For a sport where balance and strength are essential to victory, roller derby has certainly had an unsteady history. These days though, its popularity only seems to be growing, particularly among the ladies. In the lead up to International Women’s Day on March 8th, Max Kobras takes a look at what the sport means to its players..
Roller derby has been around since as early as the 1930s in America, where roller skating itself was already very popular and the new idea of team-based skating quickly gained a following. Around 1940, there were approximately five million spectators across 50 US cities. But by the 1960s, the sport’s popularity had plummeted and become overshadowed by more conventional sports.
There were attempts to revive it over the next few decades, primarily through the introduction of scripted story lines and pre-determined matches in an effort to emulate the success of professional wrestling’s sports entertainment, yet roller derby continued to decline and, eventually, fade away.
However, as with many trends, this was not a permanent death.
The modern revival of roller derby began at the turn of the millennium, initially as an all-female sport, entirely organised by women as well. It was totally limited to Austin, Texas, at first but with the momentum of a speedy skater spread to 135 leagues across the globe by 2006. And that number has now risen to over 350.
All the way over here in Australia, the Sydney Roller Derby League (SRDL), formed in 2007, is just one of those leagues demonstrating how the sport is truly starting to permeate society. But what’s the attraction, you may ask?
Often perceived to be an ‘unladylike’ or violent sport by outsiders, roller derby seems to empower its female players and is a great equaliser. It appeals to such a wide variety of people; from different demographics, careers and sports experience and, when talking to the athletes, you’ll discover that this diversity is exactly what makes the sport so unique and engaging – particularly in the Inner West.
“In a lot of sports, a certain physical shape may have an advantage over another, but that’s not the case with roller derby,” says Feisty Cuffs, captain of the SRDL team the Screaming Assault Sirens. “The ultimate foil to a big girl is a short girl who can take out her legs, and a short girl can be floored by a big girl.”
One of the most attractive things about the game is, while there is the possibility for a huge division in skill, everyone and anyone has the potential to play and play well. Disgrace Kelly, another Sydney player, admits that she couldn’t even skate before she started.
A Leichhardt local more conventionally known as Amy Emerson, Disgrace Kelly is a rookie to roller derby, having been a part of ‘Fresh Meat’ training program for the past year. She first became interested in the sport after watching a game in 2011 and it soon became an obsession. Now, as Amy waits to be drafted to a home team, she says that her favourite thing about being a part of this organisation is being “able to meet regularly with such an interesting and diverse group of women.”
When roller derby first began, there was an equal distribution of male and female players in different divisions, but the women’s games were always more popular. This has been a constant and, as Feisty Cuffs says, “there are few sports in which the female variant was the most popular so I am not surprised to see it made its comeback.” Ultimately, roller derby is popular because it appeals to women, more so than other sports. And as a natural development, it has become linked with feminism and strong, independent women.
One of the stand out features of roller derby is the way it embraces sexuality through the provocative names of the teams and players and the themed ‘uniforms’. The entire sport embodies some of the core tenets of third-wave feminism in that it is very pro sexual liberty and this is an attitude that is shared by many of the players. “You have the freedom to express and be proud of who you are in roller derby without any barriers or fear of not being accepted,” says Amy/Disgrace Kelly. For many players, roller derby gives them the opportunity to show that “talent and achievement are not gender-specific.”
But for all the benefits of female empowerment, the theatrics of roller derby are not without its downsides. As Feisty Cuffs admits, “I can’t deny that our names and some of our uniforms make it hard for us to be accepted as a ‘legitimate sport’ by some of our critics.” The pseudonyms are a remnant from the days when the matches were a pre-determined show. It isn’t surprising to see someone come to their first game simply for the spectacle, although most people will leave with respect for the strategy and physicality of the sport.
“I don’t really mind what attracts people initially,” says Feisty Cuffs. “Whether it be the novelty or the showy aspect of the game, there has to be a hook for the casual fan.”
In recent times however, primarily in the US and England, players have begun skating under their real names when representing their travel teams. “I think the more competitive roller derby becomes it is a possibility that others will follow suit,” says Amy/Disgrace Kelly. “However, having an ‘alter-ego’ makes it all that little bit more fun.”
The sport as a whole is certainly becoming more and more competitive, internationally widespread and professional, with the SRDL hoping to travel overseas in the near future to compete against teams in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (the international governing body of roller derby), as many other leagues have been doing for years now. There are currently 166 leagues competing in the WFTDA roster and that number is steadily growing. There is even a Roller Derby World Cup held biennially.
The major difference between roller derby and other professional sports however, is that roller derby is entirely not for profit. All the coaches, referees and players are volunteers who are there for fun and nothing else.
To become truly professional, the sport would need a serious restructure and this would most likely ruin the vibe it has going for it. As Amy/Disgrace Kelly says, “It would be sad to see the grass root spirits of the sport diminish but it would also be great to see the sport grow and get that kind of recognition.”
Words: Max Kobras.
Ciao caught up with Whack Russell Terrior from the Inner West Derby League to get some tips on living life on wheels…
Picking a derby name
Most derby names are a play on words and skaters often choose a one based on their interests, or on occasion, a celebrity – for example, we have Boss Whedon (obviously a fan of Joss Whedon). Other names include Mamie van Gore’em and Shevy Chase. Sometimes though a name can be picked for you by your teammates and just sticks whether you like it or not!
It may sound cliche, but practice makes perfect. The more comfortable you become on your skates, the quicker you’ll improve. Be aware of the edges on your wheels – you need them to do everything.
Why roller derby?
It’s great exercise, good fun and a great way to meet people.
Rules of the game
Games consists of two 30-minute halves, which are each divided into “jams” that can last a maximum two minutes.
Five skaters (four blockers and one jammer) from each team are allowed on the track during each jam. Blockers try to help their jammer get through the pack while preventing the opposing jammer from getting through. Jammers score the points – one for each opposing skater who is lapped.
You can use your shoulders, hips and booty to block opposing skaters, but pushing, tripping and using elbows or forearms will send you to the penalty box for 60 seconds.
IWRDL was founded in 2012. From small beginnings, the league now has around 50 members. If you’d like to join the fun, email firstname.lastname@example.org and ask about the Fresh Meat Program.