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Charlottesville's Derby Dames

For some, the words “roller derby” bring to mind the 2009 movie “Whip It” starring Ellen Page. Those a little more familiar with the sport might think of women in dramatic makeup and crazy clothing crashing into each other on a flat race track. But for the women of Charlottesville’s Derby Dames, the words “roller derby” are much more synonymous with strength, confidence, competition, fun and above all, camaraderie. WMRA’s Kara Lofton reports.


It was Saturday afternoon at the Main Street Arena in Charlottesville and the Belmont Bruisers were lining up against the Southern Delaware Rollergirls. The teams were made up of women of all shapes and sizes in their late teens to mid-40s. Both teams sported jerseys with the women’s “derby names” printed on the back such as “Bella Muerta”, “Badsquish” and “SparKills.”

The names allow the women to be whoever they want to be. It’s an opportunity to reinvent oneself for a while into a persona that may exist only on the track. 

Derby is a kind of athletic theater that also includes costumes of outlandish clothing and heavy makeup. The ability to play dress-up and be tough at the same time is one of the things that attracted SparKills, also known as Laura Fisher, to the sport. Fisher is one of the founding members of the Dames.  The appealing thing for her now about Derby is that the sport attracts an incredibly diverse cross section of people who all find something unique and exciting in it for them.

LAURA FISHER: People come to it for different reasons. There are people who are here because of the quirky social and there are people who have never, ever done anything team oriented or athletic, it’s not their thing and they are loving it. And there are people who have done sports all their lives. So I don’t know that you can say there is one thing that draws, but there is that feeling of community.

The theatrical aspect is less important these days, as the Dames move away from a purely performance-based endeavor to a realm of competitive athletics, Fisher said.


A roller derby match is called a bout. The total playtime of a bout is 60 minutes, which is broken into 30-minute halves called “periods”. A period is broken up into an indefinite number of jams, which are where the real action happens.

SHARON LAWLER: A jam is sometimes compared to an inning in baseball because how the game is divided. Both teams will send out five players from their own team, four defensive, one is offensive and the jam can run up to two minutes, but it can be as short as 30 seconds.

That was Sharon Lawler. She is a member of the Belmont Bruisers, the Derby Dames “B Team” and followed up with me a few days after Saturday’s match. The Derby Dames “A Team” is called the All Stars and is currently ranked 42nd in the world.

Lawler explained that points are scored when the offensive player, called the jammer, breaks through the pack of defensive players (called blockers) on the other team and completes a lap to end up behind the opposition’s defense again. It can be a rough and tumble process.

Both Lawler and Fisher, though, said one of the things they love about Derby is that it’s a contact sport. Lawler said getting hit is actually a huge confidence booster for a lot of the women.

LAWLER: Getting hit makes you learn a little bit about yourself and how you respond to situations around you…

Fisher agrees.

FISHER: I don’t know why, but I love it. I love the getting hit, not that I love to get hit, but there is something about…so women are not, I mean there are lots of strong women, but it’s not something that you can embrace and be like ‘I’m this tough girl’ and there’s something about it that is really fun.

Kara Lofton is a photojournalist based in Harrisonburg, VA. She is a 2014 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University and has been published by EMU, Sojourners Magazine, and The Mennonite. Her reporting for WMRA is her radio debut.