The Roller Derby Resurgence
words Lamont Abramczyk
All photos are provided courtesy of TXRD.
I first heard of roller derby in 2009 following the release of “Whip It”, a Hollywood adaptation of the novel ‘Derby Girl’ by Shawna Cross. At the time, it didn’t leave much of an impression on me – I suppose the allure of Ellen Page embodying another angsty teenager wasn’t very strong. Despite moderate popularity, I eventually forgot about it. Six years on and roller derby has again been brought to my attention, however not in the form of another movie or a novel, but rather a personification of third wave feminism. Written in speed and sweat is a philosophy embodied by derby enthusiasts across the globe; respect and equality is warranted.
Roller derby has long been advocating female empowerment since its beginnings in 1933. In response to the Great Depression, Leo Selzer first created roller derby as a means of entertainment. The original version didn’t encompass the same physicality as today’s contemporary game, but still attracted mass audiences. Races took place on a flat track, with participants skating 57,000 continuous laps (approximately the equivalence of skating across the United States). Derby skaters were revered as high performance athletes, and the sport quickly gained national attention.
Derby offered a unique opportunity to women. It presented the first American sport for both sexes to perform on an equalized playing field. They mightn’t have competed directly against one another, but were subject to the same rules. Sources suggest that both sexes were even paid equally, with instances where female were paid higher wages due to the scarcity of athletes. Part of derby’s strong initial popularity was due to its appeal to both sexes. The prospect of seeing female athletes competing at the same level as their male counterparts enticed women across America. Participants such as Josephine “Ma” Bogash allured inquisitive housewives, herself setting out to become a derby skater on a dare from her husband. Leo Selzer recognized the potential of this new key demographic and immediately capitalized, distributing derby tickets to female-targeted outlets such as grocery stores and fabric shops.
Roller derby continued to evolve with the growth of its popularity. A banked track was introduced, resulting in higher speeds and (to the audience’s delight) harder collisions. The rules were developed to reflect the game as it’s now played today, with a points system, jammers, and blockers. The jammer’s key objective it to lap their opponents, while blockers disrupt the opposing jammer while creating space for their own by using both offensive and defensive tactics.
By the late 70’s, derby had begun to lose traction in the eyes of the American public. Television lead to increased emphasis on antics and personal drama within the rink, and the integrity of the sport was questioned by casual viewers. Derby made a brief comeback in the late 90’s with the introduction of RollerJam, but the production failed to captivate viewers. Based out of Universal Studios in Orlando, participants more so resembled pro wrestlers then skaters. Evening Gown Battles and catfights served as the focal point for the production, a sports entertainment display catering to casual sports fanatics. RollerJam was cancelled in 2001.
As Shreddie Mercury of the DDRD’y Farmers puts it:
“Unfortunately, these past displays have created a lot of negative misconceptions about the roller derby that goes on today. Although it’s a little discouraging, it’s an opportunity for the derby community to educate the public on what the sport is and is not. Roller derby is indeed a very competitive and athletic sport and it continues to take huge leaps to being considered in a more serious light. I really do think that people are coming around and realizing that it’s not all sassy nick names and fishnets (actually ... I haven’t even seen anyone play in fishnets!)."
However, the demise of RollerJam didn’t mark end of roller derby, but rather the beginning. Deep in the heart of Austin, Texas a new breed of derby enthusiasts had emerged, paving the way for future generations of female skaters. As April Ritzenthaler tells us: “Dan basically wanted a circus/mayhem atmosphere with derby being a secondary aspect of the production. The four of us who founded Bad Girl Good Woman Productions (BGGW) knew we wanted the actual sport to shine, but loved the thought of making it the best party you’d ever been to.”
April cofounded Bad Girl Good Woman Productions in 2001 following a fall-out with recruiter Daniel Policarpo, marking the first ever all girls roller derby league (with the exception of April’s gay, male-cheerleading squad, The Flamers). Skaters dawned elaborate costumes and alter egos, reflecting Red River’s street punk rock scene. “We really didn’t pay much attention to other derby promotions as the TV shows were all cancelled (and this was pre-YouTube), and the only thing we knew about old-school derby was that there was fighting and men.”
This refreshing approach to derby was an instant success. In July 2002, BGGW put on their first public bout to a crowd of 600 attendees at the Playland Skate Centre. In 2003, BGGW divided to form two separate leagues following management disputes amongst its members: the Texas Rollergirls, and the Texas Roller Derby Lonestar Rollergirls (where April formerly was Operations Director).
We catch up with April to learn more about the beginnings of TXRD and the roller derby resurgence.
CREEP: Why do you believe all-girl roller derby has become so successful?
April: It’s become so successful as it ignites the participants’ spirits and it shows other women what they can accomplish if they band together! Also, the bouts were originally designed to allow the audience to have fun and feel connected to the skaters. We have a culture at TXRD where each person in the audience is a guest at our party and we are the hostesses to them. As far as the games go, they take you through a range of emotions especially as you get to know each player personally through lots of media and fan interaction. Finally, we’ve always kept a handle on the tension inherent between sports and entertainment. Our audiences come to a game to see beauty and ferociousness, discipline and chance, anger and laughter, superiority and humility, and of course straight up badass-ery.
TXRD is regarded as today’s premier all-girls roller derby. Where do you see the league heading in the future?
April: I think TXRD will continue to be a unique voice and channel for creativity in the roller derby world. Our commitment to both the sport and the audience entertainment will begin to influence more and more leagues. TXRD will also continue to make space for all sorts of people to transform into the fully-powered humans they deserve to be, and will allow them to take this energy into all their other life roles.
Do you believe roller derby can continue to advocate feminist reform in the future?
April: The roller derby experience is simply the reflection of the viewer/participant. Each person gets out of it what they need and want. We managed to be part of feminist reform simply because we did it ourselves as women, and it made lots of other women excited at the possibility. What we wanted to accomplish didn’t fit into the traditional anything – legally, corporately, fundamentally. So, the form it’s in now is simply an enlarged women’s circle. The energy it creates turns into greater life force for everyone involved rather than the traditional money. That’s the most feminist thing we could ever do. Forget the patriarchal institutionalization of cash – do this for the love and for the multi-dimensional connections you get with each other, for forever if you choose.
Derby has continued to expand over the past decade and is today recognized on an international scale. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) lists 308 full member leagues world wide, with an additional 99 apprentice leagues.
Roller derby offers something different for everybody, with many members describing it as more then just a sport. Its appeal to both feminists and casual observers has allured thousands of women throughout Canada to compete within amateur leagues. I spoke to Melanie “Shreddie Mercury” Martins of the DRRD’y Farmers (Durham Region Roller Derby) to get a better understanding of roller derby’s mass appeal.
CREEP: What draws you to roller derby? Besides physical exercise, how/what do you take away from participating in roller derby?
Melanie: Roller derby is a sport, but it’s also so much more. It is a community and a sisterhood. For many, myself included, it is a place to discover the strength inside ourselves and an opportunity to tap into our fierce, potent, female energy. Roller derby has strong ties to feminism and queerness, something that originally attracted me to the community and sport and kept me comin’ back for more.
The body positivity piece that derby encompasses is like no other sport: Tall, short, skinny, fat ... Whatever you are or are not - all bodies are good bodies in roller derby. Many of the women I play with are in their 30’s and 40’s and have children. It actually makes me emotional to see these women rediscover, accept and love their bodies for the strong, powerful, capable entities they are, especially after years of feeling shame and hate toward their own bodies.
The physical and verbal dialogue that surrounds bodies in derby is also something I have found empowering: derby is a very physical sport which necessitates being in close contact with the bodies of other women as well as talking frankly and openly about the position and parts of your body and the bodies of others. I think it’s no coincidence that a sport so closely tied to female empowerment encourages women to take up space, not only on the track but on the side lines in committee meetings and fundraisers ... and that’s something I can really get behind.
Another invaluable feature of roller derby is the sisterhood/girl power piece. I am astounded by the generosity, mentorship and support I have received from my derby family over these short few months.
Many women, myself included, are trained to see other women as threats and are plagued with the notion that we need to be in competition with each other. We are taught to be intimidated by other women’s strengths and fed the belief that another women’s strengths magnify your own weaknesses. Despite the sport being competitive, derby is an environment that smacks down girl-on-girl hate. Women’s abilities and strengths are celebrated in roller derby. I think a lot of it has to do with the “hate you on the track, love you at the after party” mentality, as well as the encouragement of developing “derby crushes” on other skaters and finding another skater to be your “derby wife”.
Derby is also a sport where even their fiercest opponents find common ground and celebrate each other. There’s a derby expression that goes, “Everyone wins at the after party”. It doesn’t matter if you hate the guts of your opposing jammer, we’re all part of this wonderful community at the end of the bout, you buy that lady a beer and revel in derby love.
What does the expansion of men’s competitive roller derby mean to you as a female?
Melanie: I am thrilled that men’s derby is expanding. I would love if every person, regardless of age, gender, biological sex and/or sexual orientation could have the opportunity to experience roller derby and its community. I think discouraging male-identified people from playing a sport that is female dominated is no different than discouraging female-identified people from playing male dominated sports. My only wish is that the male identified people joining the sport realize its roots to feminism and queerness. I have very few concerns though ... the vast majority of men who play derby seem to have been recruited by their female partners and friends! Women also coach and train men’s leagues, so we continue to be a voice in men’s derby.
How does roller derby advocate for political and social advances for women? Do you believe roller derby can continue to advocate feminist reform in the future? How?
Melanie: Generally speaking, roller derby leagues are grass roots organizations/ movements that are organized and run by skaters, for skaters. This local level community has this wonderful ability to attract, nurture and encourage empowered, open-minded people (especially women). I think this sort of unintimidating, if-she-can-do-it-I-can-do-it atmosphere really fosters a space where women can start advocating for themselves, their teammates and their leagues, which then builds their confidence and leadership skills. For many women, this begins to translate to their ability and willingness to take on roles and stances in their family lives, careers and community that they may have been too intimidated to do so prior to derby.
Interested in participating? Find a league at wftda.com.
For more information check Roller Derby: The History and All-Girl Revival of the Greastest Sport on Wheels by Catherine Mabe.
Posted on June 19, 2015
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