Even the most neurotic, wan, self-deprecating cynic would admit deep in his black heart that there is an undeniable awesomeness in a sport that combines roller skates, hotpants, oestrogen-pumped alter-egos and people getting smacked down.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” says Bambi von Smash’er, captain of Canberra’s elite Roller Derby League team, the Vice City Rollers. “Roller derby allows me to employ this wacky persona… it’s just a great combination of something serious, tough and sporty, and a little bit of theatrics on the side.”
Tattoos, tutus, tights and other rockabilly or punk aesthetics add to the histrionics of this show-sport. But while the risqué costumes are a part of this recent revival, the spectacle has always been elemental to Roller Derby.
The term “roller derby” has been around at least since the 1920s, although it was actually in reference to the endurance roller skating races popular at the time. It was in the 1930s that Roller Derby began to evolve into the rough and tumble sport it is today.
As the old saying goes, behind every great woman is a great man. In this case it was Chicago cinema chain owner Leo Seltzer who was the first to get the skate wheels rolling when he initiated the Transcontinental Roller Derby in 1935. Seltzer was at first reluctant to modify the game to encourage more aggression and exaggerated theatrical elements, as suggested by a sportswriter at the time. That, however, all changed when he saw the bloodthirsty crowds lap up the spectacular stacks and sensational slams.
This didn’t stop Seltzer from trying to legitimise the sport by promoting junior Roller Derby leagues and adding more teams. But the derby spirit with all its brazen showmanship was irrepressible during its 1970s and 2000s resurrections.
While Roller Derby is a decidedly women-dominated, female-first sport, it was actually, again, another man who was responsible for its recent resurgence. In 2000, a musician called “Devil Dan” of Austin, Texas gathered Gen X roller girls to enact his vision of “Hell on Wheels” – a wild, carnival-esque affair with clowns, carnage and, curiously, blazing bears. For some reason, Devil Dan’s whiskey-induced dreams did not really take off and he soon fled town. But the women he had recruited took over and established Bad Girl Good Woman Productions the following year.
Since then, all-female Roller Derby leagues in the States have mushroomed onto the scene, experiencing a particular upsurge after the reality series Rollergirls hit TV sets in 2006.
The Canberra Roller Derby League was established in 2008 by four mighty mamas: Peachy, Dr. Hell, Bullseye Betty and Roulette Rouge. As an old friend of Roulette Rouge, Bambi von Smash’er was one of their first recruits.
A database administrator at the National Gallery of Australia and a PhD student who’s just submitted nine years of work on the art history of Thai body tattooing, Bambi is clearly no doe-eyed doll. She quickly became the league’s star jammer and is now spearheading the Vice City Rollers as they meet the Sydney City Assassins at the AIS on Saturday December 11.
“This is a full on aggressive sport and emotions can run high,” admits Bambi. “As captain of the Rollers, I’m big on communication. Derby is a team sport and we desperately rely on every skater in the team to carry weight.”
The commitment required of the Canberra Roller Derby League (CDRL) skaters with eight hours of training a week suggests that these feisty felines are serious about their pastime.
Most modern leagues follow the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association rules. For anyone who hasn’t seen Whip It, Roller Derby happens on what is known as a flat track where two teams of five players, comprising of one jammer, three blockers and a pivot, play two minute “jams” counter-clockwise on a circular track. The aim: to break a jammer through the opposing team’s defence of blockers and pivots to score points.
On a more conceptual level, the Roller Derby movement has been underpinned by DIY and third-wave feminist principles, providing women a platform where they can be both deadly and dead sexy. But the sport is not without its critics, some who question whether it really does espouse feminist ideals when it is essentially about chicks decking each other in some of the most brutal ways known to woman. To that, Bambi deftly retorts:
“You can lay out any action with a theoretical context. I guess the thing that likens roller derby to feminism is that it’s so empowering to do it. Women often don’t get the opportunity to play a really aggressive sport. And it’s a women’s sport first. We have a great women’s basketball team, but AFL and basketball, they’re really all about guys. For me, I feel empowered because I’ve always had a fairly sizeable butt and for the first time in my life it’s actually a total asset.”
Asses and assets aside, the real reason Bambi von Smash’er can happily face a team of fierce, frothing females is a simple one. “I just love skating,” she coos. “I really love the sport… I can wear fishnets and a bit of makeup – it’s great!”
This beautifully brutal sport has seduced a great many other women in The Can. Secret She.E.Os have been signing up in their multitudes to be CDRL’s “Fresh Meat,” so much so that no more intakes will be held until 2011. At least it will give your humble narrator enough time to save up for a certain eBay purchase on certain retro Puma quad skates. Roll on.
Support your local roller skating babes as the Vice City Rollers take on the Sydney City Assassins at the AIS Arena on Saturday December 11. Tickets through Ticketek.