Lonestar Rollergirls

Nerd Meat Part 4: Coming to Canada

Nerd Meat: The Nerd Does Derby

Part 4: Coming to Canada

I had a breakthrough at fresh meat. While stopping in any traditional sense is still a work in progress, we’ve finished learning all the falls, and I’ve come to realize that when great speeds are attained, falling to one’s knees is the quickest way to stop. My confidence shot through the roof. Then, this past week we scrimmaged. While it was exhilarating to say the least, my body has a long way to go to catch up to my mind: Even though I feel I know exactly what I should be doing, that doesn’t mean I can actually do it.

ToRDs Zebra Mafia prepare for a 2010 bout. (photo by Joe Mac)

I’ve been really interested in what drew these various women to ToRD’s fresh meat program, but as the weeks go by, it is becoming obvious that they are probably just as interested in what I’m doing there. I’m not the only guy, there are two others, both of whom are doing fresh meat alongside the referee training, but we stand out. I’ve got a stock answer set to respond to the inquiry: I write about roller derby and feel like I’m at that stage where I need to know it from the inside out. And that was the motivation. I have an extraordinary amount of respect for roller derby referees. The men and women in stripes who police this sport—as with other sports—don’t get a lot of respect. They get ridiculed by the crowd, harassed by the skaters. In the states, Queen of the Rink recently released a blog post called “How referees are killing flat track roller derby,” which argued for a reorganization of officiating in flat track roller derby. While I do think the sport is going through some growing pains (it is only 8 years old, don’t forget) and should be constantly refined, for the most part the refs want to do their best, and, I think, succeed just as much as the players do. And of course, without them, there wouldn’t be a game.

That being said, I’m not particularly interested in refereeing. That’s not the relationship I want to have with this sport.

Another thing that comes up (from freshies and skaters alike) is the possibility of starting a “merby” league. While I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I’d never thought about playing in a bout, I’m still not sure about my relationship with men’s roller derby. Although a few years ago it would have been absurd to think of men playing this sport on any scale of note, it’s a reality now that can’t be ignored. From all-men or co-ed scrimmages at Roller Con to the ever burgeoning Men’s Roller Derby Association (formerly the Men’s Derby Coalition), men’s roller derby is coming and it is coming fast.

The Mens Roller Derby Association was formerly known as the Mens Derby Coalition.

The Men’s Derby Coalition formed out of that same initial explosion of North American roller derby in 2007. In 2006, it was actually fairly easy to count the number of women’s leagues playing flat track roller derby (there were about 30); by the summer of 2007 the sport had spread considerably and had grown beyond its American roots. By 2007 roller derby had come to Canada.

If you talk to anyone who was inspired to begin playing or forming roller derby leagues in those days, they all cite the same influence: the A&E series Rollergirls. The skaters of the Lonestar Rollergirls were a diverse bunch from a variety of fields who shared similar, attractive features: fiercely independent, athletic and strong, but also unabashedly feminine. Rollergirls presented more than a sport, it presented an attitude, a way of life.

That the show was remarkably appealing to a 21st century woman should not be a surprise, and it probably shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that it influenced scores of women to follow suit. Playing banked track roller derby was a pipe dream for most, if not all, who were inspired by the sport. So when those first wannabe skaters began to research the possibility of playing, they inevitably encountered what was still known as the United Leagues Coalition (and later WFTDA), and the other girls in Austin, the flat-track playing Texas Rollergirls.

The show aired in Canada as well, and the same wave of formation followed. Out west Edmonton’s first league, the Oil City Derby Girls was forming, while in British Columbia the skaters who would form the Terminal City Rollergirls were beginning to organize in Vancouver, and a group of women in Victoria were coming together as the Eves of Destruction. Back east, in Hamilton, Toronto and Montreal, like-minded women were finding each other all with the same idea: to start a roller derby league.

The first organized league bout in Canadian flat track history was played by the Hammer City Rollergirls in 2006.

On July 22nd, 2006, the newly formed Hammer City Roller Girls played the first official organized flat track roller derby bout in Canada when their Steel Town Tank Girls took on the Hamilton Harlots in Burlington, Ontario. While the importance of this date in Canadian flat track lore is undeniable, it could be the events in Toronto less than a month later that may have had the greater influence.

Toronto Roller Derby formed out of a merger and reorganization of two independent teams, the Toronto Terrors and the Smoke City Betties. To facilitate the development of a league (and to help with the growth and understanding of the sport in wider circles) the Smoke City Betties organized the Betties’  D-Day, the first ever inter-league roller derby event to be held in Canada. On August 19, 2006, Hammer City, Montreal, and five of the six original ToRD teams were all present to play in a series of mini-bouts. While loosely set up as a tournament, the event would prove to be more important as a networking and training event. The Hamilton Harlots (as they would in most cases in those early days) dominated the day, defeating the Death Track Dolls, the Steel Town Tanks Girls, and Montreal in the mini-bout portion of the tournament, before taking down the host Smoke City Betties (79-57) in the main event.

This Betties D-Day was a taking-off point for eastern Canadian roller derby. Hammer City would form Canada’s first travel team (the Eh! Team), Montreal would head back to Quebec and form their first home teams (Les Contrabanditas and Les Filles du Roi), Toronto would add the Gore-Gore Rollergirls to form what, at the time, was the largest flat track roller derby league in the world. By the beginning of 2007 all three leagues would be fully organized and in full swing, opening the doors to the public and beginning their first seasons of roller derby. Others in Ottawa, the GTA and London had taken notice and were following suit.

Betties D-Day, held in August 2006, was a seminal event in Canadian roller derby history.

Roller Derby folk like to toss around the word “revolution” when they talk about their sport (half ironically, of course), but in many ways the quick growth of flat track roller derby really does fit the definition. An entirely new sport created for women, by women that would feature women. Nothing like it had happened before. Over the 20th century women had become increasingly involved in pre-existing men’s sports, but with flat track roller derby, they’d created their own.

It is perhaps because all of this that I am uncomfortable playing men’s roller derby. I still can’t help but think of roller derby spaces as women’s spaces, the sport itself as a women’s sport (and I mean that politically, not physically). But even on this point, I am heavily conflicted, and my opinion is slowly changing, as are the opinions of many in the sport. When I first discovered roller derby, I wholeheartedly bought into the idea of it being an extension of the riot grrrl/third wave feminism movements that had swept through North America at the end of the 20th century, and it certainly was a major influence (Steel Town Tank Girls!). But as time passes and as the sport evolves, this categorization seems awfully limited, dated even, of another era: The sport has transcended such classification. I just don’t see that reactionary anger in roller derby; I don’t see skaters out there trying to undermine any pre-existing paradigms; I don’t see women who feel the need to fight for something (respect, recognition, whatever) that they feel they deserve. And while I think all skaters demand that their sport be viewed as a serious, physical, athletic endeavour, I don’t think many are too concerned with falling into the rigid parameters we have set for what has traditionally been called a “sport.”And that is probably what sets roller derby apart from the too easily defined feminist movements of the 1990s; skaters are too focused on developing their game to be engaged in some last-century battle for acceptance.

The 21st century rollergirl doesn’t fight for equality, she expects it.

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.

Nerd Meat Archives.