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A Tribe Called Derby

Submitted by: M.D. Cunningham Feature photo by: Scott Bellis; additional photos Steve Jurkovic

Some people got to have it Some people really need it Listen to me why’all, do things, do things, do bad things with it You want to do things, do things, do things, good things with it

– The O’Jays

“I’m wearing somebody’s face,” says Karma Kazi. Karma is an alias or derby name. Her real name is Kym Lozano. She is a senior paralegal and office manager at a consumer rights firm in Chicago, but now that doesn’t matter. Now, Karma is wearing somebody’s face. 

There’s glitter streaked along her shoulder to mark the spot another player’s face landed. Or perhaps, more accurately, the glitter marks where Karma’s shoulder landed. 

“We don’t punch people or throw elbows,” Lozano says. “At least we try not to …”

Lozano is captain for the Illiana Derby Dames, a collective of thirty women from Illinois and Indiana that have fallen in love with what now is an international sport.

Until recently, roller derby’s popularity had peaked decades ago when the sport’s leaders sent it toppling over in convulsions to a fate worse than death by orchestrating matches with predetermined outcomes in the 70s and 80s. Management moves meant to appeal to the masses backfired and the sport, which traces its roots to 30s America, sputtering in obscurity, was all but forgotten till women in the early 2000s from Austin, Texas, resurrected it. 

Today roller derby is on the table for the next summer Olympics. Although men’s, co-ed and junior leagues exist, the sport is dominated by female amateurs like Lozano. 

“People don’t realize that when they come to one of our bouts (game) that every single person there, including the refs … are volunteering to be there,” she said. “No one gets paid to do this. We do it for the love of the game.”

Photographer Scott Bellis is a regular at derby bouts. He says folks may still have lingering notions of fixed-melodramas, but make no mistake the athleticism that’s on display is real.

“There’s nothing fake about this,” he said. 

Bellis said he remembers seeing an ankle break. The player’s shrieks of pain were so intense that refs asked DJs, a staple at games, to turn up the music, sparing the crowd from the macabre. Not surprisingly, another staple always on hand is medical personnel.

“It’s a weird thing; a weird obsession,” said Zoe Braselton who is assistant coach of the Derby Dames. “We have a girl right now that tore her ACL and is fighting with her doctor to get cleared to skate.”

Braselton said that it’s not uncommon for new players to quickly latch on to the game, which has a rich and vibrant culture. 

Registered nurse Jen Sewell, aka Demolition Daisy, got into the sport with her longtime friend Jenna Sickinger, or Jennacide. She said that she’s played on “many, many” sports teams ranging from softball, soccer and basketball, and has never been in a more accepting and fun atmosphere with such “amazing” people. 

“I love team sports and this sport is extremely welcoming to everyone,” she said. “We love all skaters regardless of age, shape, size, color, religion, sexual orientation, some women have kids, some have chosen not to have kids, some are covered in tattoos and piercings, some have no tattoos.”

She said the support skaters extend to each other, even from rival teams, goes beyond the realm of roller derby and stretches across “every aspect of life.”

“The derby community as a whole is just fantastic,” said Sewell. “I was almost 30 when I started skating, eight months ago, and I wish I would have started at 18.”

She added that some women start playing in their 30’s and 40’s.

“Most people don’t assume that a social worker who provides mental health counseling to teenagers would be a ‘derby girl’ by night, so that’s always a fun surprise,” said Sickinger. “I really love how empowering this sport is. I am a social worker by day so acceptance, empowerment and being strength-based are things I value and I feel like roller derby fits completely with those values.”

Sickinger acknowledged that many people she talks to still think about “scripted” derby, so they have a lot of questions about the rules. 

Roller derby matches, or bouts, boil down to two thirty-minute halves divided into jams. Jams run a few minutes. Five players from each side comprise the field. Points are scored by a jammer, obvious by a star on helmet, who attempts to lap other blockers who try to send the rival jammer out of bounds—or to the floor. Points accrue with every rival skater lapped. 

Although the rules are straightforward, the reality is anything but. In fact, the reality is fast and chaotic. 

Seconds into the Illiana Derby Dames’ home opener Sunday May 20th at Lynwood Roller Rink, bodies—equipped with knee and elbow pads, helmets and mouth guards—hit the floor. Moments later, a player skates to the penalty box. Players are allowed seven infractions before being dismissed. 

In the ensuing melee, blockers bind together to form walls to prevent jammers from passing. Jammers pirouette, jump and grapple. In the coordinated chaos, resilience, determination and grace emerge. 

Eve-Iscerate, who’d sported a Make America Skate Again cap before the match, is whipped around 360 degrees and falls—her legs split apart like a gymnast—before catapulting up, and thrusting herself back into action. 

Like the players themselves, the crowd is diverse. Kids with grandparents do homework, play on cell phones and wave signs with their favorite derby players’ names. 

A young boy darts in front of me as I circle the rink. He feigns to his left, before swinging to the right, as if mimicking a nearby jammer—perhaps, he’ll be a future member of this diverse and fun tribe. 

The Dames went on to win its home opener 253 to 138. Watching members from both sides mix and embrace after the bout, it was impossible to gauge any difference in expression between winners and losers. Everyone looked victorious. 

The Illiana Derby Dames play all home bouts in Lynwood, Illinois, at Lynwood Roller Rink. To learn more, find the Illiana Derby Dames on Facebook or Instagram. Funds from ticket sales always go to support local charities. A boot camp for newbies is slated for August. 


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