Back in 2005 when I was in my 20s, my best friend told me that she had heard that a group of girls were trying to start a roller derby league. I knew very little of roller derby at the time, but I did know that I was looking for things to do with my time so when she asked me to go with her to the first practice, I was game.
That practice consisted of about 10 of us, in an old, run down building called the Bohemian Club. Not too many years later, the Detroit Derby Girls (DDG) was a fully functioning business consisting of 4 home teams and an all-star travel team. Since I retired in 2009, they have grown even bigger (5 home teams and 3 travel teams) and continued to be a wonderful example of female unity; race, religion, sexuality, etc. all be damned.
The DDG has always been women and skater owned and operated. That was huge for me. Especially in those early days when we were all working together to figure out how to put on our first bouts. Event planning was something I had never done before and we all just kind of threw ourselves in, had a few drinks, pounded out our notes on a legal pad, and went for it. And it worked! One of the girls was an artist and drew all the graphics for decorations and programs, I was the writer so I worked on the content for the programs, many of the women who had a bit more experience in business than I did at that point, negotiated with the venue (we played at the Detroit Masonic Temple, a beautiful and historical venue), did the math regarding ticket prices, etc. Before I knew it, I was a part of something that felt huge.
Outside of some of the business acumen I picked up in the early years, what I really cherished was that I had found a place where after a long day in the “real world” I could meet up with a large group of women who, like me had a lack of concern regarding conforming to societal norms. It should be stated that I injured myself very early on in the formation of the league and ended up taking on a coaching role. In our first mini-season, there were only two teams. The KILLpatricks and The Motown Hit Squad. I managed the latter. As we got bigger and formed more teams, our two exhibition teams were disbanded and we put together a draft. The team I ended up coaching was The Pistoffs (you know, like the Pistons…get it?).
These girls were tough, self-assured and didn’t take a lot of crap, which honestly scared me at first. I was always a bit more meek and more agreeable. Having to step up and coach these women was a test of my ability to pull from my newly found confidence. Or at least fake it. While there were a lot of women like me working my first real job out of college and just starting to get a handle on life, there were also mothers, execs, artists, any type of woman you could imagine. It was comforting to realize that no matter the lifestyles of the women within the group, we all had this one thing in common and that was all you needed to have respect and friendship from the league.
Being an active part of Roller Derby for almost 5 years was a major part of my life and a massive part of who I am today. While there was still a lot of work to be done on myself after leaving (and there continues to be a lot of work to be done) I can pinpoint my time with the DDG as the beginning of my self-discovery. Yes, it’s a bit violent, and yes there are costumes, and yes there are provocative derby names (mine was Glamazon) and for those of you wondering…yes…it’s real (just ask my arthritic left knee). It is also a great activity for women, young and old. It’s a way to feel powerful, to feel in control and to feel…honestly, bad ass.
I was recently reminded that next year will be the 10th anniversary of the Detroit Derby Girls. While I’m no longer in the state, I can’t wait to go back and see all the people I spent so much time with, meet the newer girls and celebrate the league that helped to build me.
Toni Cunningham is the author of the entertainment blog Splash of Tonic. She works in Social Media and in her free time can be found volunteering at places like The Tribeca Film Festival. She has a history of writing film reviews for publications such as Real Detroit Weekly, and providing Script Analysis for BlueCat Screenplay Competition and Goldcrest Films.