John Hart 4th February 2018
This weekend is a big one in the history of roller derby in the UK.
The roller skating contact sport’s World Cup final takes place in Manchester today and the BBC is showing roller derby for the first time.
In the background though, Europe’s fastest-growing women’s sport finds itself skating towards a critical point. How does it move on from its “fishnets and tutus” image without sacrificing what makes it different?
The success of England’s national teams in cricket, football and rugby is finally sparking a conversation about what women’s sport has to do to move to the next level – but in roller derby this debate is far more fundamental.
To a newcomer, roller derby can look like a bunch of women on roller skates hitting each other and falling over. But really it’s like rugby on wheels. Travelling anti-clockwise. And one of the players is the ball
OK, so it’s not that much like rugby.
There are two teams of five players. One attacker (the jammer), must pass four defenders (the blockers), winning a point every time she does. The blockers want to stop her.
And as graphic novel Roller Girl puts it, “that’s where the hitting and falling comes in”.
Roller Derby is on the rise. It’s Europe’s fastest growing female participation sport and has again narrowly-missed out on becoming an Olympic discipline.
This weekend’s World Cup sees teams from 38 countries — including Costa Rica, Iran and the Philippines — descend on Manchester.
But to most people it’s still just the sport where the players have the funny names.
Roller derby’s popularity spiked after the release of the 2009 film Whip It. Despite boasting the talents of Ellen Page, Kristen Wiig, and Juliette Lewis, the film was not particularly successful. But just as everyone who saw the Velvet Underground formed a band, everyone who saw Whip It took up derby.
Unlike Page’s character however, real-life skaters are cannot accumulate their skills in a montage. In fact, no-one can compete at all without passing a gruelling testing programme, which regularly takes two years, and includes skating a mile in five minutes flat. Even passing the skills test does not guarantee skaters a roster spot on a team — good physical fitness is integral to keeping up on the track, and even low-level players spend hours cross-training in the gym outside of practice.
Gaz, who skates for Team England and London Rollergirls, explains the level of commitment required.
“I train three times a week, for between two and four hours [each time]. Off skates, I personally go to the gym two or three times a week, perhaps for an hour. So about 15 hours a week.
“As a team we’re currently doing an extra session in the gym for an hour before the four hour session and doing a session with a sports psychologist after.
“Some of our team have demanding nine-to-five jobs, which I find astounding. I don’t know how anyone can do it.”
We don’t just let people strap on the gear and get on the track
“It’s a very tough sport,” agrees Victoria Freichs from Liverpool Liver Birds. “Even when you come in with a good level of fitness or skating ability it still takes months until you’re safe enough to play. We don’t just let people strap on the gear and get on the track.”
But from the outside, the occasional theatrical element can hide how athletic the sport is. Even players recognised as the greatest on Earth — like Team USA’s Scald Eagle — compete in face paint. There are a lot of unicorns for some reason. And traditionally every player competes under a derby name, a moniker reflecting an aspect of their personality or a pun.
These elements are as old as the sport itself and date back to the 1930s, when Chicago promoter Leo Beltzer transformed endurance roller skating races lasting as long as 42 days into something a lot punchier, in more ways than one.
Garish and revealing outfits were key to derby’s appeal and, like the WWE, the most popular characters drew the biggest crowds.
And while no-one sees Simone Biles as less of an athlete because she performs in sparkly make-up and a glittery leotard — and Pele, Tiger Woods and Magic Johnson reached the pinnacle of their sports while competing under nicknames — some believe roller derby is held back by the perception that it is not a “proper” sport and some of its more outlandish elements must be sacrificed for the game to thrive.
This shift has for some time been influencing the game’s language. Games for less experienced players are no longer called “cherry poppers”. “Suicide seats” are now “trackside seating”.
Now the change towards professionalism is becoming more pronounced in terms of how teams are marketing themselves.
“We aren’t selling ourselves if we look like a pantomime rather than a sport,” says Kristen Reid from Aberdeen’s Granite City, one of the first teams to consciously evolve its name, branding and uniform along more orthodox sporting lines.
“We needed to be taken seriously as a sports team and not look like bunch of girls jumping up and down in roller skates. We had to get away from the silly little logos and gimmicks.
“Amateur men’s teams get to be in the sports pages. We’re entertainment.”
The traditional imagery of derby lent itself to hyper-sexualisation. A lot of girls objected to that
Team logos, which have traditionally tended to communicate a sense of rebellion in the form of cartoon women whose unbalanced breast size to waist ratio suggests they might not be much use on the actual track are a particular area of debate.
As Victoria Freichs tells me: “The traditional imagery of derby lent itself to hyper-sexualisation. A lot of girls objected to that.”
Emma Lyskava from Greater Manchester’s Rainy City – an up-and-coming international team — agrees: “Our old image seemed out of place and dated. We want to show we’re so much more than fishnets and tutus. We’ve moved away from that.
“We had two mudflat girls as a logo. We fitted in with the community but when we were presenting ourselves to funders and sponsors we seemed out of place and dated.”
Roller derby pseudonyms are another point of contention.
Claire Robinson from Durham Roller Derby, who skated as “Robinson Brusoe” before deciding to play under her own name, says she feels frustrated that everyone’s first question about derby is always “what’s your funny name?”
Being asked what my derby name was felt ridiculous and I was embarrassed to tell people
“Being asked what my derby name was felt ridiculous and I was embarrassed to tell people.
“At first I just went along with the ‘tradition’ as a means to fitting in, it felt like I wasn’t good enough to play roller derby but this alter ego was. It felt like a lie. Some people love having an alter ego, but for me it never represented my true self. I want the crowd to cheer for me, not my persona.
“I was once accused of taking the fun out of the sport, but to me the fun part is actually playing the sport with a team of people that I love, regardless of whether they use their name, their dog’s name or a derby name on track.”
But many players feel like the more unusual elements are what makes roller derby special.
As Treble from Birmingham’s Central City Roller Girls told me: “Roller Derby isn’t just another sport. That’s what makes it so great. We don’t need to fit in and we don’t want to be like anyone else. Roller Derby is different. It should always be that way.”
Gaz – who used to skate as Goregasm – explains the paradox the sport is left with.
“In order to move to the next level a lot of people think we need to be more sensible and the silly names need to go. And that’s absolutely true to some extent – I feel embarrassed about my name to be honest.
“But the grassroots spirit of the game is about empowerment, and choosing your own name is empowering. As women we don’t always get to choose our own names – they come from our fathers or husbands.
“Derby plays a huge role in the lives of people because it’s a different type of sport. No way in hell would I allow that to be compromised.”
Others just see the reformers as misguided.
“I don’t see a causal link between theatricality and performance level. I sometimes like wearing sparkly hotpants. I’m still able to be really athletic and perform to a high level,” says She-RARR from Sheffield Steel.
“Roller derby kinda saved my soul. It offers transformative opportunities to be strong and confident in a way which is not traditionally proscribed for women.
“There’s something powerful in taking traditional female representations and flipping them on their head – and yes displaying our bodies but in an aggressive and athletic way.”
Simone Radway, who skates as Violet Attack, is even franker – this is really a gender issue.
We are seen as less legitimate [than] a male sport by default
“It’s not derby names that mean we don’t get in the sports pages. It’s because we’re women,” she says.
“We are seen as less legitimate [than] a male sport by default. I can’t see how me playing under my own name would change that”.
Some, like Claire Robinson, see things in more prosaic terms: “It’s not its credibility that threatens the future of the sport, it’s inaccessibility.
“Anyone can go to a football or tennis match and pick up the rules relatively quickly – roller derby isn’t like that and it struggles to find a new audience”
There are some people who are resentful but the people who can adapt are the ones who are moving forwards. If not, you get left behind
So how do you solve a problem like Mariah Scarey, Av Er Maria, or any other derby name for that matter? Could this lead to a full-blown fracturing of the sport?
“The teams who want to compete nationally and internationally will move away from derby names and old-fashioned logos,” says Victoria Freichs.
“It’s not necessarily a schism, it’s just the difference between an Olympic swimmer and someone down the local baths.
“Roller derby as a whole has decided where we’re going. There are some people who are resentful but the people who can adapt are the ones who are moving forwards. If not, you get left behind.”
She-RARR feels differently: “It feels like people are saying, well if you didn’t have the silly names we’d take you seriously. You know what? Screw you. If you take away everything which makes you interesting and special, what do you lose?”
John Hart 4th February 2018