Flower Power (center, pink wheels) leads the roller derby team on the floor.
(Via Mark Nockleby)
City Life

On a new roll, roller derby revs up for the season

The Derby Girls transfixed crowds at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium for years. Now, they reboot to meet post-pandemic realities.

On March 10, 2020, in the realm of spectator sports in Santa Cruz, a glorious era came to a quiet end.

Wallace

On that date, a Tuesday, the Santa Cruz Derby Girls — a much-buzzed-about cultural phenomenon around town for more than a decade — announced that their upcoming weekend bout at the Civic Auditorium would be postponed on the recommendation from the county’s Health Services Agency.

No one knew it was the end of an era at the time. The organization’s announcement stated that it was “working with the Civic Auditorium to reschedule the game.” Of course, that rescheduling never happened. The very next day, the World Health Organization declared the spread of COVID-19 a “pandemic,” and we all know what came next.

This weekend, on Saturday, a new era begins. For the first time in two years, roller derby returns to the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, in hopes of re-sparking the passion that gripped many in Santa Cruz in the 2010s. A decade ago, when the Santa Cruz Derby Girls first catapulted to popularity, their bouts at the Civic would often sell out, sometimes weeks in advance. The games often carried a sense of theatricality, with skaters introduced one at a time, making a circuit of the flat track while the announcer pronounced with mock menace each player’s derby pseudonym (“Aaaand now, Lulu Lockjaw!”). After introductions, there would often be a demonstration of the game’s rules for a crowd not always well versed in how roller derby was played. Fans were often more enthusiastic about the game’s action and spectacle than tuned in on its nuances and strategies.

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Today, however, the “Derby Girls” are no more, at least in name. The league has rechristened itself “Santa Cruz Roller Derby,” dropping the gendered language as an expression of inclusivity. The skaters who will take the floor will be significantly different in makeup as well. The league experienced a big turnover in personnel during the pandemic. About half of the players who will be lacing up their skates Saturday are new.

“We actually have an entirely new rebranding change,” said “Braids of Glory,” (all derby players traditionally go by cheeky, often punny nicknames), a player, trainer, and the group’s chief branding officer. “We are working on retiring our old name and our old logo, and coming in with something that is more inclusive and welcoming to the types of people who come into our league and all of the roles they play. ‘Girls’ is not at all indicative of who we are as a league, so we’re trying to represent who we truly are.”

The league welcomes trans and non-binary people as well as cisgender women. The old name even got pushback from cisgender women. “What does ‘Girls’ mean to a grown-ass woman?” said “Moxie,” a veteran skater who has been with the organization since 2012.

Santa Cruz Derby Girls in action.
(Via Adam Freidin)

Santa Cruz Roller Derby is officially a league that is home to two teams, an intermediate-level team and a high-level team, both of whom will face off Saturday against rival derby teams from other leagues in the Bay Area. It is also now part of a new alliance of derby leagues, called the California Derby Galaxy. The reorganization and rebranding, say some in the SCRD, represent an effort to reestablish derby as a viable pastime in the face of widespread attrition during the pandemic.

“It’s obviously not very COVID-safe in its natural form,” said Braids of Glory. “So roller derby has not been able to exist or flourish in a lot of places. We’ve lost a lot of league members over the last few years. We’ve gained some, too. But roller derby as a whole has really suffered. So we’re actually in a year of transition right now and trying to figure out how to live in the context of a pandemic, how to build out community while also being safe and accessible.”

Pre-pandemic, roller derby was already a big commitment, three or four practices a week before league bouts, with a risk for significant injury a factor at every practice and game. The trade-off, say league insiders, is not only the thrill of competition, but a strong sense of community.

“The demand that roller derby has on people was very keenly felt during the pandemic,” said “Splenda,” who joined the league as a skater seven years ago. “I mean, we’re practicing three nights a week for two hours of high-intensity and high-contact work — some days you really take a beating — and to go from that to zero … well, I think a lot of people kind of took a step back during the pandemic and realized how much roller derby takes out of you.”

Splenda — who also works as a coach in the Santa Cruz junior roller derby league known as the “Groms” — resisted the pull away from derby. She’ll be back in uniform with the new rebranded league.

“Roller derby serves many purposes for me,” she said. “It’s two or three nights a week where I’m surrounded by people. There’s the physical aspect of it and getting the endorphins through the exercise. But I’ve also made a lot of really close friends throughout my time playing roller derby.”

Still, as late as last fall, some in the organization had their doubts that Santa Cruz Roller Derby could continue. It was at that point that a countervailing trend kicked in. Many people during the pandemic discovered the joys of recreational roller-skating. And SCRD saw many of those folks sign up for its beginners “boot camp.”

“Roller-skating was a huge thing during the pandemic,” said Braids. “It was one of those things where you could be outside and be with people, but not too close to people. So there was this huge influx of skaters that were interested in roller derby when we had our boot camp. So there’s definitely a fresh new energy that is just so exciting. There’s this sense of community again.”

“Flower Power” has been playing roller derby since she was 9, having come up through the Groms youth program. She was inspired by Candy Hooligan, one of the stars of the Derby Girls squad in the early 2010s and a friend of Flower’s mom. Now, at 23, Flower is a young veteran of derby, experienced enough to know a few tricks, young enough to push herself to her highest athletic ability.

Santa Cruz jammer Splenda.
(Via Mark Nockleby)

Flower has had her derby name since she was a kid. “My mom came up with it,” she said. “And it’s worked out pretty good since my real name is Daisy. And I have a lot of really good friends in derby and we all call each other by our derby names. Hanging out with them after practice, we’ll go into a Safeway or something, calling out our derby names and people are looking at us like, what the …?”

Flower said that the league is going to benefit from the influx of new skaters. “This is a really talented bunch of newcomers. I’ve never seen this much talent in a new group of skaters.”

Flower remembers back before the Santa Cruz Warriors came to town when the Derby Girls were one of the hottest tickets in town. Those days seem distant now, she said, but she’s confident that the new Santa Cruz Roller Derby league can regain lost ground in the public’s imagination.

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“I really miss those days of sold-out crowds, and the energy was just great. Hopefully, we’ll get back to that some day.”

Ultimately, the skaters of SCRD have endured through their sheer love of the sport. “I just love skating,” said Splenda. “Even if I’m having a real crap day and I’m tired and I truly do not want to go to practice, by the time I’m there, it’s fun again. I just can’t get enough of being on roller skates and doing the cool things you can do on skates.”

Santa Cruz Roller Derby comes to the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium on Saturday. The top-tier team plays the Undead Roller Derby from the East Bay at 4:30 p.m. The intermediate team then takes on the Carquinez Quad Squad at 6:30 p.m. Tickets range from $15 to $30 for adults, with discounts for children and groups.