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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Roller Derby; something of an essay

"Roller derby saved my soul". Almost any derby skater you speak to can admit to uttering this at least once. We were all drawn to this amazing sport for different reasons, be it the sexy ladies in fishnets, the skill of the skaters, the culture and community, the biffo, the underlying feminist feelings...whatever it be, we all ended up in the same place and can all agree derby has changed out lives somehow. At the moment there is a huge debate over whether derby should stop being a spectacle and start holding its own as a legitimate sport. Some people who are pushing for the solely sport idea are suggesting dropping alter egos to with real naames, while on the other side, the spectacle crew are all for a bit of glitter, a mascot or two and enjoy putting on a good show.
In my opinion, we should be able to do both.

Over the past 12 months or so, roller derby has boomed in popularity. There are new leagues popping up all over the shop. What was once an underground culture, requiring frilly knickers, fishnets and the promise of girls knocking the piss out of eachother to draw a crowd, fans are now drawn by the strategy, the toughness of the girls and the intense battles between skilled players.

Rules are being changed at a pace faster than even the speediest jammer can barely keep up with. (Come to think of it, what IS rule anyway?). New strategies are seeing less biff and more 'flying V' types of plays. (Don't judge me, I just watched the mighty ducks, it was all I could think of!) Teams that once had cute uniforms, matching but still unique to each skater, a little bit sexy and generally themed and trading their garters for basketball jersey styles of shirts with compression shorts as pants. Not to mention every other skater seems to have a degree in fitness and/or nutrition.

Go ahead. Watch this video.

Here we see two teams, standing around for an entire two minute jam in the name of strategy. What fun! A fellow skater watched this and quite aptly said "Whilst 'strategy me' appreciates this, I feel like the rest of me just witnessed the death of Roller Derby". Who want's to watch 10 girls stand around doing nothing? I'll come back to this later.

For me, roller derby really did change my life. I was going through a breakup with my partner of nearly four years, I was in a relatively new town with no real friends, no hobbies or pasttimes. I was depressed and would probably have just fallen off the earth if I hadn't of found derby. In a short period of time, derby helped me in so many ways, I made new friends, it got me fit, it helped me realise my sexuality, it gave me confidence to wear short shorts, it made me feel cool, sexy, tough...empowered. Thing I haven't felt, well, ever.
I admit, I was initially drawn to the girls being able to hit eachother with full contact (anger issues, anyone?) and the sex appeal these girls had. These women, who were mums, teachers, nurses, grandmothers even, were so full of confidence and attitude that just made anyone in their path swoon.

I have witnessed both extremes of the debate. I have seen leagues with costumey uniforms, a bit of sex appeal, mascots, the girls having fun; win or lose, maybe some face paint and a bit of showboating to boot. I have also seen leagues who have skaters use their real names, use the compression shorts as part of their uniform and use strategies that although effective, are boring as hell to watch (and play). I have even seen a skater penalised for flashing her knickers at a crowd in fun, and another for cheekily flashing her bra at another jammer.

This might feel like a bit of a tangent, however I feel as though it comes to a valid point, so bare with me. As well as the sport versus spectacle debate, there is also a huge stir with the cropping up of male leagues and teams. Alot of women feel as though this is almost blasphemy, and roller derby is something of a feminist movement, men should be secluded to reffing and volunteering only. I won't touch on this any more than to say, maybe the 'sport' crew are trying to legitamise our beloved sport so it doesn't get taken over by men? Maybe they are feeling as though our sometimes showing our frilly knickers, that people will never take us seriously, as if maybe a bit of cleavage and lipstick makes us not acceptable athletes? How is that a positive attitude to have as women? Should we not be encouraged to be the best we can be, as a team but also as individuals...whether we be most comfortable in fishnets and garter belts or otherwise.

The girls I have spoken to who skate with their own names have said they don't want to have to pretend to be tough, they already are. That is a great point. But what about the rest of us who ENJOY creating a new persona? Those women who get confidence from the extension of their personality. At work they're jane blow, mother, daughter, student, nurse, librarian, barista, bill payer, rule follower, wife. For a few hours a week, they get to be whoever they want to be. Eventually, they might even incorporate this new found confidence into their regular life too. And anyway, who didn't like playing dressups as a kid? That's all I have to say about costumes!

I don't know if this is ready for a conclusion yet, but we'll see how I go. I fear as though my fellow skater is right. The way the derby world is going, it is becoming something of a statement to prove how the sport is legitimate, we are super athletic and strategic and whatnot, the death of the spirit of modern roller derby is iminent. Soon, our beautiful women of all shapes and sizes will be replaced by athelic machines, just like every other sport dominated by people needing to win. The tongue-in-cheek-ness, the sex appeal and general fun will be lost to the need to win, to prove something (to who, I don't know). The misfits who once had a place to come and be someone valued and challenged will soon be shunned, because 'legitimate' sports are clearly only played by 'real' athletes. The people who wanted a way to get fit and have fun will be lost to those who are able to dedicate their lives to fitness and sport.

I guess my point is, to keep the spirit of derby alive, we need to take a good hard look at our values. What's the harm in dressing up a little, putting on a little show? The sport is already taking over, fans are loyal as it is, a little cleavage and face paint isn't going to make people stop watching. What will make them stop coming to bouts is 'strategies' such as the above video, where nobody is having fun.
Women are tough and diverse. Why can't we be legitimate athletes AND be sexy and have fun with our sport?

As I've said before, if I'd wanted to play netball, I would have started playing netball.