Nerd Meat Part 2: After the Great Divide

Nerd Meat: The Nerd Does Derby

Part 2: After the Great Divide

On that first day, three weeks ago now, as the skaters of ToRD’s 2011 Fresh Meat crew took their first tentative laps, the fear was palpable. There were falls, there were struggles just to stand. The looks in the people’s eyes told it all. I’m sure I had it too; that wide-eyed look of fear.

In a short period of time, under the guidance of some of ToRD’s senior skaters, we’ve already come pretty far. One particular skater I’d seen struggle just to get up on that first day was now skating laps with ease. I skated next to her and complimented her on her confidence. When I asked her what had changed, she told me she’d just stopped thinking so much. Three weeks in and already thinking like an athlete. Another skater said that it helped that the first thing we learned to do was fall. Knowing how to fall (and knowing that it doesn’t hurt) helps immensely. I’m falling a lot because I’m still learning how to stop. My new mantra: “Roller skates don’t have heel stops; roller skates don’t have heel stops…”

Gore-Gore Rollergirls and the Death Track Dolls play in ToRD's 2011 home opener. (Photo by Sean Murphy)

It has been a great week for roller derby fans in Toronto. Last weekend, at the regular season opener,  the fresh meat made for a formidable volunteer crew, which was much needed on a stormy, yet still busy night. It was a successful and entertaining season opener, won by the defending champion Gore-Gore Rollergirls. But on Sunday, flat track circles were buzzing about Montreal’s exploits on a recent west coast roadtrip. Just the night before a dramatic bout had been broadcast on DNN (the Derby News Network); Montreal’s all stars, The New Skids on the Block, had fought back from an early first-half deficit against the hard-hitting Jet City Bombers to take it—rather decisively down the stretch—121-100. But even that paled in comparison to the Skids’ earlier upset over Seattle’s Rat City Rollergirls, one of the oldest, most well-known and respected flat track leagues in the world. Again, after digging a first-half 40 point hole to the 6th ranked team in the nation, the 24th ranked Skids showed their patented resilience and extraordinary conditioning in out-enduring the Seattle skaters and shocking them with a 110-103 win. I don’t think that it would be too much for me to say that it was the most important victory in Canadian flat track history (so far!). In 2010, Montreal had turned a lot of heads in WFTDA (becoming the first non-American team to qualify for regionals); it looked like 2011 could be the year they are ready to contend.

Required Reading:"#24 Montreal stuns #6 Rat City, 110-103" by Justice Feelgood Marshall of DNN (Pic: Axle Adams)

One thing that had struck me about this week was the ever-increasing media coverage of the sport (both in volume and in nature). The revival is as much about the internet as anything else: the ability to share, to correspond easily and efficiently, and to broadcast internationally without the need of massive sponsorship or any finances at all. But the nature of the traditional media coverage is also changing. In Toronto, roller derby had previously been relegated to “lifestyle” or “entertainment” coverage in the local media: covered by the kind of reporters who would ask a skater the significance of her name or the inspiration for her “costume,” as opposed to how many points she’d scored, or what strategy she’d used to break free from those tough traps. But this week City TV (a network that had successfully built itself on a willingness to journey outside the status quo), sent the sports team to cover the season opener and on Monday evening they broadcast a recap of the bout. The focus of the recap was the outcome of the game; the footage was of on-track action. I was so happy I almost cried.

Despite the necessity of the internet, traditional media has been and will continue to be an important part of the revival. It actually didn’t take long for the American media to get on board and within three years of 2003’s Great Divide, the roller derby revival had gone national. Despite being reduced to about 15 skaters, BGGW continued to strive to bring back banked track roller derby. It could be argued that things went too banked, too big, too fast, and devastating injuries on the track, coupled with bouts being played in half-empty cavernous arenas, meant that success was not immediate. The newly formed Texas Rollergirls, on the other hand, were quietly going about (literally) rewriting the rules of the sport. The commitment to the flat track meant that they could bout in much more intimate settings and took advantage of that to jam pack a roller rink full of fans.

On April 27th, 2003, The Texas Rollergirls hosted the first ever official flat track roller derby bout under what would eventually become the WFTDA rules. The modest environment allowed the crowd to feel a part of the proceedings, and fans lining the track in “suicide seating” quickly became a popular staple in flat track roller derby; the fans were on the same plane as the skaters; they were part of the action. The years 2003-2006 were truly a gestation period for the sport, a time of slow, evolutionary growth. Within a year, it was obvious that the BGGW model was not sustainable. They changed their name to The Texas Roller Derby Lonestar Rollergirls, moved into a smaller space (their practice warehouse), and, in a move of bitter irony, the She-E-Os ceded control of the league, creating a skater-run organization based on the thriving situation the flat trackers across town had created. The committee controlled, skater-run organizational model would be as successful as flattening the track in terms of accessibility: it would prove to be a model easily adapted.

Rollergirls premiered on A&E on January 2nd, 2006.

Paralleling the growing sophistication of the sport, the media coverage would grow as well. With its flashy violence, colourful drama, and direct ties to the past—and despite its early internal dramas—banked track roller derby was the obvious early star of the revival. This culminated in the 2006 A&E series Rollergirls, which set out to follow the Lonestars skaters through a full season. Big on personal drama, low on skating specifics; big on the spectacle of the banked-track events, low on analysing track strategies, Rollergirls, in its voyeuristic look at the lives of the colourful banked track skaters, was a compelling show, dramatic and easily digestible. But it was far from being a show about a sport. Indeed, it’s actually possible to watch the full series and come away with absolutely no knowledge of the sport (other than, maybe, that the girls with the stars on their helmets score points). In some ways Rollergirls could easily be looked at as a kind of sequel to Hell on Wheels. Or, at least, half a sequel, giving closure to the story of the skaters on the banked track. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Blood on the Flat Track was released on June 14th, 2007.

Far from Austin, in the Pacific Northwest, there was another film crew charting the revival as well. Lainy Bagwell and Lacey Leavitt’s Blood on the Flat Track chronicles the rise of the one of the earliest of the flat track leagues, that same team Montreal had just upset, Seattle’s Rat City Rollergirls. The documentary is no less compelling in its characterization or narrative than Rollergirls, but in its style, scope, and focus couldn’t be more different. As natural sequels to Hell on Wheels, a quick comparison of the two captures the essential differences between banked track and flat track roller derby. In terms of the sport, A&E’s series was all style over substance, while Blood on the Flat Track created its narrative around the growth and development of the sport and Rat City’s emergence as one of Seattle’s most important (and popular) sports organizations. It also focused on the creation of the travelling All Star teams and the preparation for the first ever national flat track roller derby tournament. While Rollergirls told the story of an insular, (virtually) single-league sport, Blood on the Flat Track gloriously captured the early days of a national, and eventually international, revolution.

In February 2006, Tucson Roller Derby hosted The Dust Devil Invitational (now also known as the 2006 WFTDA Nationals) a national tournament featuring 20 of the first flat track roller derby leagues on the planet, won, not surprisingly, by the TXRG Texecutioners. With this tournament, the flat track incarnation of the revival had officially gone national and set off a wave of global influence that spreads to this day.

In March of that same year, less than a month later, in a twist of peculiarly coincidental timing, A&E announced the cancellation of Rollergirls.

At fresh meat, I finally managed a crossover on the quads; was finally able to extend my leg over the knee pads and get those four wheels down (overconfident, my first attempts had been disastrous). The look of wide-eyed fear was gone from most of the women, replaced by a glitter of excitement, those first hints of confidence. A new sort of wide-eyed wonderment.

The animosity between the banked trackers and the flat trackers no longer exists. Banked track roller derby is still played in the states, and there is even a national championship. But it is flat track roller derby that has caught on and has spread from deep in the American south all the way to the slick floors of a Hangar in Toronto.

Essential Viewing Essential Viewing
Rollergirls The 2006 A&E series that chronicles one full season of the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls, Austin’s banked track roller derby league. An in-depth look at the strong and fascinating personalities that made up the early banked track league. Blood on the Flattrack: The Rise of the Rat City Rollers.Chronicling the dramatic early evolution of flat track roller derby through one of its greatest (and most successful leagues). Indirectly shows the national growth of the sport too, as Rat City prepares for the first national championship.

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