Viewport width =
March 29, 2010 | by  | in Features |
Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestTweet about this on Twitter

Whip it — Whip it Good

Wannabe rollergirl and Salient feature writer Elle Hunt takes on some of New Zealand’s finest derbyists.

“Alternative to what?” asks Ellen Page’s character in the 2009 film Whip It, when a friend asks her if she’s gone all, like, alternative now that she’s into roller derby. And it’s true: the definition of alternative sport isn’t an obvious one. You know, though, when there’s no chance of a sport working in a college P.E. programme that it’s a little left-of-centre—and all the more, when it involves fishnet tights and theatrical alter-egos.

This is the charm of roller derby. Part visual spectacle, part fast-paced athleticism, derbyists would describe it as more of a way of life than a recreational activity, so completely does it absorb its participants.

Roller derby is a contact sport, played on roller skates between two teams of five—comprised of four ‘blockers’ and one ‘jammer’—who race each other on one track. The role of the blockers is to assist their team’s jammer through the pack, while blocking that of the opposition. A point is scored each time the jammer passes a blocker from the opposing team. It’s a simple game in theory, fierce and aggressive in practice—and for many of the women involved, that’s part of the appeal.

The creation of roller derby is credited to a Chicago businessman Leo Seltzer, who, in 1935, conceived an endurance race that integrated rollerskating and dance-a-thons. It quickly became known as a performance as well as a sport, because of its combination of physical skill and exhibitionism: roller derby is equally entertaining for its spectactors as for those on the track.

Since its invention, roller derby has gone in and out of bursts of popularity—most recently in Texas in 2001, when a group of women formed the Texas Roller Derby, and gave the sport a real rough-and-tumble edge. Others followed suit by establishing their own leagues, and it spread like wildfire across the United States. Thanks to the media coverage of the sport in films such as Whip It, as well as in music videos and TV series, players feel that this time the sport’s popularity is anything but fleeting: that finally, roller derby is here for good.

Imported from the States

The fact that the sport has spread to New Zealand indicates its enduring popularity.

Black Dahlia (Dale Rio) of the Los Angeles Derby Dolls introduced roller derby to New Zealand in 2006, and helped establish the country’s first league: the Pirate City Rollers (PCR), based in Auckland. Pieces of Hate (Stacey Roper), one of the founding members of the PCR, remembers its conception.

“[Black Dahlia] was coming to New Zealand for a three-month stint and couldn’t handle a trip without her skates,” says Hate. Dahlia sought New Zealanders’ opinions on establishing the sport here.

“She was actually warned against it, because she was told that we’re a ruthless, competitive bunch, and that shit was gonna get nasty!

“I found out about it from the girl tattooing me. She told me about this American woman living in Auckland that played derby in LA, and was thinking of starting it up here. I only went because I skated as a little kid… and I was looking for something to do, exercise-wise, over winter that didn’t involve the gym or running. So I went!”

Pieces of Hate attended the first meeting in New Zealand.

“[Dahlia] got a few of us together and we went to an open skate at Skateland—no pads, no helmets, and horrible rink skates,” says Hate.

“I was the one who negotiated our own hour at the rink—we paid $60 for it, and split it between the 12 of us. It was like that for a while.”

Using the Los Angeles Derby Dolls’ structure as a guideline, Dahlia showed the interested New Zealanders how to recruit new members, make and sell merchandise, establish an art department, and set up a league “like they do in the States”.

“She also taught us the American way of PR,” remembers Hate. “I mean, have you ever heard of any sporting league with its own PR committee? That’s been the key with this sport’s growth—we had someone show us how to market ourselves. It was brilliant!”

Dahlia’s mentoring was instrumental to the spread of the sport throughout New Zealand. The PCR was established in February of 2006, and today is comprised of around 40 active members, although the league’s database has over 150 new skaters, ex-skaters and refs. Within the PCR there are three teams.

“Next year it looks like there could be five teams playing in our league,” says Hate.

It seems that roller derby has found some success with Kiwi women, although Hate says “it’s hard to say” how many are involved in the sport nationally, “because leagues are starting up all over the place”. “There are established leagues in Northland, Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland,” she says.

“Others well on the way include two in Tauranga, and one in Hamilton—and there are leagues starting up in Nelson, Levin, Tauranga, Hawkes Bay, Dunedin and Palmerston North. I’m sure there are more on the way too!”

The Wellington chapter of the roller derby phenomenon is the Richter City Rollers (RCR), founded in 2007. Ruby Deathskates of the RCR says that the league is sitting at 40 members. She guesses that there are 150-200 roller derby skaters in New Zealand, “but that number is growing exponentially”.

Ruby, like Hate, became involved in the sport as soon as it was possible to do so.

“People started meeting to discuss starting up a league here in Wellington in December 2007,” she says. “I watched a video on Youtube and was absolutely gripped with the need to do it. I didn’t know how to skate, but I just… had to get involved.”

Thigh Voltage, also of RCR, felt just as magnetic an attraction towards the sport. She attended the RCR’s first Wellington bout a year ago, and “was totally transfixed”.

“I went with some friends and while they enjoyed it, I just couldn’t stay sitting down. I’d never seen anything like it, and I’d never been so gripped by the need to do something… So, the next day, I rented some skates, and a week later I was training with Richter City.”

Not Suitable for Small Children

Scheisse Minnelli (Hannah Jennings-Voykovich) manages PR for the PCR, and was introduced to the sport through a friend.

“Back in 2007 I went along to the first PCR league bout for the year. My friend Voodoo Child had just started playing, and I wanted to support her,” says Scheisse.

“Though I initially worried I was going to turn up and see her crushed like a bug, she excelled at it.”

When the announcer called for members of the audience to give the sport a go at half-time, Scheisse jumped at the chance.

“A young guy, a small child and I got out there, and had a little race. I could skate, but I couldn’t stop—which proved pretty problematic at the end of the race when I cut a corner to avoid the small child.

“The child freaked out and fell over—of his own volition, for the record!—and I was booed off the rink. When I came off the track, the captain of one of the PCR’s teams pulled me aside and said I should try roller derby, and I’ve been hooked ever since.”

This degree of passion seems par for the course for the typical roller derbyist. Some, like Thigh Voltage’s friends, ‘enjoy’ the spectacle of the sport, but others feel an allure that’s impossible to ignore. What is the point of difference between the spectactor and the fanatic? Who would the girls recommend the sport to?

Hate was initially drawn to the “original punk ethos” of roller derby, and the fact “that similar-minded alternative and aggressive women had [made] a place on the planet for us”, although she allows that the sport is a “bit more mainstream now”.

Despite this, Scheisse has noticed that roller derby continues to be considered a niche sport.

“Common questions I’m asked are, ‘Is that that punk sport?’, ‘Are you all psycho bitches?’ and ‘Isn’t it full of big, scary dykes?’. These clichés get pretty tired after a while, as do my responses to them,” she says.

“Roller derby attracts all manner of women—sporty girls, traditionally non-sporty girls, heterosexuals, bisexuals, pansexuals, mothers, daughters, party girls, homebodies, rockabillies, punks, indie kids, whatever; I hate listing off the hundred-and-one labels you can put on the people who play derby, but it does illustrate the myriad types of women who play this sport…

“Ask anyone who plays roller derby why they love it, and they will no doubt tell you how they love the dynamic the sport presents—you can be fast, agile, tactile, skilful, sexy, feminine, ‘butch’, physical, brutal—all at the same time… The confidence these women find on the track often translates into their everyday lives. A new derby skater often finds her voice, her own sense of style, her cause; anything.”

Scheisse’s ‘vague-but-true’ answer is that she would recommend playing derby to anyone.

Ruby Deathskates adds: “When you’re playing, you don’t have the time to hesitate or doubt yourself. It also gives you an amazing appreciation for the strength of your body, whatever shape, size, or height you are.”

“It empowers you when you play,” agrees Hate. “You get a greater sense of accomplishment because you get nailed, and you fall, and you get hit, but you survive. That’s a cool feeling.”

From her imperturbability, you wouldn’t know that Hate herself has endured a dislocated shoulder, torn posterior cruciate ligament, and medial ligament damage from roller derby. She does, however, admit that the league has been “very lucky not to have had any major ankle or leg fractures.

“We’ve had quite a few knee injuries and cracked ribs, and a broken wrist at our first ever practice. Mostly they’re from slams with the unforgiving concrete… We had a ruptured spleen at practice once, when someone hit one of the unpadded walls.”

Having said that, Thigh Voltage is quick to point out that there’s an element of risk associated with any contact sport.

“We are fit, strong and flexible, which reduces risk, and we also wear safety padding,” adds Ruby Deathskates.

The Feminist Reading

Despite its potential dangers, roller derby empowers its players more often than it impairs them. Scheisse points out that even if it’s not said aloud, roller derby’s feminist stance is “heard loud and clear”.

“Playing the sport challenges pretty traditional notions of what it means to be feminine and sexy, and I love that,” she says.

“I’m someone who has struggled with body image issues for more years than I care to remember, and I now play a sport that embraces and requires women of all shapes, sizes, speeds and temperaments, for different jobs within the game. Playing roller derby has done a lot for my confidence and self-esteem.”

Pieces of Hate agrees. Her friend Sparkle Plenty, a founding member of the Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby Association who is based in Austin, Texas, told her to think of a famous footballer, a famous basketballer, a famous golfer and a famous swimmer.

“What you get are men. [Sparkle] said, ‘Think of a famous derby skater’, and I thought of a woman,” says Hate.

“She said that men have every other sport under the sun as their own, and all we want is one to be ours—one sport to inspire young women, and get young women empowered by other women. It was the coolest thing I’d ever heard, and I’ve played sports my whole life, and never really thought about it before.”

Ruby Deathskates agrees, calling roller derby “a women’s sport, in that it’s completely controlled by the women who skate. It’s awesome.”

Ruby goes on to point out that the media seem to struggle with “the idea of women playing a full-contact sport”, and simplifies roller derby as being “either violence or sex, but of course, the real story is more complex than that”.

Having said that, she considers Whip It, Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, to have been “a better representation than I’ve seen in some news reports.

“It demonstrated the friendship, the fun, and the challenge of derby. It doesn’t show any decent roller derby, but it does show that other stuff.”

Scheisse says that Whip It “did a lot for roller derby in terms of profile”, and the media attention it received had direct impact for the PCR. “We put on a Whip It-themed bout back in January, and the buzz around it was huge. The game sold out, our ‘Fresh Meat’ mailing list grew to hundreds, we were interviewed for a mainstream women’s magazine, and we had to stock up on helmets and pads…

“To be honest, we have a lot to thank Whip It for, the movie showed not only that anyone can do it, but that there are a lot of really good, really empowering reasons to give roller derby a go.”

Roller Derby 101

Those who do want to “give roller derby a go” can expect nothing but encouragement from the old-timers.

“I think roller derby’s perceived reputation has preceded it in the past—women have been too afraid to give it a go because it looks fun but intimidating,” says Scheisse. “Truth be told, we couldn’t be any less intimidating or any more supportive when it comes to getting into roller derby.”

Hate adds: “The more aggressive, athletic girls tend to excel, but anyone can go from meek to deadly in a year of training.”

The RCR has a similar outlook: Thigh Voltage hadn’t ever skated before she joined the league, and now she’s one of their most outspoken supporters.

“Attitude is the most important thing: the willingness to work hard and learn new skills and keep trying even when it gets tough is more important than anything else,” she says.

Richter City meet twice a week at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Berhampore.

“Our trainings are closed to visitors, unfortunately, but people can meet us at our Freshmeat and Greets at the end of every month, it’s where we sit around and talk to interested people over a couple of beers,” says Ruby, who advises interested parties to check the league’s website www.richtercity.co.nz for details.

Indeed, the RCR is calling for registrations for their April Freshmeat course. This consists of a three-hour session every Sunday, from 11 April to 30 May, which trains people to a competitive level. For details, email freshmeat.richtercity@gmail.com.

“I hope it’s not intimidating for new people,” says Ruby of the course. “It’s so much fun, particularly the contact stuff. It might sound weird to say that, but the contact elements of roller derby are not about trying to hurt people—we’re all friends!”

Asked for final thoughts on roller derby, Ruby advises, “Never try on someone else’s mouthguard. It’s just not going to fit.”

Scheisse says, “Come for the derby, stay for the culture.”

“I’ve learned to stand up for myself in the wider world, because 30 tough bitches that have my back,” concludes Hate. “And if you mess with one derby girl, you mess with all of us!”

Cover image credit: Auckland Sports Photography

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestTweet about this on Twitter

About the Author ()

Elle started out at Salient reviewing music. In 2010, she wrote features and Animal of The Week, which an informal poll revealed to be 40% of Victoria students' favourite part of the magazine. Alongside Uther Dean, she was co-editor for 2011. In 2012, she is chief features writer.

Comments (14)

Trackback URL / Comments RSS Feed

  1. Hi there,

    I attended RICHTER CITY’s first bout last year, not PCRs.

    Cheers,

    TV

  2. Omen says:

    Also the bit that reads “Others well on the way include two in Tauranga, and one in Hamilton” should be “Others well on the way include two in Taranaki, and one in Hamilton”

  3. Rocket Queen says:

    nice piece! it’s true – i’ve been skating with Richter City for about a year and i was totally hooked from the get-go! one of the things i like about it that you didn’t mention was that after hating hanging out with other women for years, i suddenly met about 30 of them that i actually like! i was horribly shy when i started, but now derby girls are everywhere in my life, and we look after each other like family (and drink together, and skate together, and eat hideous amounts of junkfood together etc etc) yay go derby!

  4. Also worth noting there are leagues starting up in Blenheim, Palmerston North and Napier…

  5. Shitkicker McGee says:

    Goregasm is a baaaabe

  6. Raptor says:

    I would make sweet sweet love to all derby girls. Especially Richter City babes.

  7. Who let the bleeding girl be the cover image?

  8. Kilty-As-Sin says:

    Nice article.
    Awesome bunch of women to knock down and laugh with.

  9. Ah yes, that element of risk…

    Even when we can’t play anymore, derby is still love.

  10. Bangz says:

    A few Qs from the laywoman:

    1. Are males allowed to compete in the sport? It would appear to contradict feminist values of gender equality if this sport were isolated to the one sex.

    2. How come technological advances haven’t been utilized. Granted roller derby has its origins at a time when rollerskates were only the only available footwear, but couldn’t rollerblades be utilized for advantages in manoeuvrability?

    Yours in ignorance,
    –Bangz

  11. Nina says:

    Hot writing!

  12. kas says:

    anyone have any info on a team in tauranga? really want to check it out

  13. Angie says:

    I miss Voodoo Child, who now lives in Melbourne, not just because she is my daughter, but because I was darned proud of her and I thought she and her team mates were strong and awesome women! If only I were young enough….

  14. Jess says:

    hey kaz im keen to get in to roller derby in tauranga also!

Recent posts

  1. An (im)possible dream: Living Wage for Vic Books
  2. Salient and VUW tussle over Official Information Act requests
  3. One Ocean
  4. Orphanage voluntourism a harmful exercise
  5. Interview with Grayson Gilmour
  6. Political Round Up
  7. A Town Like Alice — Nevil Shute
  8. Presidential Address
  9. Do You Ever Feel Like a Plastic Bag?
  10. Sport
1

Editor's Pick

In Which a Boy Leaves

: - SPONSORED - I’ve always been a fairly lucky kid. I essentially lucked out at birth, being born white, male, heterosexual, to a well off family. My life was never going to be particularly hard. And so my tale begins, with another stroke of sheer luck. After my girlfriend sugge