Nothing about the Funtime Skate Center in Fultondale serves as metaphor for the endeavor that takes place here three nights a week. Not the ghastly stripes of Old Glory glowing neon under the black light, not the four-foot high yellow logo, “Funtime,” printed along the rear left curve of the rink in Back to the Future-like font.
Funtime is the practice space for the Tragic City Rollers (TCR), whose new season will begin in March. Until then, the team trains, indoctrinating new players to the derby.
It’s been a year since Weld first profiled TCR, Birmingham’s all-woman roller derby team — a DIY venture that is skater-owned, skater-operated. What new insights might the women have made in a year?
“Derby is becoming legitimate,” said Heather Meadows, a 26-year-old accountant at an IT firm, who skates under the name Claw & Order and serves as the league president. “It had that wrestling vibe and needed that, probably, to get its footing. It’s become something that empowers women of all backgrounds. … It’s no longer that sport of all elbows and fists; it’s people playing to the best of their abilities, playing legally, by the rules. It’s offense and defense at the same time. It’s fast paced. There’s still huge hits, but it’s not dirty.”
Like a stepsister of figure skating, derby operates as both athletic endeavor and theatric spectacle. During training, though, apart from the use of derby names, the only showiness comes in the prowess of the athletes.
As the women of TCR skate on to the rink at 8 p.m. for practice on a recent Wednesday night, and the throbbing pop music is abruptly cut from the arena’s speakers, witnesses sense something worth watching is about to go down.
A young woman in the employ of the skate center moseys past with a mop bucket toward the bathrooms. The unenviable task-at-hand notwithstanding, the girl pauses every few steps to watch what’s happening as the skaters weave in and out of orange cones — for veterans, the maneuver is one of deft grace, all twirls and dazzle, 360-turns on one skate; while for newcomers, the weave is one of awkward stomps.
Meadows said she first saw TCR skate-marching in a St. Patrick’s Day parade when she was a teenager, and when she told her mother that she would someday play, her mom said, “No way. Those girls are tough.” At the time, Meadows was a shy, artsy kid involved in theater troupes and ballroom dancing.
“It took me six years to convince myself I was tough enough,” she said.
Thirty-year-old Jennifer McKeown, alias Eiffel Power, was a college athlete looking for a way to stay fit when she joined derby. “My dad’s been watching TCR since its inception. … He mentioned roller derby. I kept putting him off, saying, ‘That sounds dumb. Girls roller skating and trying to hit each other?’ But I went to a bout and was at the next practice.”
McKeown is an education coordinator at a local women’s homelessness center, but when she joined TCR, she worked as a third grade teacher and said she kept her derby life a secret because of the sport’s reputation. “I had to keep it under wraps. I don’t think parents of third graders want their kids walking in to a teacher with bruises and tights on. Most people go back to that preconceived notion when it was on TV in the ‘80s so [what we’ve done] is about changing that mentality.”
When she finally did come out to the school as a derby-er, her students attended a bout — her favorite match so far, she said.
Anonymity is no concern to Meadows. Even though she paints a claw on her cheek before bouts, she said she wouldn’t be opposed to skating under her own name. “It’s not necessarily an alter ego, but Claw has become a part of who I am.”
“A lot of teams are moving away from derby names and playing under legal names to put the legitimacy of the sport within mainstream media. If we were pros, and we were being paid to play, and we were known for roller derby, I don’t think the derby names would be quite the component that they are. But we’re volunteers,” McKeown said.
By 8:20 p.m. at Funtime, McKeown was leading the team in drills. While perched on 1-inch wide toe-stops, players crouched and shuffled to the right, then leapt straight up — higher than one expects a roller skater to be capable of jumping. The newcomers’ wheels slip on landing, while veterans like Rachel Fallin (a.k.a. Road Rach) are unfazed and back in ready position.
For Brandi Schlegel, 28, this kind of practice is more than preparation for bouts. A local pet supply store manager who skates under the name Berlin Moll, Schlegel said that derby has changed her.
“You get so caught up in doing the same thing everyday, work, work, work. I got to the point where I was not a very good boss. I was griping at my employees every day. I wasn’t very happy. And I started derby, and that changed,” Schlegel said. “Even though I played sports all through school, I was really out of shape when I started derby. I eat healthier. I quit smoking thanks to derby. I don’t go out and party anymore because I think, No, that’s going to ruin me for derby.”
Her teammates agreed that sacrifice comes in many forms. Meadows said her regular day — of working at her day job, then promoting and planning TCR events and training — begins at 5 a.m. and ends after midnight.
“But what alternatives are there for women our age? Go to the bar? Hang out at a friend’s house? Where else can women compete like this?” Meadows asked of her teammates. “As 20-, 30-, 40-somethings, there’s yoga; you can run; you can bike. We respect men’s derby, even though we don’t have that in this city, but a lot of sports are male dominated. I personally haven’t been to a marathon where the man didn’t have the best time.
“Especially in the South, I think. I feel like in the South, women still don’t play sports. They’re cheerleaders and dancers. Sports? That’s for the guys. That’s changed, of course, over time, but that attitude still exists.”
The experience of derby, Schlegel said, is adrenaline-fueled and exhilarating.
“You’re on a high,” said Natalie Marler, a 34-year-old single mom who works as an office coordinator and skates as Nottashotinhell. “When I first started the workshops, how I felt the next day at work…I was like John Travolta on Saturday Night Fever. You get this personal high from a sense of accomplishment. It’s not like I was sitting on my couch last night with a glass of wine watching TV. I was out there skating my butt off, learning stuff, pushing myself. It carries over into your daily life.”
For Marler, that residual effect impacted her confidence and the way she parents her five-year-old daughter. “It’s about overcoming my fears and insecurities and doubting myself. That’s my motivation. … I’m challenging myself,” Marler said. Doing derby is a way to show her daughter how to be a strong, empowered woman. “I don’t want her to have the doubts and insecurities that I had. I want her to know that anything she wants to do, she can do. I’m there to support her just like she’s here to support me,” she said.
By 8:50 p.m., the team is skating sprints. As they round the corners of the rink, those skating at high speeds nearly enter splits to make the turn. Ringside, Marler’s daughter stands, a stuffed dog and dolphin under arm, a concerned expression on her face, chanting for the players. A fan of The Little Mermaid, she calls herself Ariel Derby and is visibly delighted as the skaters wave and wink as they pass.
A few of the newbies lag behind one lap, and the women begin to cheer until they pass the finish line. “We’re from all different backgrounds, a range of ages, a range of job experiences or no job experience, but you get on the track, and you’re pretty much an equal. I’ve had girls tell me this has done amazing things for their self-image, who never thought they could feel so good about their bodies. We take all sizes: short, tall, curvy, girls who are complete little sticks. You can use that power. You can use whatever your body type is, whoever you are, and make it an attribute on the track.”
The Tragic City Rollers season begins March 22, 6 p.m. at Zamora Shrine Temple. For tickets, visit tragiccityrollers.com. On Friday, Feb. 21, Black Market Bar & Grill will host bingo night for a prize-filled fundraiser for TCR. 8 p.m. Free.