For the L.A. Derby Dolls, elbow room for self-improvement

Some girls choose soccer or cheerleading. Ivy Wolk chose roller derby.

"This is it, this is for me," the petite, wide-eyed 9-year-old said to her mom the first time she saw the Los Angeles Derby Dolls hit the track, and one another, two years ago.

Split lips, black eyes, rink rash and bruises are trophies here. "It's not child abuse, it's derby," she once told her mother, who made sure she alerted her daughter's pediatrician about the girl's newfound love for the sport.

"There have literally been days where I have been like, 'I must be crazy.' But she just picks herself up and gets back out there," said her mother, Tracy Wolk.

Since getting their start 11 years ago, the Los Angeles Derby Dolls have become an L.A. institution, lacing up skates first at Skateland, then on a rooftop in Chinatown, then on the third floor of a Little Tokyo shopping mall, with various parking lots in between. They teach women 7 and older how to skate, and they compete against teams from across the country.

Now the volunteer league is moving again. Their Historic Filipinotown "Doll Factory," a former dairy slathered in pink and black paint, sits on a block that may be slated for new development.

But finding a new place is a challenge, said league co-founder Rebecca Ninburg. It has to be big and affordable, with a landlord willing to look outside the box — they're no textile company, but they're not the violent, raucous crowd some think. To raise money for the move and the new space, the Dolls have started an online campaign with a goal of $100,000 by the end of the month. To date, they've raised more than $79,000.

"I'm just gonna be so sad that we're gonna lose this place. It's my home, it's my home away from home," said Yesenia "Cherry Bomb" Hernandez, 15, who said roller derby is what gave her the confidence to stand up to bullies at her school. The Junior Ri-Ette has gone flying out of the rink before, but her mom isn't worried. The girls take care of one another, said Julie Hernandez.

Practices are intense. Team members are known by their derby names, clever wordplay or tough monikers such as RegulateHer, Jackie Nimble and Cirque d'Slay.

Young women shoot around the banked track under a skate-shaped disco ball. "Jammers" at the back of the pack fight to get through, take a lap, pass the group to score, and go again. The women are pushing and yelling on a recent day when one falls hard and slides into the center of the rink. She writhes on the ground, but she's smiling as the acupuncturist volunteering that night hops the railing and rushes over. Her teammate skates to the first aid cart, reachable from the track, to grab supplies.

The league has gotten dozens of offers for reality shows and documentaries, but Ninburg, a.k.a. Demolicious, said they'll continue to turn them down unless they get the final cut. Television creates drama and tries to sex up the sport, she said, and that's not what they're about. They're serious athletes.

"We're not going to compromise who we are," she said. "The objectification doesn't exist here. We control it. If you wanna wear makeup, wear makeup. If you don't, don't. If you want to look sexy, look sexy. If you don't, don't. Nobody cares. Just get out there and play a good game."

At halftime of a recent "bout," spectators milled around the Doll House with food and drinks in hand, browsing merchandise stalls and stopping to listen to cover bands.

It was the first time David Hale, 39, and friend George Tevelde, 40, had seen the Derby Dolls. Once he found them, it took only about 20 minutes browsing online for Hale to get hooked. Derby was like pro wrestling in the 1970s, but it's had a resurgence that has turned it into much more of a real sport, he said.

"It's not polished. It's not baseball, it's not the Lakers," Hale said. "You can see it in their faces. It's not L.A. They're not doing it for the money, they're doing it for the love."

Ivy — known here as Shematoma, a play on the scientific word for bruise — is sure of herself when she whips around the track. Her teammates, ages 7 to 17, wear skirts and patterned leggings, and some have shirts with their derby names printed on the back. They practice the basics, stopping and maneuvering around cones set up on the rink, to an upbeat soundtrack including the "The Bare Necessities," "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" and Phil Collins.

Ivy gets quiet and a bit shy when asked, really, what it is about roller derby she loves so much. It makes her feel normal, her mother said, which is a big deal for a kid with a rare protein allergy that prevents her from eating 19 major foods. She can't have any outside food, but Ninburg made sure there were frozen grapes, her favorite treat, at a recent team party. They were a hit with the other girls.

Last summer, Ivy took several weeks off to rest and undergo medical tests. She was nervous about coming back, but her coach greeted her with a shout and a big hug. Her friends acted as if nothing had changed.

She turned to her mom and said, "I'm home," Wolk recalled.

samantha.schaefer@latimes.com