Atlanta Rollergirls & The Healing Magic of Roller Derby

Photo: Jeremy Wren

Photo: Jeremy Wren

It’s undeniable that roller derby has become associated with “the ladies”. Popular during the Americana Depression Era, the 1960’s saw a renewed interest, strongly encouraging female participation. Little did these promoters know that these teams would hold steadfast to their love for this counterculture sport, growing it into an underground phenom of their own with serious players and fans alike who revel in the rowdyruff and wild that is roller derby.

Skating’s cultural connection to 1970’s roller disco during a decade where badass dangerous femmes ruled B-movies rubbed off on rollergirl imagineering. Afterall, with BYOB events, roller derby is at punk levels. Its fast paced entertainment, never skimping on the fun, appeals to a variety of demographics, perhaps for different reasons. However, rollergirls themselves hold a common core:  immeasurable self-growth and empowerment.

“Roller Derby in its modern incarnation is a sport that has been 100% organized by the skaters, for the skaters. This is my fifth season with Atlanta Rollergirls, and each year I find myself stepping further out of my comfort zone”, says Marie Provence aka Lady Skatepants of the Sake Tuyas and Rumble Bs. She notes the appeal is beyond just sport: “Most women who have joined will tell you that they found derby during a transitional period in their lives. Being involved is an enormous time and physical commitment, but the unique combination of athleticism and camaraderie within the Atlanta Rollergirls community continues to bring people back year after year.”   

In a world of yoga, ballet, gymnastics, swimming, and other more “ladylike” sports, roller derby is brutal to say the least. With its set of rules and regulations, a heavy presence of refs, blockers and jammers, it is an aggressive contact sport. Roller derby also comes with certain airs of a queer stereotype. We’ve come a long way since Kids in the Hall’s Buddy Cole as a superfag team coach for a “lesbian softball team”, seen as either endearing or offensive regarding comedic commentary of sports and women’s sexuality. In all seriousness, though, roller derby is incredibly inclusive.

Afro Dykee (Photo: O-Jen Ishii Photography)

Afro Dykee (Photo: O-Jen Ishii Photography)

Leah Trotter regards her moniker, Afro Dykee, with pride on multiple levels. “I wanted a name that spoke to who I am/my identity. I also hoped that queer folks who saw the name would connect the name with safe spaces. I think it's important to try to take back and claim spaces that are not always seen as welcoming. I have hopes that my name makes other queer black folk know that they are not alone.”

Trotter has always been athletic and, having played soccer throughout her youth, found a niche with Atlanta Rollergirls. “I tried out and got drafted in 2012. At that point my sister (Queen Loseyateefa) had already been skating for quite some time. I had gone to a lot of her games and realized I was becoming obsessed. It had been a while since I had played competitively. For many folks once you're out of college it's hard to find competitive sports. I realized how much I missed it and didn't want to watch on the sidelines.”

Married couple Lea Murray aka Lez Dispenser and Fiona Cooke aka The Boss recognize roller derby as very queer friendly. “Outsiders tend to think we're all lesbians. As awesome as that'd be, that's untrue. We do have a higher percentage than the national average. I'd guess about 20-25% of our league is lesbian/queer/bi. It is a very accepting culture for the queer community”, Lea says.

Lez Dispenser (Photo: O-Jen Ishii Photography)

Lez Dispenser (Photo: O-Jen Ishii Photography)

Anna went to her first derby in Athens, GA and, inspired, began learning to skate again at the local rink. “I did that for months and coincidentally a rollergirl was at open skate one night and told me about tryouts. I worked up the courage and the rest is history.” Lea struck inspiration through Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It and googled "roller derby Georgia", leading her to the Atlanta Rollergirls. Soon enough she was obsessively researching and practicing for tryouts as well. The couple met through a scrimmage, though living in different cities, dated long distance. Eventually Anna transferred to Atlanta and now married to Lea have recently had a child.

The openness of the community highly appeals to many regarding sexuality and identity, whether queer, poly, trans, gay, straight. As Anna explains, “The sport embraces every kind of person. And quite frankly, no one gives a shit. I say that bluntly but it's just true. Derby has this amazing bubble around it that allows the sport to be incredibly inclusive, welcoming, encouraging, supporting, loving.” The WFTDA states that those who identify as women are welcome to be rollergirls, therefore including transwomen and non-binary individuals. One documentary In The Turn explores a transwoman’s journey as she finds acceptance and empowerment in roller derby. Unfortunately not many sports are as accepting.

“A lot of people say derby saved their souls, and as corny as that sounds, I can see and personally know why it's true,” Anna explains. “Lez and I have seen skaters literally heal through the sport. Through divorce, through death, through heartbreak, body struggles, gender changes… you name it. The community across the world is a powerful force. It's wonderful to see derby girls and guys come together to support one another.” Where there is fierceness in game, there is also greatness of heart. Rollergirls are warriors, each a phoenix rising from a former shadow, showing up. Where they may get knocked down, they get right back up again, to skate as strong as ever, not just through competition but through life.  

Atlanta Rollergirls, once based out of Stone Mountain, hold events in the heart of the city at the Shriner Temple off Ponce De Leon. Support your local rollergirls! They will have two games on Saturday April 22nd, Sakes vs Demons and Rumble Bs vs Greenville Derby Dames.

Get tickets and learn more about the different teams, events and history at atlantarollergirls.com