The Roller Derby

If you are of a certain age you will recall the days of the banked-track Roller Derby, whose history reached back to the 1930s, finally meeting its demise in the 1970s. I remember as a young boy and teenager watching the televised bouts and being captivated by the dizzying combination of spectacle, danger, and athleticism. In the past ten years, the Roller Derby has returned, though in a differing manner. The following essay considers some of the features of this contemporary manifestation.

Creation both of the game and the term Roller Derby is generally attributed to Leo Seltzer, whose Transcontinental Roller Derby first formulated a sports-entertainment event constituted of a roller skating competition undertaken on an oval track. It took some years and modifications to realize the potential of the idea, and by the late 1940s co-ed Roller Derby was a widely-known and regarded feature of American culture. On account of sex prejudice, and the game being generally regarded as a female sport, the Roller Derby was not taken as seriously as sport as it would have been, had it rather been populated by male athletes. This pernicious condescension was a great misfortune and probably had a large role in finishing off the original Roller Derby. But in another sense it was arguably a good thing too, for it prepared the way to a resurgence of, one could argue, an improved and more progressive version of the sport.

Today’s Roller Derby is grounded in what are best described as grassroots, punk, and Do-It-Yourself aesthetics and values. The sport— driven by athleticism and competitive spirit — is organized, directed, and managed by the women who also constitute the teams and leagues. Gone are the co-ed spectacles, the banked track (at least in the case of WFTDA, or the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association), and the choreography. There continues to be a creative tension between sport and spectacle, but in its predominantly-female, do-it-yourself permutation, the Roller Derby has been reconstituted on a wholly new foundation.

There we have the historical overview, and so much for that. Of more interest and value, in my view at least, is a discussion of the features and content of this new Roller Derby. What is it that makes the sport compelling — worthy of attention and support? First, in a world of overpaid professional (and in most cases, male) athletes, the Roller Derby presents a welcome return to the idea of amateur sport and athleticism for its own sake. Second, the Roller Derby is an extraordinary contemporary example of a people’s movement, a self-directed collective grassroots effort toward a common goal. Third, grounded as it is in the experiences and sensibilities of punk, same-sex, transgender, bi-sexual, and indie lives, Roller Derby presents, at least at the present time, a safe and energizing space where alternative communities and mainstream cultures gather. Roller Derby is, among other things, camp in the service of pukka sport.

As such, it is hard to underestimate the potential social and political power of Roller Derby as a sport. It is entertaining, it is interesting, it is complex — and it is also a social force which, in camp fashion, both reflects and in reflecting critiques and challenges the dominant cultures. Roller Derby is beholden to no one. It is not a political party or an economic agenda or a captive interest or a foregone conclusion. It is the free democratic interplay of self-defined and self-organizing communities which have come together to pursue for-keeps competitive sport. Roller Derby reconstituted on this basis may best be understood in relation to other, historical grassroots movements, whether or not the relationship is intended (and in many instances it most likely is not).

It is difficult to say where this new Roller Derby will go. At the very least it will enjoy success as a sport, perhaps even joining a good many other sports at the Olympics. If I am correct in my assumptions, this is only one of its many potential outcomes, and by no means the most remarkable. If I am wrong, it is at least certain Roller Derby is here to kick ass, and that it will do you some good to submit.


[Note: the image above is a reproduction of a program cover for a 1951 bout between the Jersey Jolters and the Washington Jets. My aunt, Jean Porter, was a Jolters skater on that night.]

3 responses to “The Roller Derby

  1. Well, we already have the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association which more and more teams join each year. From what I’ve seen so far, a governing association regulates the rules so we are all playing the game the same way, but it hasn’t taken away the ‘camp’ culture the (recent version of the) sport started with. However, we have seen some demise of the DIY culture. It appears to be more due to the mainstreaming of the sport as well as the societal requirements for legitmizing it. Many local newspapers won’t print derby scores without using the real names of the girls. I think that over time, we will lose a lot of that culture as derby gains mainstream acceptance.
    -OliveWildly, Paper Valley Roller Girls

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    • Excellent points, all. I agree. The issue of using derby vs legal names is a latent matter, but it will become an open, league-wide debate. Already within the sport, as you know, there are those who find the use of derby names to be trivializing, and many WFTDA teams are now using their names, either alone or in conjunction with derby names. It isn’t simply a contest between “DIY” and “professional/commercial,” and even if it were the fact remains that the camp aspects of DIY do lend themselves to mainstream commercial exploitation. Ultimately however roller derby does have an internal contradiction, with one faction moving further down the sport road and the other moving down the association road. In my area, Montreal represents the former and Ottawa the latter. I imagine that the contradiction will resolve itself along a travel/home team arrangement where the smarter-run leagues accept both realities of the sport and use them both to advantage: send the elite athletes on the road to play sport in WFTDA while using the home market/teams as a way to recruit new players, generate the revenues needed to travel, and promote the sport among fans and players more interested in belonging to a club or just having fun.

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  2. It could be suggested that as derby grows in popularity and more people seek to join leagues that the leagues will have no choice but to form governing associations. What do you think? Would that have catastrophic impact on the DIY nature of the sport?

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