a mostly male-related field made derby a unique experience.
"I love my girls, and I love how we stick together and would do anything for each other," she said. "It's a bond that will last forever. It's like a 'NASCAR on skates' sorority."
Since all of the members have lives outside of derby, it's agreed that the time commitment is a balancing act.
"We're all dedicated ladies," Madie said. "Some people have families and careers that you wouldn't imagine. We aren't your everyday athletes. We have to maintain those lives and families and do this for fun."
Rolling With It
The women of Red Stick Roller Derby are having fun where they are, but a majority of them have bigger dreams for the future of their team.
Currently, their season runs from January through August, opposite the LSU football schedule.
"There isn't as much of a want for a derby," Panda said. "Southern culture just isn't on the uptake for it."
Although the team is embarking on their fourth year, they struggle with numbers as they are always looking for new members and involvement from the community.
"We exist. So many times, I've said I play roller derby, and people are like, 'Baton Rouge has a roller derby team?'" Schexorcist said.
The team competes in bouts at home, the Baton Rouge River Center, and away as far as they can drive on their own dime. This season, they've competed against the Houston Roller Girls, the Hub City Roller Girls from Hattiesburg and the Mississippi Rollergirls from Biloxi. Their next home bout is March 19, against the Beach Brawl Sk8ter Dolls from Ft. Walton and the Magnolia Roller Vixens from Jackson, Miss.
"We do have a limited ability to travel," Panda said. "The furthest we've gone is to Fort Walton. But other teams help us, and we try to help them and let them crash on our couches."
The team often carpools to cities such as Lafayette, Alexandria, Hattiesburg, Biloxi, Auburn, Houston and Beaumont.
"I hope that one day we get to go to nationals," Schexorcist said. "I would also like to see our league increase in its members. It would awesome to have more ladies join this sport no matter what your age."
Last year, Panda went to Chicago to watch the derby national championship bout. There, she said she got to meet players and referees she admired and enjoyed talking shop with those just as passionate about derby.
Join The Club
Most of the derby women learned to skate once they joined the team, and they encourage others to do the same.
"Come out and try it," said Cup Quake. "Realize that many of us looked like ice skating baby giraffes when we first started, so no one expects you to hit the track as an ace."
New members go through skate training and learn proper derby techniques, before they complete a skills test and a timed event. After weeks of practicing, new members are placed on a team. After all is said and done, the hard work reaps great rewards.
"It'll make you so much happier," Madie said. "You'll be more confident, and you'll make friends with some amazing girls. I always say I don't know what my life was before roller derby, and I don't know what it would be without it, but I know it wouldn't be any semblance of good."
Holly A. Phillips | Editor | Office of Communications & University Relations