From a roller derby champ, notes on the transformative potential of backwards hip checks
It’s only 10 minutes until the Eves of Destruction A-Team opens their 2015 season against Port Angeles, and the skaters are kneeling in a circle holding hands. They’re not about to recite the Lord’s Prayer and there is no one standing above them giving a well-worn inspirational talk. Instead,they look straight ahead, or at the person to their left, as they explain why they’re grateful to share the track with them today. The list includes physical skills (speed, backwards hip checks), mental ability(track awareness, zen), and personality (encouragement, after-party stamina).At the end they loudly cheer, “I pity the foo!” before skating out onto the track.
To say that roller derby changed my life would be an understatement. Through itI got a job, found my roommate, met my boyfriend, and fell into many amazing friendships. I knew I had to try it when I heard it was happening in my hometown of Port Alberni five years ago. I grew up playing hockey, but didn’t pursue it after high school. And I missed having a competitive physical sport in my life.I had seen Whip It and worried about having to skate on a bank track (most roller derby is flat track), but other than that I really didn’t know what to expect.
Media coverage makes much of the “double lives” of derby players (based on our widespread use of alter-ego derby names), but for most of us, it’s not so much a hidden hobby as a huge part of who we are. A few star players have managed to make a living off it, but the majority of skaters work like everyone else.
In a small, social-justice oriented place like Victoria, the derby, activist, and other alternative communities, like burlesque and punk, tend to overlap.
Activating the inner rebel
Roller derby started in Victoria in 2006. The Eves of Destruction derby league currently has 69 active skaters. Eves is made up of two house teams, the Margarita Villains and the Belles of the Brawl, along with a rookie team, the Hard Cores. The A-Team consists of the top 20 skaters in the league.
“I think derby attracts strong women that don't take life or injustices lying down,” says longtime Eves skater Jacqueline LeMaistre, a.k.a Jack Widow. “It doesn't matter if you're outgoing or not. I think in one way or another we all have an inner rebel thatin our own way screams out for our own rights, and the rights of those around us.”
It also has a lot to do with the roller derby mentality of not only accepting others, but also celebrating differences. Derby gives you an instant support group, which comes in handy when you’re involved in other causes.
“What I know is that derby folks aren't weirded out or freaked out by my work, and I generally trust that people are not judgmental,” says Kim Toombs, or Toombstone, a new skater who works at AIDS Vancouver Island and has a long history in social justice, organizing, and harm reduction. “People [in the derby community] seem to be wiser and more experienced in actual life.”
The DIY aspect of feminist culture is a fundamental part of roller derby. Since its revival, we’ve literally done everything ourselves. A league of our size requiresa lot of organization, so just showing upto skate isn’t really an option. We have a board and write policies, while committees find venues, book skating times, coach and develop training regimes, arrange games with other teams, do merchandise and media—everything that makes the league run is done by volunteers.
I play on two teams, one as a co-captain, and I coach a third. I’m also on the media, league development, and inter-league rep committees. I help manage social media accounts and volunteer for bouts and fundraising events. Burnout is a real risk and many of us wouldn’t be able to keep it up without the offers of help and reminders of self-care that have a long history in feminist and activist traditions.
As a feminist sport, derby is also intersectional. Skaters come from many different backgrounds of class, race,and gender. Differently abled people are encouraged to join the community in any way they can. And, like feminism, there are endless interpretations of what derby and derby culture mean. The governance structures within leagues are mostly horizontal and always fluid. Support for each other is intrinsically tied to accountability to the league.
I would be lying if I said there wasn’t any drama, but we try to work things out and communicate to the best of our abilities in a conscious way I haven’t experienced in many other contexts. We recognize that we are all volunteers building this sport.
Insisting on body autonomy
The feminist emphasis on the power of the female body plays an obvious role in the sport, along with the insistence on bodily autonomy.
When I joined girls’ hockey, I wasnot allowed to use the hitting skills I learned from the boys for fear of injury (or whatever), and there is still no hitting in women’s hockey at any level.
In roller derby, however, we throw our bodies into one another at full speed. We congratulate our teammates and our opponents on particularly deadly hits even as we peel those bodies off the floor and eagerly anticipate the bruises we will proudly display.
There are rules, of course—many, many rules. Like other sports, you can’t trip, elbow, or kick another skater. There are illegal hitting zones and other specifics. Incredulous people, mainly men, often ask, “Do you guys punch each other? Do you still fight?” with barely contained glee in their eyes.
Those kinds of questions suggest a widespread problem: our society loves to pit women against each other.
But if that’s what you’re looking for, modern derby isn’t for you.
The physical hits are real, though, along with the athleticism and strength that goes into taking and avoiding them.
Unlike most sporting options for women after high school or university, you can be relatively new to the sport and still take a crack at the many opportunities to improve and to aim higher with every season. Working to make travel teams, going WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, the governing body of high-level derby), moving up in WFTDA, national teams and the world cup—these are all options.
Inside derby, you’ll find a lot of skaters who played other sports when they were younger, which no longer offer the many competitive options. You’ll also find loads of people who have never played a team sport in their life. And it’s so exciting to watch these skaters grow and develop their voices and confidence.
Of course, not everyone in roller derby belongs to an alternative group, is an activist, or identifies as feminist. But the overall culture means that everyone will be accepted—as long as they bring the same attitude. Intolerance, racism, sexism, transphobia—these things are not accepted. And instead of shutting people out, the community has the expertise and lived experience necessary to break down popular misconceptions about what it means to be a female-identified athlete.
“Roller derby has no rival,” says Saragorn, or Gorn, who started their derby career three years ago in Kingston, Ontario. “I can’t think of any other sport where age, body type, background, ability, and sexual preference or sexual identity have no bearing on your participation and how you will be treated on or off the track. Joining derby felt like coming home to a place I’d never been before, only dreamed of.”
Derby is a positive space where you’ll often see boundaries challenged, pushed, and broken down, especially around gender identity and performance.
Gorn identifes as gender neutral.They played a major role in developing a progressive gender policy for their old league and implementing one for the Eves.
Equality movements in other sports often place a team member’s sexuality or gender identity in the backseat totheir performance. A common trope in professional sports is that sexuality or gender identity doesn’t matter if the player can still help the team win. Derby culture works a different way. The sport is seen as secondary to the human behind it. So in derby, there’s more emphasis placed on supporting skaters to be the best versions of themselves—on and off the track.
Derby isn’t perfect, however. “There are still people who can’t or won’t play for legitimate reasons,” says Gorn.
“There are many transgender skaters who are not viewed as ‘woman enough’ by WFTDA.” The WFTDA policy, which relies on hormone levels from a healthcare provider, has been contentious. Some leagues who participate at that level choose to ignore it in favour of their own rule.
The next generation
I coach the junior team, the Rotten Apples. While I often joke that the most rewarding part is watching some of them develop and refine their feminist viewpoints on Facebook, seeing them work together on the track and those moments where everything finally clicks are more rewarding than my own victories.
Just as there are all types in adult derby, the same is true with junior skaters, who are not only allowed to be themselves, but encouraged to be whoever they want. And they can even try out new identities.
We have cos play enthusiasts who’ve developed full character personas on the track, and others who have changed their derby names multiple times to reflect their growing minds.
We encourage them to accept their bodies and use their size to their advantage. The body-positive mindset leads to some pretty fantastic outfits, or “boutfits.” The roller derby track is perhaps one place in a young girl’s life where slut shaming of any form is not only forbidden, but it just doesn’t occur.
Likewise with sexuality and gender identity, the team is gender-inclusive, and if a skater shows up with a different name and preferred pronoun, it’s a non- issue for both skaters and coaches.
Our junior team is small compared to some others, but the skaters are dedicated and we even have a few mother-daughter combos in the league. Rozalyn Milne, aka InterFeaR’N, recently passed fresh meat (a training program for new skaters) and is the league’s current treasurer. Her daughters Mikayla (Tum’blurr), 15, and Astrid (Disastridous) 13, skate with the Apples.
As a single parent, Milne tries to share her values on gender, sexuality, race, and social justice with her children, so the inclusive culture of derby was an obvious fit as her daughters reached adolescence.
She wanted to offset negative media images by showing them how women and athletes come in all different shapes and sizes and hair colours.
“My oldest said to me a few months into her first season that she loved derby because it made her feel strong and powerful,” says Milne, “which, for a 13-year old who hated gym class, was no small feat.”
Mikayla is entering her fourth season, and as Astrid (also not a gym-class fan) enters her second, Milne seesher benefitting in the same way.
For Milne, derby also gave her a community apart from family and work. “As a single parent for over 12 years,I've had my own struggles with trauma, poverty, and social isolation,” says Milne.
After nursing school, she found work that fulfills her passion for social justice as the Hepatitis C program coordinator and nurse clinician at the Cool Aid Community Health Centre. But she hadn't found a social support network until she started playing roller derby with the Eves. She finds the community’s varied experiences enriching and powerful. “For many of us, it is a soft place to land.”
‘We are making this sport’
In the last few years, a lot of people have stopped using derby names, stopped wearing fishnets and face paint, and have taken off-skates training to a new level.
A lot of this has to do with a large group of women seriously finding their athletic niche. But I hear a lot of talk about ways to make the sport more “legitimate,” and I find that troubling.
Coming from hockey, which takes itself far too seriously, the fun of roller derby was an amazing breath of fresh air. Some people think that we have to get rid of what makes the sport fun and different for people to “take us seriously,” but this is a false dichotomy.
Fans and skaters love the camp and spectacle of the sport and it gets people in the door where they can fully see and appreciate the skill and sportsmanship.
The Eves know how blessed we are to have so many fans in Victoria, and we won’t keep them by trying to compete with hockey. We are making this sport, and we can make it however we want.
The alt-culture traditions that spawned modern derby were all about breaking down binaries and shaking up the establishment, so it would be a shame if it now fell into those traps.
To have a group of 69 primarily female-identified individuals who actively love and support one another is still quite revolutionary, especially when you place that love inside of what looks like the aggressive and violent sport typical of a patriarchal society.
This love makes us all more powerful, and our communities stronger. This spring, we will be back in the circle, ready to talk each other up before another great game.