Friday, 21 October 2011

Fishnets and Fisticuffs: the revival of Roller Derby

Roller Derby is the fastest growing women’s sport in the world, but few in the mainstream understand how it works.

What is Roller Derby?
Roller Derby is a full contact women’s sport played on quad style roller skates. Roller Derby began as a sport in the United States of America during the Great Depression, when creator Leo Seltzer was challenged to create a sport involving roller skating, which was very popular at the time. Seltzer’s original version of the sport involved teams of two competing in endurance roller skating. Roller Derby emerged when the crowd reacted well to competitors falling over or hurting other players, so Seltzer modified the rules to not only allow, but to encourage these aspects.

How do you play?
Roller Derby has five players to a team, three ‘blockers’, one ‘jammer’ and one ‘pivot’. Each bout (match) is played on a circular track. The aim of the bout is for a team’s jammer to score more points than the other team’s jammer by circling the track as many times as she can. In a typical ‘jam’ (round) of a roller derby bout, a whistle will blow and the ‘pack’- consisting of both teams blockers and the pivots- will start circulating the track. A second whistle will blow shortly after and the two jammers will take off towards the pack. The jammer has to try and make her way through the pack, around the track and back to the pack for a second time. On the second lap, each player from the opposite team she passes will score her one point. This is made more difficult as the blockers and the pivot from the other team are trying to make as much physical contact as possible to knock over the jammer and prevent her from scoring points. The pivot is a special kind of blocker who acts as the last line of defence for her pack, trying to prevent the jammer from scoring points.

How did it make this comeback?
Roller Derby died out after the 1970s, despite several attempts to revive the sport. It made its comeback in Austin, Texas, when a group of locals formed a roller derby league open only to women. They created four teams and had their first official bout in 2002. By 2005, just three years later, there was in excess of 50 roller derby leagues all over the United States. This number had almost tripled a year later to over 140 leagues. It is thought this jump in numbers was due in part to a reality television show that aired in the USA entitled Roller Girls, which followed one of the Texas roller derby teams. The 2009 roller derby film Whip It also helped to introduce more people to roller derby and bring the sport a little more into the mainstream.
‘If third-wave feminism was a warrior sport, it would be Roller Derby’- Ada Lovelaces
Since its revival in Texas, Roller Derby has had strong connections with feminism movements and alternative subcultures like the punk movement or rockabilly culture. The Austin league that started the revival had strong influences from the Riot Grrrl feminism movement. They wanted to create a space for women, by women. Roller Derby is also considered a feminist sport because it embraces feminine traits, trying to show that you don’t have to be masculine to be athletic, with women of all shapes and sizes competing. Roller Derby girls also play up their sexuality and femininity at bouts, dressing up in costumes and embracing their derby characters. Roller derby embraces alternative views of beauty — many of the derby players are pierced and tattooed, with a fondness for fishnet tights and booty shorts. It’s also self defined. Each league creates its own idea of how it wants to work and what its want to incorporate.
Roller Derby Culture
A huge part of roller derby is not only the skating and the bouts, but also the roller derby ‘characters’ that the players create for themselves. Most skaters have a ‘derby name’, which is used to identify themselves at derby and to create their alter ego derby character, which is played up during bouts. Most derby names are plays on words or references to pop culture. Derby players also dress up in ‘boutfits’ as their alter ego during bouts and decorate their helmets with their derby names. Examples of derby names include ‘Rubi Doom’, ‘Marie Slamtionette’, ‘Bubble O’Kill’, ‘The Ref Baron’ and ‘Legz Helleven’.

Minerva McGonnaKill's decorated derby helmut (McGonnaKill is a reference to Harry Potter Character Minerva McGonagall)

Roller Derby in Australia
Australia has 31 Roller Derby leagues, across all States and Territories. The Canberra Roller Derby League is one of the most popular. It has four teams and over 500 women signed up to compete for a spot in the 2011 season. Roller Derby in Canberra is usually a sell out affair, with approximately 5,000 people watching each game in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Due to a shortage of places in the Canberra league, in 2011 a group of women created the Varsity Derby League, situated at the Australian National University, taking all women who wanted to play Roller Derby and training them. The Varsity League has approximately 50 members currently and is increasing its member base quickly, proving Roller Derby is here to stay for a while at least .
(Note: This was a feature piece I wrote for my Print Journalism Class, designed as a briefing)