Photos by Jason Hall
The skyline is a beautiful blood orange as dusk begins to set over a nondescript neighborhood, tucked away in New Orleans East, on a cloudless Thursday evening. What would otherwise pass for a serene suburbia out here belies a weathered ruggedness. Several structures are boarded up, still bearing the decades-old scars of Hurricane Katrina while proudly displaying the still-drying tags of clandestine graffiti artists.
It’s fitting that this is home to the undisclosed training facility of the Big Easy Rollergirls (BERG), New Orleans’s all-female, flat track roller derby league. As skaters begin to roll in after work for the evening’s practice, several still bear the bruises from the previous weekend’s bout at the New Orleans arena. Others shed their 9-to-5 attire, showcasing derby-themed tattoos, as they strap on their protective gear.
For most readers, the team needs no introduction. Since hosting their first competition just over a decade ago, BERG has become a staple of Crescent City culture. In recent years, the Rollergirls have appeared at countless charitable and community events, from Mardi Gras parades to Comic-Con. But make no mistake, the Rollergirls are athletes first and foremost
“A guy came up to me not too long ago when I had my jersey on and asked, ‘Aren’t you those girls who wear those short shorts?’” says Tangles, going by her derby name. “I think a lot of people still think back to when roller derby first started, when theatrics were perhaps more front and center. I just smiled and told him I prefer to wear clothes that are a bit more functional.”
If there ever was a time when derby was more about dramatics, it’s certainly not evident, especially as its members flirt with the pendulum of balance as they race around a concrete track. In fact, the only remnants from that time may be their ironic pseudonyms that everyone insisted they go by.
“If it weren’t for Facebook, I might not know some girls’ names,” says Rest N Peaces, a captain on BERG’s AllStars team, which competes nationally in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) league. “People take their names very seriously.”
Sitting on the sidelines today, Rest N Peaces is proof of the ferocity of her sport. Recovering from a nasty spill earlier in the week, the bruise she incurred is a swollen mosaic of blacks and blues rippling out from the center like a bullet wound. As she anxiously discusses how excited she is to get back on the track next practice, you can’t help but admire the fearlessness of everyone out there. Most people make efforts to avoid contact sports when they enter adulthood: baseball becomes softball, football becomes two-hand touch, skateboarding gives way to bicycling … and many let their athletic experience simply devolve into watching their former passion on ESPN while downing a cold one. The ladies this evening range in age from early 20s to late 40s (the minimum age to compete is 18), wearing less padding than a football player and getting slammed down into a cement floor—a far cry from AstroTurf.
“Really, you don’t think about it,” says Tangles. “Sure, you may have trouble moving the day after a match, but while you are out there, your adrenaline is going so strong that you hit the ground and just get back up without thinking about it.”
Everyone agrees that roller derby has gotten much more aggressive in recent years. However, BERG’s members attribute this to a growing field of competition rather than an overall evolution in the sport. Since the formation of WFTDA, the international governing body of women’s flat track roller derby, in 2004 (for which BERG is a founding member), the sport’s popularity has flourished.
In fact, it is thanks to many recent pop-culture pop-ups that some of BERG’s members first discovered the sport. Rest N Peaces recalls working at a movie theater in Chalmette when the 2009 derby-themed indie Whip It premiered.
“That was it,” says Rest N Peaces. “I showed up to a Big Easy Rollergirls practice shortly thereafter and have been dedicated ever since.”
However, in New Orleans, most locals’ first outside encounter with BERG is through the annual San Fermin in Nueva Orleans (or The Running of the Bulls, as most monolingual locals refer to it). Since, for better or worse, unleashing crazed cattle into a sea of pedestrians is likely discouraged by law and the office of tourism, the roller girls, with horns glued to their helmets and armed with plastic bats, serve up a less lethal substitute. In many ways, the growth of BERG and The Running of the Bulls have gone hand-in-hand. What was once a half-day distraction with a few hundred runners and barely two-dozen BERG members is now a three-day festival attracting thousands of runners and recruiting hundreds of derby skaters from around the globe.
“It is my favorite non-competition event by far,” says Cat-O-Lust, named for her love for cats (she has a tattoo of a cat skating on her calf) and dark makeup. “Not only do you get to meet skaters from all over the country, but you get to party with everyone after.”
Perhaps even more notable, BERG recently made their debut in the crown jewel of Crescent City culture—Mardi Gras. This past year, members rolled in both Muses—an all-female krewe—and the Krewe of Pontchartrain. For Muses, BERG created their own custom throw, decorating skate wheels with lights and handing them out along the route.
“It was an amazing experience,” recalls Cat-O-Lust. “It certainly wasn’t easy, though. New Orleans’s streets are not easy to skate on.”
Whether it’s training, competing, or representing their team in the community, BERG’s members are all completely committed to the sport and to each other. In addition to training a minimum of three times each week on top of work, school, kids, and everything else, members pitch in their talents to help with advertising, outreach, and any other need in support of the team. Besides being captain, Rest N Peaces actively takes ownership of marketing BERG, while Cat-O-Lust helps coach new members, commonly referred to as “fresh meat.”
“My body is not going to be able to take this forever, but I can’t imagine ever not being involved in roller derby,” says Rest N Peaces. “I’ve made so many great friendships, and I love seeing new members succeed and get excited about the sport. Even if I can’t compete, I can still contribute in some way.”
While several members question just how long their bodies will be able to take a beating, others say age is just a number.
“I’m in my 40s, have three kids, and am in the best shape of my life,” says Tangles. Taking up derby as a means of getting back in shape after having children, skating has become her life—so much so that she now runs her own skate shop, Bruised Boutique, at 4241 Veterans Memorial Blvd. “I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon. I’m going to keep going till my wheels fall off.”
Those interested in joining the Big Easy Rollergirls or trying a beginner lesson can register to do so at BigEasyRollerGirls.com/Skate-With-Us. You can also come out and support BERG during the annual, two-day, multi-state SweatFest tournament at the UNO Lakefront Arena on July 22 and 23; tickets are available on their website.