PHOENIX – On McDowell Road, just past 25th Avenue, sits the Hall of Dames.
From the outside, it looks like an old warehouse, with no distinct markings and a small sign painted on the door.
The inside tells a different story. It’s the only banked roller derby track in Arizona.
This is the home of the Arizona Derby Dames.
For the past 11 years, hundreds have passed through the hall, where skaters painted the walls and the track. They built the stands and the locker room. They have literally put their blood, sweat and tears into this space.
Now, they risk losing it all.
“If we had to find a new (space), I don’t think that we could,” skater Perla Rodriguez said. “That may possibly be the end of banked track roller derby in Arizona.”
Like many other businesses, the Derby Dames had to close their doors in March 2020 due to COVID-19. They were about to begin their 16th season. Instead, they had to hang their helmets and store their skates.
“At first we thought it was only going to be a couple weeks,” said Ashley Betzhold, aka “Impaler Swift.” “Then we thought, ‘OK, maybe it will only be a couple of months.’ And now it’s been over a year.”
With their doors closed, the Derby Dames couldn’t generate income, the majority of which comes from ticket sales, merchandise sales and any other income provided by the roller derby competitions they host, Betzhold said.
The Dames also generate revenue through monthly skater membership fees, which also were suspended during the pandemic.
“We just didn’t think it was fair to charge the skaters for the space that they couldn’t use,” Betzhold said.
Rent, however, was still due.
For the first few months of the pandemic, the Dames drew from their savings to make ends meet. But near the end of May, they began to worry about how to afford the Hall of Dames, where the banked track sits.
Only two options remained.
“We could either pack up the track and put it away in storage somewhere,” said Alex Edwards, who goes by “Al Annihilate’Ya” on the track. “Then we would have to find another space after this is over. Or, we find a way to pay and stay here, which, at this point, makes the most financial sense.”
Packing up the track and storing it would cost more time and effort than working to retain the current space, Rodriguez said.
“And there’s no guarantee we would be able to find a new space once this is all over,” she said. “Warehouse prices are so high right now, and finding one that has everything we need like this space does, it would just feel impossible.”
Not only would finding a new space be financially difficult, it would come at great emotional cost.
“We’ve had children grow up here,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve done so much to make this space ours. Our family is here. And we’re not ready to give that up.”
That gave birth to the Save Our Space campaign, which is “really just about getting community support and getting the word out there that we need help, we need donations, and we are fighting to keep our warehouse,” Betzhold said.
The Dames even created a skate guide, which includes a list of the best skating trails in Arizona, so people could go outside and skate during quarantine. The Dames ask for, but don’t require, a $10 donation upon download of the guide.
Rodriguez said they have been thrilled with the support they have received.
For the Derby Dames, the fight to save their space is about more than just maintaining the track for themselves. It’s for preserving it for the next generation of skaters in Arizona.
“I want the Arizona Derby Dames and this space to exist for the next 10 years, for the next 20 years,” Rodriguez said. “I want to see the Minor Assaults join the adult skaters, and I want to meet the next generation of Minor Assaults and see them empowered through roller derby.”
The Minor Assaults is a youth derby team run by the Arizona Derby Dames through their nonprofit organization, AZDD Inspire.
The group’s mission is to “mentor young female athletes through the sport of banked track roller derby,” and to promote “sportsmanship, healthy habits, leadership and volunteerism in girls ages 10-18,” according to the AZDD Inspire website.
“This is the best thing that I do as part of the Derby Dames. It’s so impactful,” said Edwards, who coaches the Minor Assaults. “I am so invigorated by the energy, the ideas and the questions that only these young skaters have. Watching them grow as young athletes and as young women is just the best, most inspiring thing.”
As part of the team, the young skaters are taught essential roller derby skills and, in the process, learn life skills as well.
“Roller Derby is so empowering and that’s so important for young women,” said Amelia Sandweg, 17, aka Ameila Darehart, who has skated with the Minor Assaults for the past five years. “Being on the Minor Assaults not only empowers us all, but it teaches us leadership and sportsmanship and allows us to come together and make friends with other strong women.”
In addition to skating, the Minor Assaults also are encouraged to participate in community service through AZDD Inspire’s summer food service program, which has been operating since 2015.
The program sends the Minor Assaults and their adult-skater mentors into the community to serve breakfast and lunch to children in underserved areas.
“It’s really amazing getting to go out and be with those kids,” said Marisa Liuzzo, another member of Minor Assaults whose skater name is Hugs n’ Stitches. “It may not seem like much to me and you, but those kids may not have had a meal in who knows when, so it is just so meaningful and important to them.”
During a normal summer, the program serves about 70,000 meals.
Summer 2020, however, was anything but normal.
“We got a call from the Arizona Department of Education in March and they asked us if we could start our food distribution program early,” said Rodriguez, who’s in charge of the program.
With the help of the Department of Education and a food service partner, Nutrition One, the Derby Dames operate seven mobile food distribution sites throughout Phoenix. Parents with children in need can simply drive up to one of the sites and pick up breakfast and lunch for their kids every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
The program, which usually only operates through the summer, has been distributing meals nonstop for more than a year now. In that time, the Dames have served nearly 800,000 meals to children in need.
Now, they are depending on the community to support them as they continue the fight to save their space.
So far, the Save Our Space campaign has raised more than $30,000, enough to cover their rent for several months. They need more and have a goal “to raise $20,000 by September,” Rodriguez said.
This amount would tie the Dames over until they feel it is safe enough to host bouts again. Their plan is to begin competition in October, although they will continue to monitor COVID-19 numbers and follow recommended protocols.
“We want to be able to welcome fans back into our warehouse for bouts again and we want to make sure we can do so safely,” Rodriguez said. “But without the support of our community, without the support of donations, we won’t get there.”
The Derby Dames recently reopened the Hall of Dames for practice only.
Returning to the track, even while wearing masks and maintaining social distancing, has reminded the skaters of the impact that roller derby has had on their lives.
For many of them, it’s more than just a sport. They even have a mantra: “Roller derby changes lives.”
“Roller derby has a way of finding you, not the other way around, at a moment in which you need it the most,” Rodriguez said.
For Rodriguez, that moment came when she was experiencing personal loss and was at the end of an unhealthy relationship.
“It has shaped who I am and my philosophy of life,” she said. “And that’s just one story. You could tell hundreds of stories from skaters in this league.”
For Edwards, it came after a big move that left her looking for community through her favorite childhood activity, roller skating.
“I had strict parents and the roller rink was one of the only places I was allowed to go,” she said. “And I really thrived there and found a lot of confidence and friends through that.”
Off the track, the women of this roller derby league are doctors, students, teachers, mothers, political advisers and food servers. On the track, they’re all Derby Dames.
Many of these skaters would tell you that the sport saved them. And now, they will do anything to save it.
“This is something that means so much to so many people,” Rodriguez said. “So we can’t let it go, we can’t stop fighting. I refuse for this to be the end.”