Hell on Wheels

Nerd Meat: Part 1

Nerd Meat: The Nerd Does Derby

Part 1: Putting the Flat in WFTDA

On of my favourite shots of The Hangar (CN Power vs. New Skids on the Block at QCC '10)

On Sunday, January 30, I approached the doors of ToRD’s Hangar with a bag of gear slung over my shoulder. I don’t know how many times I’d approached that entrance, and I’d even done it with a bag or two of some skater’s gear on my shoulder. I may not remember every time, but I certainly remember that first time: Canada Day 2009, a full day of free, open-door scrimmages. It was a remarkable change from watching hockey-arena derby with vision obscuring glass, netting placed in inopportune places, and that cold separation of fan and track. I also felt, at that moment, that ToRD was embarking on a new period of growth and was easing itself into the mainstream of roller derby (IE: the WFTDA stream). Even being at a hangar was somewhat symbolic of this shift as some of the most venerable roller derby leagues (in Seattle for example) had cut their teeth in abandoned hangars. Toronto Roller Derby had found its home, and perhaps, its identity.

Despite being two years into the Hangar experience and having stepped over that threshold many times before, this temperate day in January 2011 was noticeably different. I wasn’t entering as a spectator or as a writer or commentator. And that gear wasn’t another skater’s; it was mine.

The popularity and exposure of roller derby has been growing steadily since its resurgence in the early-mid ‘00s, and this Fresh Meat intake was a result of that; over 80 women had signed on and had shown up. It was equal to the total number of skaters currently playing on ToRD’s hometeams. And momentarily—with everyone hanging around the bleachers chatting and putting on gear—it looked like an actual roller derby league. Women of every size, shape, colour, age and ability pulled on gear that, in most cases, looked shiny and unworn. It was a group that defied easy definition in every way except that they all wanted to skate.

One brave woman who sat next to me had never even seen a bout. She asked me which taped lines on the floor represented the track and I pointed them out. It struck me almost immediately that this woman—who’d never seen a bout, never roller skated—summed up perfectly the rapid growth of modern roller derby, the sport played under WFTDA rules. Roller Derby had failed so spectacularly (and publicly) in the past, yet now there were hundreds of leagues and thousands of women playing at various levels in increasingly far-flung locales on the planet. With a quick glimpse of those in attendance I realized that there was one main reason why 80 women felt they could come out and take-part in this physically and mentally demanding sport. They felt they could be there lacing up skates (many for the first time) for the same reason that I felt so confident about lacing up skates for the first time: The track was flat.

It might seem remarkable, but it’s actually possible to pin-point the exact moment in history that roller derby changed forever and began the series of events that led directly to that evening in ToRD’s Hangar when 80+ women gathered to learn to skate. It all began with a contentious moment around a backyard campfire in Austin, Texas, when a group of fed-up women stood up in a sign of solidarity and took matters into their own hands. It was early spring 2003, and the difficult decisions made that night would end up directly shaping the lives of countless women all over the world.

The documentary that captured the conception of 21st Century roller derby.

The fact that this divide was so well documented in the 2007 documentary Hell on Wheels actually arose serendipitously itself, and is a story well known in roller derby circles. Documentarian Bob Ray, fully-funded and ready to record, lost his initial subject on the eve of a shoot but had heard of a group of women involved in a roller derby revival. He turned his camera on the four women who were the self proclaimed “She-E-Os” of Bad Girl, Good Woman Productions—the company leading the revival. Over a few years the women refined their vision picking up a lot of rollergirls along the way and played a few “campy” bouts in an attempt to raise the considerable amount of money needed to buy the banked track. In the spring of 2003, increasingly dissatisfied with the tight-fisted control maintained by the She-E-Os, a few of the women gave an ultimatum. The She-E-Os would not relent. And then, at a full-league, backyard meeting, three quarters of the skaters stood up and walked away from the corporate model laid out by BGGW Productions forever altering the nature of the sport.

It is an awkward moment in the film, as the initial protagonists of the story became the antagonists in such a sudden, dramatic fashion. Those skaters who stood up and walked away would not abandon the sport and community they’d all grown to love, but instead they would collectively form the Texas Rollergirls, a DIY, committee-run, skater-owned league comprised of four hometeams and, of course, the mighty Texecutioners travel team. Perhaps even more importantly, these were the women who would eventually be instrumental in creating the United Leagues Coalition (ULC), the precursor to what we now know as the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA).

WFTDA arose out of the the United Leagues Coalition (ULC)

Although “The Great Divide” initially had nothing to do with the literal direction of the sport, the philosophical differences that led to the split would be reflected in the changes of the “new” roller derby: While BGGW continued to work toward becoming an old-school, banked track league (now known as The TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls), the Texas Rollergirls decided to drop the track and keep it flat, which created a dramatic shift in the way the sport could, and had to be played. It’s pretty easy to argue that the banked track was a big part of why roller derby had always faded away.

As a spectacle, banked track roller derby favoured speed over strategy, drama over competition, and the banked track easily became a platform for the kind of staged, sports entertainment that typified early roller derby. The initial incarnation was also, essentially, a single league (Bay City Bombers not withstanding), owned by one person, that travelled around the country, remaining a once-or-twice-a-year spectacle to be watched passively by spectators. There were no local leagues, no one ever played or got to watch it on a regular enough basis to understand the rules (which were vague anyway, and only marginally followed at best).

An intimate look at "The Great Divide."

Dropping the track changed everything; it  required a different sort of athleticism, and slowed the game down to the point where the traditional “hit-and-run strategy” would not be the only (or even the best) way to play. But the most important thing it changed, and the fundamental reason that roller derby is finally here to stay, was accessibility. It’s the accessibility that has inspired the hundreds of leagues in North America and the world, the increasing number of junior leagues, and the thousands of fans watching on a regular basis. It’s the accessibility that is slowly, but quite steadily, laying a foundation for the future of the sport. Only a decade in and there are already separations in level of play; there are recreation leagues, low contact leagues, and even within WFTDA there is a wide disparity between the top and bottom ranked teams (I can see, very soon, a division system being implemented to avoid the disparity that exists in the Association right now). And the rules have finally been refined to a point where alterations and corrections are becoming rare, and the evolution of the game has slowed enough that it is now possible to see the direction it is headed in.

Just as the league model had become one of a community instead of a corporation and the sport was watched by fans instead of spectators, roller derby on the track had become a sport instead of a spectacle.

So when I was at the Hangar on that Sunday afternoon in Toronto in 2011, skating my first few laps with ToRD’s latest diverse fresh meat intake, I was thinking about how important a single moment around a campfire eight years before was for me and for so many others, and how amazing it was that the simple decision to lower the angle of a sports surface could have such a profound effect on so many lives.

Essential Viewing Required Reading
Hell on Wheels Released in 2007, this documentary charts the earliest days of the revival, right up to The Great Divide between the flat trackers and the banked trackers. A fascinating, well-made documentary in its own right, complex in its characterization and despite unexpected twists, balanced in its view. Rollergirl: Totally True Tales from the Track by Melissa Joulwan The inside story of the creation and rise of flat track roller derby by Texas Rollergirl, Melicious, who was a leading voice in the Divide. From the split through to the ground-breaking first WFTDA Championship in 2006. Includes player and team profiles.

* Next Week: First bout with the new fresh meat group; the early evolution of the sport on the track and in the media.

* Read The Prelude.