Leaders of the pack

The fast paced, full-contact sport known as flat track roller derby was reincarnated in Austin, Texas in the early 2000s as an all-female, woman-organized amateur sport. By 2006 there were over 135 leagues across the globe. Rather than the staged circus-like production reminiscent of WWF wrestling, roller derby has been remade by skaters, for skaters to suit their diverse needs.

Most people are exposed to roller derby through the 2009 film Whip it, staring Ellen Page. Shauna Cross, previously known as Maggie Mayhem from the Los Angeles Derby Dolls, wrote the 2007 novel Derby Girl which the Hollywood film is based on. Although the film did not do well commercially, it may have spawned more amateur roller derby leagues to start up. More films about the sport have also been helpful for recognition like Derby Baby: A Story of Love, Addiction and Rink Rash narrated by Juliette Lewis and the documentary Blood on the Flat Track.

Just to give a little background on why roller derby has blown up, The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) has standardized the sport which makes it easier for leagues to collaborate and network. The WFTDA also sets standards for rules, seasons, safety and determines guidelines, making it less challenging for new leagues to start up.

The sport has already doubled the number of leagues in North America and Internationally in the last year. Why is women’s flat track roller derby the fastest growing all-women’s sport in the World? Perhaps it is because women of all sizes, age, and socio-economic backgrounds are welcome not only to lay on the hits, but to also build community and create safe spaces.
If you look at the statistics, players involved in the sport are 95 per cent female, 60 per cent in the 25 to 34 year age range; 86 per cent had at least some college education, 64 per cent had a degree and 20 per cent had a graduate degree; 24 per cent had income exceeding $75,000 and 44 per cent exceeded $50,000 (WFTDA, 2011). Thus, the diversity has also made the sport blow up.

Bonnie Thunders, who is considered the “LeBron James” of the sport and jammer extraordinaire for the Gotham City Roller Girls has mentioned in interviews that roller derby is still a marginal sport, leaving room for inclusiveness.

“I joined because it seemed like such an inclusive environment and looked like so much fun! I wasn’t let down, it really is pretty amazing and it gives me something to look forward to during the week,” said Axel La Rose, a new skater from Niagara Roller Girls.

Daisy Dynamite, who plays with Forest City Roller Girls (London) and Los Conos recreation league (Hamilton) understands that the growth of roller derby means people making it succeed in positive ways.

Dynamite recently helped organize a “bout” event on the Six Nations reserve in Ohsweken, located in Southern Ontario. The event was to raise awareness about derby and about substance abuse within the community.

“We wanted to pull together an event that helped grasp an interest in derby. It’s incredibly empowering with the support that goes with it. The event was a collaboration between three different leagues,” said Dynamite.

Dynamite’s vision for roller derby in Six Nations is to see an all Indigenous league form, similar to the Wagon Burners all First Nation team that formed on The Kahnawake Mohawk reserve just outside Montreal.

The individuals involved with roller derby are eager to make it grow, which means being inclusive. There has even been a large upsurge in men’s and co-ed leagues around the World. This evolution in the sport seems to happen faster than traditional sports which have been dominated by men, if you consider that the 2012 London Olympics were the first games to include women in every sport.

“With hockey and lacrosse being such important and common sports and community events it does cast something of a shadow over an up-and-coming sport (or at least a resurgence in it). But [roller derby] is the fastest growing sport in Canada and I think the ball will keep rolling. Some places already have two men’s teams. So the growth potential is limitless,” said Hitting Bull, who is a referee for Niagara Roller Girls and has begun playing men’s recreational derby.

WFTDA statistics report that 28 per cent of skaters, but only 13 per cent of fans, support men’s roller derby on a level equal to women’s roller derby.
“If roller derby becomes a sport with leagues for men and women, comparable to existing sports, it will lose one of its unique aspects that empowers women,” claims Pam Sailors who wrote the journal article “Roller Derby Gender Roles”.

Is roller derby deemed more legitimate if men are playing at the same level comparible to other dominant sports? Meghan Krausch labels this view “sport legitimation discourse” where one would believe the skaters and the sport will gain respect if the athletes are paid professionals, wearing uniforms bearing real names instead of derby names. As roller derby gains more popularity, this may become a reality, as the derby names are fading from player’s jerseys at the more “professional” level.

Through this evolution of the sport, people may be concerned of this change. Will the DIY ethos of “by the skaters, for the skaters” change into something that has to fit into Olympic standards? Flat track roller derby has now been deemed a legitimate athletically focused sport that is even being considered for the 2020 Olympics. There are people involved with the sport who may be hesitant to lose the underground feeling in favour of a cleaner vision of the sport.

This may be true, but people like Hitting Bull have such a positive experience learning from women, so who is to determine the direction of the sport?

“There are so many incredible women in this sport that we look up to and want to learn from. I hope to be as good as some of the women that I have seen play,” said Hitting Bull.
The myth that roller derby is violent and staged is busted when people start to see who is actually involved with the sport. In this sense it is interesting contradiction to consider why roller derby is dismissed as a staged sport due to it being full-contact.

Daisy Dynamite’s experience with organizing community events debunks the myth of violence and builds another narrative that focuses on the support, encouragement and philosophy that roller derby is built on. That is also true with Hitting Bull and his family being involved with the sport. It has no doubt become more of a family friendly sport. Children of players not only can attend practice and bouts, but also skate in junior roller derby leagues that are popping up alongside adult level leagues.

Niagara Roller Girls are a newer league that has a large membership of skaters who have families. This has helped them start a junior league where many of the children of the skater’s are now playing.

Another challenge that a fairly new sport has had since its resurgence is the availability of space.

There is no doubt that other leagues over the World have struggled for space. This however, is not limited to women’s sports, but the issue of space being political as it becomes more scarce – very much a commodity especially in urban settings.

NRG has had a hard time finding a permanent home, since hockey takes precedence over this alternative sport. NRG is still seeking a permanent facility throughout the year, and is willing to share with other non-ice sports who are also “out in the cold” in Niagara.

Regardless of the politics of the sport, there is no doubt roller derby has changed many lives.

“My favourite part of derby is the sisterhood. being loved and supported by amazing women in the league with open hearts and open minds. Especially my teamates. We have really made some wonderful friendships both on and off the track,” said Viola D Rolla from NRG.

Another NRG skater, Bella Trauma shares the same positivity about the sport.

“My favourite part has to be the sheer exhilaration of pulling off a great play, when your team is really on the ball. It feels like being one part of this incredibly focused unit, it makes you feel unstoppable.”


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