Life is a contact sport for the women of Angel City Derby

Story by Brian Marks | Photos by Shilah Montiel

Angel City Derby skaters square off during a recent practice for Saturday’s upcoming double-header against Denver teams in Culver City

The mad, spontaneous ballet playing out on the Angel City Derby practice track can be as graceful as it is brutal. As bodies whip around the track, a skater zooms dangerously close to a boundary line, throwing her inside leg into the air as she turns to keep from falling. Another is shoved off the track against a padded blue wall, where she crumples to the ground and her feet shoot out from under her. She lies there, unmoving, until two other players help her to her unsteady feet.

Most of the skaters sweat heavily, both from exertion and the heat, and when they smash against each other droplets of perspiration rain down after the thud — collisions that resonate into the stands, bone-jarring for the players despite the helmets and padding they all wear. Later, a particularly aggressive scrimmage topples one player, and two others fall on top of her, one landing on her helmet. She slowly gets to her knees after the other two are removed, holds her head in her hands and grimaces, teeth bared and face squinting in a look of pain.

This is not your grandmother’s roller derby.

Though memory still persists of the sport’s 20th-century iteration as the roller skating equivalent of pro-wrestling — a forum for showing off physical feats without meaningful athletic competition — the skaters of Angel City Derby practice a very different, and much rougher, version of the contact sport that drops the theatrics in favor of raw power and technical skill.

The next opportunity to catch these fast-paced matches is an upcoming doubleheader with the Denver-based Rocky Mountain Rollergirls on Angel City’s home turf: the 776-seat Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Culver City.

Angel City Derby operates multiple teams of varying skill levels as part of the Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby League, including the Shore Shots (who face Rocky Mountain Project Mayhem on Saturday) and the Rocket Queens (who’ll face the Rocky Mountain Contenders). Founded in 2006 by a collective of local skaters, Angel City utilizes a flat-surface track rather than the bowl-like banked tracks utilized by the L.A. Derby Dolls (founded in 2003) and depicted in films like the 1975 dystopian thriller “Rollerball” and the more grounded 2009 indie-flick “Whip It.” Curves on a flat track are more perilous, say Angel City players, and require finesse in order to maintain speed.

A match opens with a scrimmage similar to football, after which the majority of players are trying to prevent opposing players from advancing along the track. They can use their bodies to block, but helmets arms and elbows aren’t allowed. Each team has a jammer, whose job is to break through the pack and advance — they score a point for each time they’re able to lap a member of the opposing team. Some who break through the pack skate smoothly and delicately, like a figure skater performing a routine, whereas others barrel through with the speed and intensity of a sprinter in a 100-meter dash.

Amid this intensity, a spirit of fun remains. Players adopt derby names that reflect the toughness of the sport, a punny throwback to the game’s flashier roots. (Some of the best include JK Mauling, Helen Killer, Rhythm & Bruise and the deliciously baroque Goreville Shredenbacher.)

Lisa Kapasi (aka Phoenix) lives in Culver City and works as a management consultant in Santa Monica. She’s both a captain and player for the Shore Shots, Angel City’s C Team. Speaking after last Saturday’s practice in a Gardena warehouse filled with giant industrial fans, Kapasi cautions against viewing players as performers divorced from their day-to-day selves.

“I am the same person at work as I am here, and I know most of these people are the same as they are at work,” she says. “We bring that personality to the track.”

Kapasi, who had never skated before trying out for roller derby, credits the organization with helping her develop leadership skills.

“I find that a lot of people find roller derby at a time in their life when they needed something,” she muses. “I know roller derby has changed how I approach work and life. It has made me more confident, more vocal. I think that happens for a lot of people.”

Rachel Johnston (aka Rachel Rotten) plays for Angel City’s elite team, the Hollywood Scarlets, and serves as the league’s marketing director. She discovered Angel City Roller Derby after quitting a demanding job in the television industry.

“A friend of mine told me that she wanted to play roller derby, and I thought, ‘that sounds fun,’” says Johnston just before practice. “I didn’t think I wanted to play a full contact sport, but I did love roller skating, so I told her I’d go to the rink. I met all the girls there and had so much fun making friends with these really interesting, cool, quirky people. I didn’t think I was going to join, but then I became obsessed with it.”

Angel City Derby has games at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday (Aug. 11) at Veterans Memorial Auditorium, 4117 Overland Ave., Culver City. Tickets are $10 to $16 (or $25 for VIP seating) at angelcityderby.com.

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