I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at my first roller derby bout in Tucson, in 2005. As a former college athlete and coach, an amateur women’s sports historian and a gender studies nerd, I had heard buzz about derby and wanted to check it out. That night, the Furious Truckstop Waitresses, clad in pink waitress dresses, were playing the police-themed Vice Squad. As women of all shapes and sizes whizzed by me in warm-ups, I noticed names like Barbicide, Whiskey Mick and Sloppy Flo emblazoned on their uniforms. Some wore fishnet tights, itty-bitty skirts and funky makeup. As excited as I was, I paused: Was this objectification disguised as empowerment? Were these women being exploited or were they totally awesome? I couldn’t tell. I settled in near the track, intrigued.
At the first whistle, the spectacle transformed into an exhilarating celebration of women and sport, complete with referees and play-by-play announcers. I’d never seen this many paying fans support an amateur women’s sport. After the game, I watched the skaters pack up the merchandise, sweep the floor and stack the chairs. Everyone did everything. This was a woman-focused, do-it-yourself sports culture, and I was hooked.
Roller derby has existed on and off since the 1930s, but this new wave originated in Austin, Texas, in 2001, the vision of a man known as “Devil Dan” and some feisty women. After he reportedly stole their money and skipped town, the burned-but-determined team captains carried on, reviving roller derby for the new millennium. Sassy, strong and aggressive, “derby girls” challenged traditional notions of acceptable female behavior through the male-dominated world of sports.
In 2005 the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) was formed, creating a standard set of rules and supporting the growing derby community. Women held leadership positions in the association; men were involved as referees, coaches and announcers, but not skaters. This was a deviation from the sport’s co-ed history, but organizers insisted that the new derby have little connection to the promoter-owned derby their parents remembered. This roller derby was skater-owned, and WFTDA adopted the motto “Real. Strong. Athletic. Revolutionary.” I wore my WFTDA shirt proudly and cheered when Tucson hosted twenty teams for the first-ever national competition, the Dust Devil Tournament, in 2006.
Two years later, as a burned-out graduate student in need of adventure, I found myself on a date at a roller rink in Hadley, Massachusetts. I spent the whole night imagining myself playing derby as I swerved around the rink. Soon afterward, I attended “Fresh Meat Night” with the local league, Pioneer Valley Roller Derby. PVRD had a women’s team and the first men’s team in the country. They practiced together, a unique and progressive approach that I loved, and I found that the toughest-looking skaters were incredibly supportive and encouraging. Personally, politically and athletically, I’d found my home. “Lady Hulk” was born.
Roller derby marries an underground vibe with the fun of athletic competition in a blend of sport and spectacle that is as much fun to play as it is to watch. Teams compete on a small flat or banked track. Each team has four blockers and one jammer. Everyone skates around the track in a series of two-minute “jams,” trying to get their team’s jammer through the opposing pack of blockers, while holding the other team’s jammer back. Once through the pack, the jammers skate quickly around the track, earning points for each opposing player they lap. At the end of each jam, new skaters get on the track and a new jam begins. Games last for around sixty minutes, divided into two or three periods. Unlike in the old days of derby, today you usually earn a penalty for throwing elbows and get ejected for fighting.
Skaters come to derby from different backgrounds, and they all bring unique stories and style. Some rock fishnets and booty shorts, some have tattoos and piercings, and some practice in gym shorts and T-shirts. Many started after attending a bout or learning that a friend joined a team; others were drawn in through media coverage, Facebook, the movie Whip It or the A&E show Rollergirls. Some are former Division I athletes, while others were kids who hated PE.
For those burned out on traditional sports, derby provides a challenging, refreshing alternative. It’s a “love of the game” world where passion, community and the spirit of competition support leagues through the growing pains, budgetary challenges and inevitable derby drama. Even the refs and officials donate their time. One skater summed up the culture this way: “We don’t care about your body type or sexual orientation or whether you were the popular kid in school. As long as you want to come out and strap on skates and pads, work your butt off, and offer support and respect for those around you, there is a place for you here.”
According to Roller Derby WorldWide, there are 960 amateur leagues around the globe. This includes banked-track teams, WFTDA-affiliated and unaffiliated flat-track women’s teams, men’s teams (many affiliated with the Men’s Roller Derby Association), junior teams, recreational teams and teams that play by “old-school rules.” Some leagues are nationally ranked and participate in official seasons and championships; others are just starting up, with little more than a few skaters, new knee pads and a dream. Teams are playing in increasingly large venues, and more and more fans are cheering them on. Players can read game recaps and articles on strategy in the derby community trade magazines Five on Five and Blood and Thunder, and bouts are often streamed on the hugely popular online Derby News Network.
As roller derby continues to grow and evolve, many questions are popping up. Will it become an Olympic sport? Join the X Games? Can it remain local? Might the development of girls’ junior leagues lead to an increasingly competitive derby market? Will roller derby be on TV again? Will men’s derby push the community to be more inclusive? Everyone involved has an opinion and a hope for the future; but on the local level, we’re also busy getting ready for our next bout.
Those of us who play roller derby are part of history, part of making the spectacle of sport more apparent and celebratory, and leaving limiting ideas about appropriate sports for women and men in our eight-wheeled wake. Check out your local team and support the roller derby revolution!