The History of Roller Derby

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We used to be fairly well into roller derby, and reports of these bouts have previously graced the pages of this site. Our involvement in the scene came to a sudden halt a couple of years back when a shift-change at work left me holding down the fort on Friday and Saturday evenings, which are basically the prime nights for bouts. While the shift has its advantages, it does mean the only bout we’ve seen in about the past five years was one at the Arizona State Fair which happened to coincide with a midweek night off. I still possess my AZRD shirt, which I wear it to work occasionally, and have followed (vaguely) the schisms and ructions as groups have split, flourished and folded locally. Phoenix alone, as well as AZRD, has the Arizona Derby Dames, Arizona Roller Girls, Harmonic Violence Rollergirls, Renegade Roller Girls and Desert Dolls Roller Derby (somewhat) active, more than any other city in the world. I’m unsure whether this splintering is a good thing.

But while randomly kicking around Netflix, I noticed not one, not two, but three documentaries covering the topic, and figured I might as well use my bandwidth to watch them. After all, roller derby continues to grow, and is among the sports being considered for inclusion in the 2020 Olympics [though as “roller sports”, it seems likelier its more civilized cousins such as inline skating, will get the nod]. It doesn’t seem to be the passing fad some suspected – there’s over a thousand women’s flat-track leagues worldwide on this list – so for those interested in kick-ass heroines, the following films all provide an initiation into the sport of queens.

  • Hell on Wheels

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    “In the beginning was the word, and the word was ‘Austin’…”

    The revival of modern-era roller-derby started in Austin, Texas, when a man of dubious background and apparently even more questionable character, Dan Policarpo, arrived in the city and started talking up the sport to anyone who would listen. While he didn’t last long – taking loans out in the names of his skaters doesn’t inspire confidence – he was instrumental in putting together the first in what would become a worldwide wave of amateur, but extremely dedicated, all-girl roller-derby leagues. At the center in Austin were four women – Heather Burdick (a.k.a. Sugar), April Herman (Queen Destroyer), Anya Jack (Hot Lips Dolly) and Nancy Haggerty (Iron Maiden) – who founded Bad Girl Good Women and were captains of the four teams. However, it was not long before the inevitable drama starts, with the rest of the participants wondering for exactly whose benefit they were risking life and limb, as well as sacrificing their free time.

    And when I say inevitable, this is not a gender slam, since we’re currently “enjoying” something similar in the male-dominated world of pro wrestling here in Arizona. It’s more that strong personalities, contact sport and money are unlikely to be a good combination, and the film demonstrates this in spades. Things come to a head after a financial fiasco involving calendars, and a very nasty injury at a bout that turns out to be an uninsured event, and about 3/4 of the skaters slough off into a rival league, setting the stage for even more drama. You couldn’t script this stuff, and it’s remarkable that Ray was there to capture it from the very beginning, well before Dave Attell showed up to film it for Insomniac, before A&E covered the original league for Rollergirls and way before Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page took any interest.

    However, it’s a double-edged sword, in that there’s far more footage of league meetings than league matches – and if you can work out what’s going on in the latter, you’re better than I am. Admittedly, that may be because, in these early days, they weren’t actually very good skaters. As for the former, most get-togethers appear to take place in bars, or other places not conducive to the recording of crystal-clear dialogue. But it’s worth persevering, for the characters and drama that unfolds with a remarkably even hand. It would have been easy to portray the Gang of Four as exploitative tyrants, but one makes the point that they wanted to run the league like communists, and it failed miserably. There are also times when the film should have called out the BS of those present, such as when a skater gets all snotty after an audience member grabs her crotch… instead of merely spanking her as intended… while she’s dressed as a sexy schoolgirl. Yeah. I think you lose much right to credible outrage at that point.

    But, for all its uncritical approach and other flaws, this is the Declaration of Independence of roller derby, a historic document which shows how the whole thing got started. Austin set the tone for both the good and the bad aspects of the sport-industry-crypto-feminism which we know and love today, though after this film, you’ll be left feeling it’s something of a miracle the whole shebang didn’t crash and burn during its formative years.

    Dir: Bob Ray

    [The whole doc is now available to watch online, though the DVD comes with a lot of extra footage, commentaries and other assorted bells and whistles.]

  • Brutal Beauty: Tales of the Rose City Rollers

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    “Too much ego and not enough doughnuts.”

    For the next entry, we leap forward to 2009, and Portland – a city which all we know about, we learned from Portlandia. And, on that basis, of course it’s a city which has roller derby, where it sprung, virtually fully-fledged to four-figure crowds. This is less of a landmark doc, in that it doesn’t cover the beginning, middle or end. It’s basically a year or so in the lives of the participants in the Rose City Rollers, which is the Portland league. It covers both their local season, and then, once that’s over, follows the travelling team, the Wheels of Justice, first as they head down to San Francisco to take on their hated rivals, then over to Denver for the regional championships.

    S’okay. The problem is there’s very little here any fan of the sport won’t already know about, or have seen before, and not enough to draw in anyone else. Is it heretical to say that roller derby chicks can be stereotypical in their individuality, just as much as those in the mainstream they profess to detest? That is the impression that comes over here, and a couple of the women are… Well, to be honest: really annoying. I guess there’s a certain kind of extroverted type who will be attracted to roller-derby. But simply because you strap on wheels and give yourself a fake name, doesn’t necessarily stop you from being an irritating bi… Well, let’s just say: I don’t care in the slightest what kind of tattoos you get, and move on, shall we? As for “Roller derby saved my soul”, even as a fan of the sport, I reckon that counts as going overboard. What next? “Roller derby cured my tumour”?

    It’s a shame, since when concentrating on the sport, the documentary is decent enough. There’s a great explanation of the rules involving donuts [incorporating a plug for the city’s famous Voodoo Doughnut store!], and they also provide a better insight into the separate and largely distinct roles of jammers, pivots and blockers, as well as the different skills needed for each. In contrast to some other leagues, the theatrical fights and things like the punishment wheel are nowhere to be found in Portland. However, it’s not long before we’ve abandoned derby and are back at watching one women yell at another through a bathroom door. As an insight into the appeal of the pastime, it’s a good deal less than satisfactory.

    [This one can currently be seen on Hulu without a subscription being needed.]

    Dir: Chip Maloy

  • Blood on the Flat Track: The Rise of the Rat City Rollergirls

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    “The best of the recent docs for the novice to the sport.”

    In contrast to Brutal Beauty, this succeeds to a far greater degree is in putting over the attraction of roller derby. The first couple of films seem aimed more at the devotee, and it was more or less taken as read that already you liked it, or were at least somewhat interested. Here, I think even the more casual viewer will find themselves sucked in. They may or may not want to go any further, but the doc does a much better job of explaining the entertainment to be found, both for participants and spectators. The sheer sense of fun that is found at the best roller-derby events [or even, to be frank, the crappy ones, which we have also attended!] is a good deal more palpable here than in the other films, which concentrated on personalities to a greater extent than the sport. That isn’t the case here, and to an outsider, the results are likely better for it.

    Not that there is any shortage of said personalities, such as the mother and daughter who both take part in the sport, or the three sisters who have been roller-skating virtually their entire life, and are feared across the entire Seattle league. There are, admittedly stories about romance and marriage included, but even these have a close connection to roller-derby, like the guy who proposes after his girlfriend became part of the championship-winning team [I can relate to this, having proposed to my wife immediately after the Arizona Diamondbacks won the 2001 World Series!]. I also enjoyed the insight into the different teams, like the Sockit Wenches (right) or the Derby Liberation Front, and the different ways in which they both perceive themselves and are perceived from the outside. Each has a different group personality, which of course, attracts other like-minded individuals, reinforcing that aspect of the team.

    In common with the rest of the films, it covers a period of time rather than necessarily any particular sequence of events, mostly around the 2006 season, where the Wenches were trying to dethrone the reigning champion DLF. There’s enough footage of actual bouts that you can understand the skill of the participants, and the danger inherent in the sport. It’s frank in admitting that sex appeal is part of the draw, especially for the male audience, but I can attest that the film is also correct when it states that after about 15 minutes, that simply isn’t important. With its host of likeable players, it’s no surprise that the derby scene in Seattle continues to prosper, with the fed holding the national record for single-event attendance, having pulled 6,885 to a show in June 2010.

    [It doesn’t seem to be available to stream online for free; we found it on Netflix. ]

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