Talk about old school. In skating rinks around the nation, saucy dames are getting together and strapping on old-fashioned quad roller skates to jam, block, and pummel each other. The roller derby revival is on. More than two dozen leagues operate across the country, with an average of 30 to 40 active skaters each (some leagues even boast as many as 60), and many more are in the works. This latest incarnation features some big changes from the derby of the old days: Flat tracks that can be set up in a variety of venues have replaced the banked tracks of old; all-female leagues have supplanted coed teams; and the vast majority of leagues are now owned and operated by skaters. But roller derby continues to raise eyebrows—not to mention questions about the complicated relationship between women, athletics, and aggression.
Roller derby is a place where sport and spectacle collide; its history is complicated by questions of legitimacy and exploitation. Dreamed up by Chicago entrepreneur Leo Seltzer during the Depression, derby started off as a coed marathon roller race. Once the sport’s innovators realized that audiences went crazy when the skaters made contact with each other, roller derby as we know it was born. Featuring “jammers,” who break out of a pack of skaters and race around a banked track attempting to pass opponents in order to score points, and “blockers,” team members who try to clear a path for them, roller derby became an instant, bone-crushing hit that sold out stadiums across the nation. In the 1950s, it was so popular that all three major tv networks regularly broadcast matches.
But—thanks in part to overexposure—spectacle came to be emphasized over sport; by the end of the ’60s, a Roller Games league showcased choreographed backflips, staged brawls between skaters, and even pies in the face. This style of play inspired the gritty 1972 Raquel Welch glamadrama Kansas City Bomber, and gave the sport its persistent reputation as a lowbrow slugfest. By the ’80s, roller derby’s popularity was on the wane, although a handful of banked-track leagues continued to play.
Part of derby’s novelty was its inclusion of women in such an over-the-top, aggressive sport. Female skaters figured heavily in the promotion of roller derby, and remain some of the most memorable personalities. Legendary “good girls” like Joanie “The Golden Girl” Weston were pitted against bruisers like Ann “Meanest Momma on Skates” Calvello in order to spice up the game. (Calvello, still skating in her 70s, is perhaps the most infamous skater in the sport’s history; her antics inspired more than a few early pioneers in the sport of pro wrestling.) Female skaters proved that women could be tough and athletic, although their skating skills were constantly undermined by staged girlfights and drama. As a consequence, roller derby and its female participants weren’t taken seriously as athletes by anyone but the most hard-core fans.
The women behind the current roller derby renaissance have inherited the complicated history of the sport and added a few complications of their own. While they’re committed to keeping all the action on the track real, this generation of rollergirls actively embraces the tongue-in-cheek theatrics of their predecessors. Leagues boast teams with names like the Honky Tonk Heartbreakers, the Cherry Bombs, the Sugar Kill Gang, and the Unholy Rollers, to name a few; skaters claim a unique roller derby name and develop an on-track persona; and the flat-track setup enables audience members to get within a few feet of the action. Critics have been quick to chalk up this revival to retro irony, but the number and diversity of women who have joined the movement point to the sport as a new and exciting mode of expression. Derby welcomes women of all shapes, sizes, and skill levels, and all skaters are more or less new to the sport, giving it an equal-opportunity allure. The rigorous training offered by leagues is a great alternative to the culture of gyms, and, as a result, derby has attracted women who might not otherwise consider themselves athletic and who are responsible for much of the punk-rock edge of the sport.
In addition, the diy ethic that fuels the leagues makes derby an entrepreneurial sports opportunity for women. Some leagues have structured themselves as nonprofit organizations; others are for-profit corporations in which skaters have the opportunity to receive a percentage of profits. In either structure, the primary emphasis is on skater control of revenue; this new school of derby is extremely wary of “spandex leagues” and promoters looking to make money off of their hard work.
That said, roller derby—like other manifestations of cheeky postfeminist culture—has its problems. Like mud wrestling, roller derby has historically been seen as a way to entertain largely male audiences with hot, dirty catfights. And with its bad-gal costumes and prospect of girl-on-girl bruising, roller derby still skates a fine line between sport and spectacle. Though modern skaters have reimagined the sport as a form of self-expression and performance (not unlike the recent feminist revival of burlesque), as well as an athletic contest, the titillation factor threatens to undermine the legiti-macy of the game. And not surprisingly, recent media coverage of the sport has focused on the novelty of sexy girls in fishnets on four wheels. Spin called the sport “the best catfight on earth,” while the Tucson Citizen quoted a male fan who opined, ‘“For some spectators, the chance of getting a roller derby girl in their lap is a part of the attraction.” The pinnacle of media sensationalism will most likely come with the premiere this January of an A&E reality show focusing on the Lonestar Rollergirls, which promises to “go behind the scenes as [skaters] celebrate each other’s triumphs, scheme payback against their rivals, race to the hospital to mend broken bones, and try to navigate their rocky personal lives.”
Skaters and leagues must constantly defend the legitimacy of the game and rationalize their desire to participate. But rollergirls are sticking to their skates with their belief that derby can be a genuine medium for athletics and personal (including sexual) expression. No other traditional sport offers such a combination, which is largely responsible for its popularity—and a big reason why skaters are unwilling to abandon derby’s edgier elements, even if it makes the road to legitimacy rockier.
And it works. Skaters are fiercely competitive, and even those audience members who attend bouts for the short shorts leave with a respect for the players’ skills. In addition, leagues know that showy performances alone won’t build a loyal fan base, and so they constantly work on improving players’ games. And, because the majority of the new leagues are skater-owned and -operated, participants have a great deal of control over the evolution of the sport. In an unprecedented grassroots effort, representatives from 30 leagues across the country met in Chicago this summer to discuss standardizing the sport, regulating league play, and ensuring that skaters—rather than production companies or unaffiliated owners—are in control of the potentially lucrative future of the derby.
As complicated and fraught with risks as it may be, the new wave of derby offers all kinds of women a venue for a different kind of expression. Set to a punk-rock soundtrack, full of fast-paced mayhem, and featuring women behaving very badly, roller derby doesn’t just defy stereotypes—it smashes them to a bloody pulp and skates gleefully on by.
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