Hot, Flat, and Crowded

Roller Derby Grows Up
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At the Detroit Derby Girls season opener, I asked the league’s media contact, who doubles as a player for the Grand Prix Madonnas, why roller derby has caught on so fast. It’s only been ten years since a competitive sport was crafted out of the scripted spectacle from the 1970s, and there’s already enough viability to fuel a roller derby World Cup in Toronto this past week: teams from 13 nations and four continents competed in a sold-out four-day tournament that ended with top-seeded Team USA pummeling Team Canada in the finals. The Detroit Derby Girls, one of the oldest and most stable leagues, sold out an 1,100-seat venue on opening night this year, which is typical attendance for them, and their championship last June drew a sellout crowd of 3,500. Spectators are filling seats, even though derby’s rules still need to be explained in the program and, before the opening whistle, players have to act out how points are scored in a slow-motion demonstration on the track. (A team scores when its jammer laps the opposing team’s blockers.) Whether they understood the game or not, the wide-open room inside Detroit’s Masonic Temple brimmed with teens on a night out, families with small kids, vendors selling beer, couples that had long since seen 60, and a cohort of middle-aged professional women behind me who spied actor Zach Braff from Scrubs in the crowd, not so well disguised under a Tigers hat. One of them discussed options for approaching Braff while keeping her dignity. She seemed to be settling on pretending her daughter wanted a photo.

The league’s media contact—her name is J.T. Sangsland, but her derby alias is Sham Wow—was about to answer my question on why all these people are paying money and showing up when we got separated by jostling fans. We did the nod thing, indicating we’d talk later.

The D-Funk AllStars had been dominating league champion Detroit Pistoffs all night. Tinja, the AllStars jammer was starring—her aggressive weaves and unbelievably fast turns around the polished wood track had fans on their feet. Plenty of players were hitting the track—and each other—hard. But speed might be the sport’s most impressive feature. In the final minutes, the Pistoffs wheeled into the lead for the first time, then padded it by more than a dozen points. A chattering crowd focused its voice into one long holler as the clock ticked down. Tricky last-second skating by Tinja pushed the AllStars to a narrow one-point win: 154–153. Somehow, the D-Funk AllStars opened the derby season as both the dominant team and the comeback team.

Sham Wow shouldered her way over to me. “Not bad, right? I just told someone I wanted to celebrate the last-second win, but I had to go talk to the writer who wanted to know why roller derby is exciting.”

The first ever roller derby World Cup kicked off in Toronto on December 1 with about 300 skaters. Besides USA and Canada, teams from Finland, France, Argentina, Brazil, Scotland, Australia, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, and New Zealand showed up to play. The venue was a former munitions warehouse with two tracks hosting simultaneous hour-long bouts. The competition sold out a week before its start, with tickets for individual bouts priced from $20 to $125. Live streaming on the Derby News Network expanded the World Cup audience, but only 1,500 fit into the venue; it is a regular frustration of derby to settle for adapted venues that don’t seat as many tickets as they could sell.

The World Cup is the latest chapter in the strange story of the rise, fall, and rise of roller derby. It began as endurance racing in the 1880s. The Transcontinental Roller Derby, a touring event developed by Leo Seltzer in the late 1930s, shifted the sport from marathon skating into a more structured competition and introduced it to the US and Europe. By mid-century, this morphed into a WWE-style television exhibition played by both men and women on a banked track, complete with theatrical hits, scripted play, and punning aliases, before the derby trend fizzled. In 2001, enterprising Texans crafted, from those frankly campy ashes, an athletic and fast-paced competitive sport pitting two teams of five skaters apiece against each other. Four original teams played the first public competition in Austin in 2002, though founders soon split over differing visions for the sport. One group of them formed the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls, a league of eight teams that plays on a banked track. The others founded the Texas Rollergirls, the first flat-track league.

It was the flat-track style of derby that caught on the most. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), the global governing body of competitive roller derby, was founded in 2004 and plays an important role in standardizing the rules, playing schedule, and safety of a young and evolving sport. By 2005, there were about 50 leagues nationwide, including the Detroit Derby Girls. International leagues started forming a year later. Today, more than 450 leagues play flat-track derby around the world, including 130 WFTDA member leagues and 70 apprentice leagues. WFTDA also regularly hosts international boot camps and officiating clinics. Meanwhile, Flat Track Stats is building algorithms and rankings that track the sport’s development. Blood & Thunder Magazine is a quarterly print publication devoted to women’s roller derby with recent articles on “Derby in the ‘Burbs” and “The History of Roller Derby in Europe.” Blood & Thunder also sponsored the inaugural World Cup and hosts various derby training camps.

Men play derby, too, though organized play for men came after the women’s sport developed. The Men’s Roller Derby Association emerged in 2007 and has 18 member leagues across the US, ranging from the New York Shock Exchange to the Rock City Riot of Fargo, North Dakota.

Creating a new sport has its challenges. Besides having to remind everybody how the game is played, derby has to constantly assure people that, unlike its popular predecessor, it is real. The WFTDA slogan makes the point prominent: “Real. Strong. Athletic. Revolutionary.” On its FAQ web page, it is compelled to add questions like “Is roller derby real?” and “I used to love watching roller derby on TV! Is it like that?” The program for the Detroit Derby Girls season-opener had sections titled “It’s NOT just going in circles” and “Roller derby is not a free-for-all.”

Joy Klemmer was sitting next to me at the Derby Girls opener. She remembers watching derby as a kid and says the difference is obvious. “The track wasn’t flat. There were more theatrics. There was more hair-pulling.”

Roller derby’s embrace of a DIY indie/feminist ethic also sets it apart from the its televised ancestor, although the aliases, humor, and punk-sexy attire of today’s game serve as knowing tribute to the past. (It’s worth noting that some players and leagues have dropped both the retro style and the aliases, feeling that they prevent derby from being taken seriously as a sport.) Again and again, people cite the sport as an uncommonly empowering experience for those both on and off the track.

“Derby shows us that as women we can be strong, tough, resilient, unique, and smart,” said Roxanna Hardplace of the Detroit Pistoffs; unwheeled, she is Laura Livingston, an Ann Arbor nurse. “As skaters we are not only athletes playing a sport, but we are businesswomen who collectively own and operate the Detroit Derby Girls LLC.” This arrangement is typical of derby leagues, though some, like Gotham Girls Roller Derby and the original Texas Rollergirls, are organized as 501(c)(3) nonprofits. It’s also typical for players who pay monthly dues to double as volunteer staff (c.f. the aforementioned J.T. Sangsland/Sham Wow). Players compete for travel teams, including the World Cup teams, at their own expense or through fundraising efforts.

Roxanna Hardplace added that bouts are family-friendly—under-12s get in free and were invited onto the track at halftime to play with hula-hoops. It’s often kids that push parents to return, she added. “Particularly I have found this to be true for girls between the ages of six and 13.”

Where to go next? Roxanna Hardplace wants to see more junior leagues for under-18 players develop. “As young ladies grow up playing roller derby and then play on adult teams, I anticipate the sport will get even more competitive and athletic.” This is a key point: while teams in the US are reaching high levels of competitiveness, Team USA’s blow-out of international competition at the World Cup reveals that skills are inconsistent among leagues, especially very young ones. The first WFTDA league from Australia, the Victorian Roller Derby League, just got full membership last week.

The biggest question facing derby at the moment is whether it will remain pay-to-play or become something that more closely resembles a professional sport. Ziv Kruger, a derby photographer and former coach of the Alamo City all-star team, wants to see it at the Olympics. (It’s a goal shared, incidentally, with the late Leo Seltzer.) And he wants to see this year’s World Cup build the foundation for the next one—and the one after that, with the derby eventually being held once every two years in bigger venues. “My hope is that we hit this (the World Cup) so far over the fence that we get an international-level sponsor, some billion-dollar company that can get behind what we do and sees it as important.”

Kruger also expects to see an explosion of new teams developing in the wake of the World Cup, as there was after early WFTDA tournaments. “I can’t imagine any other game evolving as fast,” he says. “I can’t imagine how long it took for basketball to take root.”

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