April 18, 2018
The line waiting for the single blue Port-o-Potty – in a parking lot between desolate buildings just off Fox Street in northwest Philadelphia – was about 15 deep one recent Saturday night.
Some sipped cans of PBR. Others made small talk as they waited for their turn inside. All were happy, if not a little impatient for the line to get moving.
Behind them stood a warehouse made colorful only by graffiti on much of its exterior and interior walls. More windows were broken than intact.
In front of them – just to the left of the portable toilet made necessary because of the lack of bathrooms inside – was a roll-up warehouse door taller than a tractor trailer.
On this night in late March, it was the entrance for spectators willing to pay the $12 fee.
That was the price of admission to sit – or stand – ringside to watch dozens of bad-ass women don uniforms, helmets and protective gear to compete on one of the few banked roller-derby tracks to be found on the East Coast.
The lighting wasn’t dim, but close to it. The sounds of wheels gliding, cutting and screeching to a halt blended with those of bodies slamming into one another or to the track below. Added to that violent cacophony were cheers, oohs and aahs.
Welcome to the home of the Penn Jersey Roller Derby. On that night, PJRD's B and She Devils squads competed in a “Banked Track Double Header.” Their opponents were a pair of teams – the Doll Parts and the Ri-Ettes – who flew in from Los Angeles for the event.
The score of the matches – L.A. has one of the best roller-derby programs in the country, so the home teams, PJRD, didn’t skate away as winners this time – was less important than what the event represented.
Between Penn Jersey’s admittedly rough-around-the-edges training facility where Allegheny West, East Falls, Nicetown and Hunting Park converge, and the Philly Roller Derby's brighter, cleaner, smaller warehouse in Germantown, a three-mile section of Philadelphia has become the region’s roller-derby hub.
Competing for more than 10 years, the programs look ready to expand the popularity of an athletic pursuit that had its heyday decades ago.
This pair of somewhat-rival teams is not alone in the country, or region.
There are teams in Allentown, Downingtown, Harrisburg, Lancaster and Pittsburgh. Over in New Jersey, skates are laced up in Newark and Toms River. Add to that Wilmington, Delaware’s Diamond State Roller Derby. Women inclined to pursue the sport certainly can’t decry a lack of opportunity.
Roller derby no longer remains trapped in quasi-obscurity. And it retains enough of an unique spirit to feel like an underground gathering when you walk into those retrofitted factories, though. (Does it approach the vibe of “Fight Club”? To some, perhaps.)
In early April, Natasha Tunaitis sat a table at the Aston Diner in Delaware County.
Her blonde hair, leopard cardigan, prominently colorful upper-arm tattoo and "Classy Chassis" demeanor made her easy to spot across the restaurant.
A part of Penn Jersey Roller Derby since 2005, she's not even the oldest competitor on the team. She’s third-oldest behind "Anita Bodybag" and "Trouble."
Early on, the team competed in a warehouse at 17th and Indiana. It was just big enough for the two tracks. They moved out last year.
Even though it’s in need of substantial upkeep, the new location is an upgrade.
More than 100 people stopped by for the dual event against Los Angeles and the crowd filled just a small part of the arena, near a gift shop featuring T-shirts and other swag, and a $1-for-anything snack bar. The event was BYOB, and children were admitted entry for $5 a head.
Tunaitis has experience-based seniority. At the diner table, she talks about her inclination to a sport that pushes back against mores and convention, hearkening back to the days of goths and other outcasts trying to find their place in the athletic world.
As a middle schooler, she got bullied over a port-wine birthmark that makeup couldn’t entirely conceal on her face.
She got tired of it, so she pushed back. When she pushed back, the bullying stopped.
“I thought from that first time on, that if I fought back, people would leave me alone,” she said. “My attitude’s grown out of that.”
Yeah, you could say she was a tough girl. Everyone else who knows her does, after all. That was a harsh lesson that a girl hassling her male friend at a punk-rock show would soon find out.
“The girl hit him, and he couldn’t do anything to fight back,” said Tunaitis, who worked as a teen at a roller rink. “So, I beat the crap out of her.”
The team had just started a couple months earlier. She would be the 10th member, which meant they could field a full squad.
“Everybody said, ‘We can scrimmage now!’ I had to tell them, ‘Wait, I don’t even know the rules yet!’” she said.
That would soon change.
“I was very aggressive. How you know in hockey, they have a ‘goon’ on the team that protects the other players? I was the goon,” she said. “Someone would say, ‘Tasha go start a fistfight,’ and I would, because I was defending my teammates.”
That served her well in the early days, when roller-derby fans Ken Sikes and Greg Spencer put an ad in a newspaper seeking people to sign up for their new team.
The sport’s heyday had dissipated but they wanted to revive it, so they had their first meeting at a local dive bar.
Though Sowinski would die in 2011, the Roller Derby Hall of Famer made an indelible impact on her understudy's life.
Recent years have brought more structure to the sport. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association kind of frowns upon the out-and-out melee aspect that once defined the sport.
That’s just fine with Tunaitis, speaking for a program with an estimated 80 active members.
“In my early 20s, I could handle the roughness easily,” she said. “Now that I’m older, the nicks stack up. I’m glad that it’s more structured now."
The rough stuff wouldn't fly on the Nicetown track.
"I’d get thrown out for doing it the way I used to,” she said.
This season wouldn't start the way she wanted, though.
Three miles away, on Belfield Avenue in Germantown, sits another roller-derby facility.
Philly Roller Derby – formerly called Philly Roller Girls – urge spectators to carpool because of a dearth of parking near the warehouse they started customizing in September 2016.
It needed a ton of work, but moving here from Millennium Skate World in Camden gave the team a home of its own.
On a recent Thursday night, Niki Cash led practice for 18 skaters who call PRD their competitive home. Like the nearby program, they, too, openly welcome new competitors to join the fold as “fresh meat.”
Inside, there’s a single flat-track loop. Sitting in the middle of the track as the competitors zoom by is a visual so dizzying that you can barely avoid it by looking up at the banners for the 2017 Junior Roller Derby Championships and teams named the Belles and Dolls instead.
A piercing whistle tells skaters when to shift from drill to drill on a loop made of Sport Court.
Many of the women wear mouth guards. One has stickers for bands like Fugazi and Joy Division on her helmet.
Cash got her start in roller derby in Richmond, Virginia back in 2010. As a youth, her father often took her to the rink, so she had the skating part down pat. At Virginia Commonwealth University, she was a competitive cheerleader and, upon graduation, needed an outlet.
“I needed something team-sport like to do. Basketball, softball, that wasn’t for me,” said Cash, one of an estimated 60 active members of the team. “A co-worker told me about roller derby so I started to do it. I stuck with it, and here I am.”
Competitive pickings were slim in Richmond, so she started to commute two or three times a week to join Baltimore’s Charm City Roller Girls. She got sick of commuting, though. When she checked out the scene, she liked what she saw at PRD, which had a ranked pedigree.
Today, Philly Roller Derby – a “skater-owned and operated” league and WFTDA members – calls itself “Philadelphia's Premier Flat Track Roller Derby League.”
“I’m not bad,” she conceded when told that was an impressive tidbit of information.
She said it’s not entirely unusual for a city to have two teams as Philadelphia does, even if the two programs aren’t identical in their offerings.
If there’s a rivalry, she wouldn't deem it a heated one.
“Most of the roller-derby community is supportive. We get along,” Cash said. “I’ve had drinks with them. I see them at events, both the men and the women. Molly Monster. Nurse Ratchet. I know a lot of them.”
Cash, a bartender and restaurant-catering worker by trade, said hosting the WFTDA International Championships last November at the Liacouras Center was huge for the local scene.
“One team in the world gets picked to host the championships, so it was a big deal for Philly to get the chance to have about 4,000 people come to town for it,” she said.
As for the growth of the sport, seeing people come in from traditional sports backgrounds has helped overcome that underground mentality.
“It’s great that people have tons of options to explore the sport,” Cash said, noting that but for a bunch of layoffs, ESPN planned to broadcast the event. “There have been a lot of bumps in the road that roller derby has had to maneuver, but I think people in mainstream sports see us and respect us for how much we’ve developed.”
One primary difference between the two Philly roller-derby programs is Penn Jersey’s Hooligans team. While PRD is a females-only operation, the Hooligans is a men’s flat-track team.
The existence of men’s teams is the source of a lot of discussion in the sport. Some are relegated to the background since it’s still a women-dominated competition.
“Personally, I’m fine with men’s roller derby. I enjoy watching it,” said Cash. “They take more risk in men’s game. That’s where they first started jumping into the apex of the turns. Cool things like that. Cool footwork. Women start to see that and say, ‘Let’s try to do that to.’ But, I’ll tell you a lot of people aren’t cool with that.”
Over at the Fox Street warehouse, Edward “Special Ed” Jones appreciates PJRD’s accept-anybody mindset which extends not only across gender lines, but to talent level.
Sure, it might take some time for newbies to make it onto the travel teams that head cross-country for events on the West Coast a couple times a year, but this is a welcoming environment. (Most tournaments, and leagues, are on a flat track, but there are banked-track events, as well.)
Getting to practice two hours early on a recent Thursday night to install some safety features along the flat track in advance of a big April 14 competition, he recalled the days when men only served as coaches and officials. When there was enough men who wanted to play, the Hooligans were formed.
Five years ago, Ed was living in Baltimore "looking to expand my social circle."
The question he asked himself: “How do you make new friends as an adult?”
A pop-up ad alerted him to a team called Harm City Homicide, so he joined. After two years, “I took a long look at what I was doing with my life.”
That long look turned into a move to Philadelphia, his relocation made easier by working in the restaurant industry.
“The men’s roller-derby community is really small, and this is one of very few organizations that welcomes both men and women,” he said. “It may not seem like a big deal, but it really is.”
R.J. Portella, aka Pennis the Menace, couldn’t agree more. He learned about the Hooligans when, battling addiction made untenable by back-injury medication, he was on the Market-Frankford Line heading back to a recovery house. He messaged the group, which invited him to show up and check things out.
“Within 10 minutes, I was leaping down the steps at the train station, feeling like a 12-year-old again who hadn’t missed a moment of life,” said Portella, who was enamored by roller derby as a youth. “That was almost three years ago to the day."
What he cherishes most is the camaraderie, not to mention the physical benefits that have helped him recover from those back injuries while remaining sober.
“We show up for one another. When you join, you’re family, instantly. It’s an organic, genuine love,” he said. “I lost my mother in November, and the people in the league took care of me."
After fighting back tears, he continued.
"We’re all in this together. Nurses. Teachers. Construction workers. When I leave practice, I’m already sore. But my head is the clearest it will be all week," he said. "It literally gives anyone the opportunity to feel like a professional athlete.”
Back at the Aston Diner, Natasha “Classy Chassis” Tunaitis got to talking about the downside of the sport she loves.Tasha’s done it all during her derby career: Pivot, blocker and jammer, which was her position when she got hurt.
The tweaks, bruises and “busted faces that need eight or nine stitches above the eyebrow”? She can handle those as part and parcel of a passion that makes her feel as if she's in two car accidents a week.
What she didn't appreciate was being sidelined for the past few weeks and not knowing how soon she'll be able to lace the skates up again.
Earlier this year, she suffered a slight tear of a lateral collateral ligament in her knee. Her leg twisted as she planted it to make a block roughly six weeks ago.
“It’s the longest (injury time) of my career,” said Tunaitis, who works the type of office job that would prevent co-workers from making the roller-derby connection, even though friends know that it meshes with her personality perfectly. “I go back to the specialist tomorrow.”
That was earlier this month. This week, she shared word of her prognosis.
“The specialist didn’t like the range of motion and sent me back for an MRI,” she said. “He thinks it could be my ACL now. I’m waiting to make a follow-up to go over the MRI results later in the week to see if I need surgery.”
The mother of a four-year-old, Tunaitis has already scaled back from her six-day-a-week derby commitment. That's what happens when you become a parent and move from the city to Delaware County.
Still, she can't see herself stopping – other than “being bed-ridden or snapping my leg.”
This setback can’t get her down too much. After all, her life and roller derby reached a singularity of sorts long ago. That manifested itself in many ways, but most notably in choosing Judy as her daughter's middle name as an homage to her late coach.
“I wish the sport was more popular since it’s one thing I’m really good at. It may sound cliché, but it changed my life,” she said. “It was a confidence boost. It helped work the anger out of me. I lacked self-esteem, but roller derby built it up. It may sound stupid, but this is my purpose. This is my passion.”
• • •
The PJRD She Devils next flat-track game – called the Spring Fling Double Header – will be held April 28 (3431 Fox St. in Nicetown). Over at The Roller Jawn (5378 Belfield Ave. in East Germantown), Philly Roller Derby squads Passyunk Punks and Germantown Loose Cannons will square off on May 5.