A few Saturdays ago, we watched two teenage girls skip through the crowd on Second Avenue, round the corner at Temple Street, and float up the steps of the monstrous Masonic Temple. They looked punkish, in hues of tested teen rebellion, but somehow naïve to the neighborhood's fringe culture. Both slowed when they got to the lobby and let the crowd take the lead. The one with green hair said to her friend, "Let's follow her," and pointed at a curvy woman wearing a teasingly tight Detroit Derby Girls T-shirt moving to the elevator, which was filled with guys in denim and leather and women with Bettie Page bangs. All jeans were ironed and cuffed hard. Someone smelled like pot. "If you were a derby girl your name would be High Roller," said one stoned lover to another. Everyone giggled.
In their high school, these girls are well-liked outcasts. Maybe you saw their Hollywood re-creations in last year's Whip It, Drew Barrymore's roller derby coming-of-age flick partially shot in Detroit with 20-some Detroit Derby Girls. If so, then you could imagine following these two into a derby bout. Life imitates "art." Safe to assume the girls made their way from the burbs to Detroit to see their first Derby bout, and, perhaps, their first "bout" with Detroit. When the elevator doors opened to the third floor, the girls skipped down the hallway and into the Masonic's Drill Hall, where they joined another thousand enthused fans to watch the Pistoffs take on the Pistol Whippers in a grudge match — for third place. "Whoa," said one, mouth agape. "Look," said the other, nodding at the bench where a bevy of female skaters fastened helmets and pads one last time while coaches prepared for battle. Then the girls hunted for a seat.
For the Detroit Derby Girls, seating is a very real issue. Within the league — four teams plus traveling all-stars — there are several debates: Should they the focus on promoting the sport or the spectacle of derby? Are some skaters doing a disservice by playing up their sex appeal? Should players follow Pistol Whipper Sarah Hipel's lead and skate under their birth name or continue with marvelous monikers such as Elle McFearsome, Tara to Pieces, Black-Eyed Skeez, Lady Macdeath and Anne T. Orthodox? The most immediate dispute, however, regards the future home of the DDG. Some in the league would like to keep the derby intimate and grungy at the Masonic, where the team feels at home. Others see the need for bigger space with air-conditioning and more seating.
It's been five transformative years since the inception of the league, and managing the growing popularity has become the sport's steepest hurdle in Detroit. For the last couple seasons, the frustrating butt-to-seat ratio has become too annoying to ignore. In Detroit, Derby has found a cozy home, and, despite its weak critical reception, Whip It brought about a share of attention and saw February's bout sell out three weeks in advance. "The DVD had just been released. That's too big of a coincidence to ignore," says league president Amy Ruby. "We'd been selling out of tickets way before the movie came out, but usually that happens the week of." While the Lions and Pistons struggle to sell out games, in Detroit, DDG has become one of the hardest tickets to come by.
Would moving out of the cramped confines of the Masonic ruin the context for old fans? Ruby (aka Devil's Night Dame Racer McChaserHer) is more concerned with losing new ones.
"We have 900 tickets to sell and selling out every time," Ruby says. "Potential fans are constantly getting turned away at the door. You're only going to try and get tickets so many times before you're like, 'forget it.' That's already happened too many times."
I cringe to think of those two punkish waifs being turned away, and subsequently turned off, because they couldn't get a ticket. Not only are they already potential mega-fans, but potential players and league torch-carriers.
All could change on May 22, when the undefeated D-Funk All-Stars take on the Devil's Night Dames (one loss all season) for the league championship at Cobo Hall. The league is rallying to pull in 3,000 spectators for what's billed as the biggest derby bout Detroit has ever seen. Adding drama to what's already the most important game of the season, if all goes well, Cobo could be the new home of the Detroit Derby Girls, which would further legitimize the league, with ample room for sponsor billboards and enough seats to never turn anyone away.
"I'm sure we'll sell at least 2,000 tickets," Ruby says. "But I really hope we can sell 3,000. Seattle's Rat City team just sold 5,700 seats at Key Arena, so I think it's totally possible we can do that in Detroit."
The D-Funk Allstars take on the Devil's Night Dames on Saturday, May 22, at Cobo Hall (475 Washington Blvd., Detroit). Showtime is 7 p.m., tickets are $15 and children are free. For more information and tickets call 313-471-6606.Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org