Roller Resurgence

Roller Derby makes a comeback, with two teams gearing up for public bouts in the Valley…

They’re rough, pharm raucous and racy—bad girls on skates, athletes with attitude. They have names like Pubic Enemy, Skank Zappa and Mo’ Pleasure. They’re roller derby girls, and they’re skating at an arena near you.

That’s right: roller derby, the campy contact sport that filled arenas and thrilled audiences from the 1930s to the 1980s, is back. Nine years after the derby revival started in Austin, Texas, there are an estimated 500 leagues worldwide, making derby the world’s fastest growing female-focused amateur sport in the world—and now two teams have sprung up in the Comox Valley.

Dodge City Rollers in action.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

The Dodge City Rollers, who practice at the Cumberland Recreation Centre, and the Rink Minx, based in Merville, are in the formative stages—recruiting members, jumping through administrative hoops, and above all practicing, practicing, practicing. If all goes well, Comox Valley residents can look forward to the first public bout sometime next spring, says Jennifer Alton (aka Jenerator Altonator), captain of the Dodge City Rollers.

A roller derby bout involves two teams with four players each: three “blockers” and one “jammer.” The players skate around a flat track (a banked track version also exists, but in Canada it’s mostly flat track). The two jammers start behind the other players; they need to catch up, break through the pack, race around to catch up again. As they jam through a second time, they score a point for every opponent they pass. The blockers try to make space for their jammer while thwarting the opposing team’s jammer. There are strict rules governing types and timing of body checks, but the game is still rough and intensely physical.

“It’s an extreme sport,” says Alton.

Twenty-first century roller derby is still as colorful a spectacle, and as tough a sport, as derby was in its 1940s heyday, but in the hands of today’s women it has a new focus on sisterhood and social responsibility.

No one who appreciates derby would want to entirely clean up its image—that would take away half the fun—but the local teams want people to know they don’t just kick ass, they also contribute to the community.

They’ve already done fundraising for non-profits such as YANA, the Food Bank and the Cancer Society, while also raising money to cover their own costs. Profit from bouts will go to charity.

The concept of derby gals as pillars of community may be new, but it`s catching on: the Dodge City Rollers were recently invited to present a workshop to a girls’ youth group, through a program run by the LINC called Girls on the Move.

“These women are very strong and empowering and it would be great for girls to see what they do,” says Christine Clupsis, youth worker at the LINC.

“We’ll be teaching skating of course, but also self-confidence—how to be articulate and powerful,” says Alton. “And we’ll be having a lot of fun.”

Being powerful and having fun seems to be what it’s all about for contemporary derby gals. The sport offers a tough, feisty feminism with fishnets and mouth guards, which clearly appeals to women wary of blame-and-complain approaches to women’s equality.

“I don’t want to burn my bra,” says Alton, taking a coffee break from her job as an events coordinator for the Comox Valley Arts Council to talk to me. “But I’d say this is a feminist sport.

“Mind you, not all the women involved would say they’re feminists… Girls just wanna rock out,” she adds, with an appreciative laugh.

Society offers women few acceptable opportunities to be aggressive, let alone to be appreciated for it, says Alton.
“I’ve always been aggressive; now I get to be that way with a bunch of other aggressive women. I can hit my friends and have it be okay—even fun.”

Derby offers women a chance to explore their alter-egos, says Glenice Neal (aka Mo’ Pleasure), captain of the Rink Minx. “It’s an outlet for your wild side. By day I’m a sales associate wearing my tailored business suit, and the rest of the time I’m wearing stripey socks, fishnets and a short skirt, skating around booty blocking other women.” (A booty block, she explains, is a good hard bump from her hip to yours, or vice versa.)

The sport gives women an opportunity to overcome all sorts of fears—from fears of being unladylike to fears of taking physical risks. The skaters I meet while researching this article talk about being pushed out of their comfort zone, physically and psychologically—and loving it, because they discover reserves of strength.

“You have to be strong and you have to be confident, or you’ll get hurt,” says Alton.

The women’s empowerment aspect of roller derby has garnered attention from academic feminists.

In a paper presented to the American Sociological Association, Suzanne Becker writes, “The women involved in this current resurgence of roller derby are redefining the realm of women’s sports, sexuality and femininity… By combining physical strength, aggression, competitiveness and bodily contact with hyper-feminine, suggestive attire, they are simultaneously blurring and pushing the boundaries of contemporary sport and sexuality, bucking the cultural constraints often bestowed upon images and behaviours of female athletes.“

In other words, derby is a way for women to be both radically unladylike and playfully girly at the same time—smashing stereotypes while having fun with them.

“You have to be strong and you have to be confident, or you’ll get hurt,” says Jen Alton (aka Jenerator Altonator, crouching at far right) posing with her Dodge City Rollers teammates. “It’s an extreme sport.”

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Not all feminist commentators like derby, however. For Twisty, who writes a blog called I Blame the Patriarchy, roller derby is “super-conformist hootchie-cootchie dude-pleasin’… proto-porn—a non-penetrative, G-rated, but nevertheless two-dimensional, stereotypical, and bogus picture of female sexuality generated from an amorphous plasma of cultural misogyny.”

Clearly, the academic types have almost as much fun with their theories as derby gals have with their skates.

All the talk about derby’s image and meaning shouldn’t eclipse the fact that it is, above all, a sport. Alton says she enjoys having an excuse to die her hair purple, but first and foremost, she and her derby sisters are athletes.

“As a team, mental strength comes first, physical strength is a close second and what people’s perception of us is while we play our sport isn’t even on our radar.

“Once you put on your skates any thoughts about how you look disappear, because you have a job to do… fishnets don’t help take the pain away from a bone-rattling body check.

“Derby is a place for women to become strong competent skaters, be supported by our fellow derby sisters, and take part in a seriously badass contact sport. If we can be campy while doing it, all the better!” says Alton.

Both teams have three practices per week and most players also work out between practices to increase strength, speed, endurance and agility. They work with personal trainers, hockey coaches, yoga instructors and other derby teams in order to be their best.

“You have to be in top shape to play this,” says Donna Attfield (aka Tainted Shove), the Rink Minx’s coach. A former soccer coach and aerobics instructor, she researched the game heavily so she could provide effective coaching to her teammates.

I get a taste of just what’s involved one Tuesday evening at the Merville Hall, where Neal and Attfield have invited me to take part in a practice. I haven’t roller skated since I was 12, and as for my sports experience, well, not only was I always chosen last for every team, I had to endure the two captains pleading with our gym teacher not to have to take me. But now I am an adult and have found my own way to be fit; I walk, run, practice yoga and dance, and feel confident that my superb balance and coordination skills will help me out.

At the hall, Attifield sets me up with a pile of equipment. Blondie’s Call Me blasts out through the speakers as I strap on huge knee-pads, elbow pads, and wrist protectors. With the awesome soundtrack, I feel like I’m starring in a sports movie. Cool!

Neal passes me something that looks like heavily padded bicycle shorts.

“Oh, those are great,” says one of the players. “We get some wicked bruises on our hips and butts.” She pulls her pants down to show me a big, purple, fist-sized contusion on her thigh. All of a sudden I am aware of the fragility of my hip joints and I pull on the padded shorts gratefully.

“Anytime, anyplace, anywhere, anyday,” sings Debbie Harry and I feel my heart pounding in time to the beat. That must be adrenaline, I realize.

“Are you nervous?” asks Attfield. “A bit,” I say, grinning back at her.

The other women are suited up and heading off to skate in big circles around the hall. They’re laughing, joking, teasing each other. Once I get my skates laced up and manage to stand upright (a comedy act that includes falling, grabbing other women convulsively to prevent falling, and equal parts swearing and laughing) I shuffle out to join them. After a few laps I remember to breathe and find I can actually, kind of, skate.

By the time the warm up skate is finished, my legs and feet are screaming at me. I figure my research is done; I can quit and take some journalistic notes for the rest of the evening.

“OK!” shouts Attfield, blowing her whistle. “It’s time for drills. We’ll separate into groups of three. Laura, you go with Glenice and Jen.”

I consider telling her I’m finished now, thank you very much, but some tough, determined part of me grabs Glenice’s hips and lets her pull me and Jen along the track, weaving in and out of orange cones, alarmingly fast.

The whistle blows. “OK, switch,” shouts Attfield. Now I’m in the back of the train which whips me around like I’m on an amusement park ride—it’s fun and scary and out of control and I just hang on.

The whistle again. “Switch! Let’s go, gals!” shouts Attfield. I hesitate. That would put me in front, pulling two women, both bigger than me, while other teams, all much faster, weave around us.

Attfield notices me hesitate. “You too, Laura. Get going,” she shouts, and not in an encouraging “you can do it” kind of way, but rather with an alpha “don’t you dare try to weasel out of this, wimp,” tone.

Yikes! My yoga teacher never talked to me like that.

So I do it—slowly and clumsily. But I do it. And I do the next exercise, too, where we work in pairs, pushing each other side to side with our shoulders. By then my legs have gone beyond the jelly stage and I’m sweating freely under all the equipment. I feel I can take a break with honor. I’m tired, sore and exhilarated. For the others, the practice is just getting started.

And their commitment to derby doesn’t end when they unlace their skates. Contemporary derby is avowedly grassroots; rather than put themselves in the hands of managers, the players run the teams themselves. The Dodge City Rollers estimate that they each spend about 15 hours a week on derby—including practice, meetings, administrative tasks, and socializing (partners are called Derby Widows, says Alton).

Tasks include public relations, recruitment, venue relations, fundraising, bookkeeping, event planning, and coordinating with the Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby Association, which regulates the sport. Because both groups of women are building teams, and eventually a league, from scratch, there’s a steep learning curve as they prepare to be accredited by the WFTDA.

By the time all the organizational infrastructure is put in place, the Minx and the Rollers will be ready to present their sport to the Comox Valley public. They anticipate an enthusiastic response.

“The interest is huge,” says Neal. “There are 2,000 people at bouts in Vancouver, with people paying $20 a pop; in Victoria it’s over 1,000. Locally, everyone we talk to about it wants to know when the first bout will be.”

Clearly, these women are on the move—and you better get out of the way, or you might be booty-blocked.

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6 Responses to Roller Resurgence

  1. Congrats on the article all of you lovely ladies! Can’t wait to be bouting with you soon enough!

    Krispy Punch
    Harbour City Rollers

  2. Thanks for doing an article on our beloved sport! It gives us even more motivation to get in shape for next season!

    Schrodinger’s Kaht
    Rink Minx

  3. Thanks Laura,Boomer and In Focus! Way to be the Valleys cutting edge magazine and supporting your local roller derby teams!
    Jenerator Altonator

  4. what a great article. thank you
    Rink Minx

  5. Awesome article, loved it. Way to go ladies, wake up the mainstream to this wonderful sport!
    Also cannot wait for spring.

    Rosie Hitts
    Nanaimo Nemesis

  6. Thanks Minx and Rollers for talking to me, answering all my questions, making me laugh, and getting me up on skates. I really appreciated the time you gave me. I had so much fun researching and writing this article and am looking forward to your first public bout!