Roller Derby. The very name of the sport conjures some vivid imagery…Imagery that’s usually tied to a particular era of the sport, depending on your age and where you came from. If you’re in my age group, chances are the mention of Roller Derby will conjure up images of tough-as-nails women engaged in knock-down, drag-out, matches of physical endurance seen in the televised bouts of the 1960s. Younger people might remember actress Ellen Page as the small town girl coming of age in the rough and tumble world of banked-track roller derby in the 2009 film, “Whip It”. If you’re lucky enough to have been exposed to the world of modern roller derby, then you have yet another vision of the sport…A physically demanding, highly technical, contest of athleticism and endurance on skates.
A contest among women.
Roller Derby has been around, in one form or another, since just after the Great Depression. At one point there were men’s teams, and at times the direction of the sport varied between being largely entertainment oriented, not unlike professional wrestling, and striving to become a legitimate sport. The sport started waning after the 1970s, and was pretty much at a dead end until 2001, when some new, all-women, teams were started in Austin, TX. This signaled the start of a resurgence in roller derby. Now a world-wide phenomenon, a recent Wall Street Journal article estimates that in the United States alone, roller derby has grown from 50 women’s leagues in 2006 to a current level of approximately 1250 leagues. Many of these leagues also sponsor men’s, children’s, and recreational league play.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, a community with a sixty-year history of roller derby competition, a number of leagues have taken root, including our East Bay league, the Bay Area Derby Girls, or B.A.D. Girls, as they like to be known.
Founded in 2004, the B.A.D. Girls have risen to prominence as a founding member of the Women’s Flat-Track Derby Association (WFTDA), the governing body of modern roller derby, placing as high as third in the WFTDA’s Western Region. The league consists of four teams, The Berkeley Resistance, The Oakland Outlaws, The Richmond Wrecking Belles, and the San Francisco ShEvil Dead, as well as a traveling team, the B.A.D. All-Stars, with members drawn from the other four teams. There is also a recreational league for women interested in learning the sport.
The rules are pretty simple…The basics: The bouts consists of two rounds, and are broken up into Jams. Each team has a jammer, with a star on their helmet, who tries to pass the other team’s skaters, who, in turn, try to block her. On the second lap around the track, and for each subsequent lap, the jammer gets 1 point for every opposing player she passes. Simple, right? Well, yeah, until you try and actually keep track of what’s going on out there, considering all of the high-velocity skating, intricate weaving, jumping, and dodging involved. This takes a line-up of officials (affectionately called ‘zebras’ due to their black-and-white stripped tops)…Oh, and guys, if you’re thinking that roller derby may be your thing, good news—Men can be officials in this sport.
The women themselves come from all walks of life, and put those lives away when they lace up their skates to assume their derby identities, taking on hard-core names like Demanda Riot, Pixie Nixie, Abominatrix, Eva Menace, and Lulu Lockjaw. But for all of the show, and warpaint, modern roller derby, with its scrum starts, and highly technical skating requirements, these women are all athletes as well as entertainers.
As for the ‘Feminist’ part of the this article’s title? Modern roller derby stands out as an embodiment of operative feminism. The majority of these leagues, including the B.A.D. Girls, are grass-roots organizations that have been created by women, for women, and run by women…Yeah, there are a lot of guys involved, but it’s pretty clear where the majority voice and vision is coming from. The women who have created these leagues are doing what they want to do, to the best of their abilities, and have asked permission from no one except their fellow players and families, to do so. They create opportunities for themselves, the success or failure of which is entirely determined by their own abilities and levels of expectation, and they have excelled at it. The B.A.D. Girls have also incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation, and the league’s 120+ members are active in all areas of the community from local events to breast cancer fundraisers, and even lend support to a local pet shelter that is represented at all of their bouts. These ladies are out there kicking life in the ass both on and off the track, and are making a difference in the community.
To me that is feminism in its purest form.
The next Bay Area Derby Girls bout will take place on Saturday, July 13, 2013, at the Craneway Pavillion in Richmond, CA. Ticket information can be found on the B.A.D. Girls web site. For more photos from the June bout, please visit my flickr page.