May 5, 2009

I’m now going to have a look at the history and key elements of roller derby, taking a shameless trip to Wikipediaville:

Two roller derby girls fight at a match, May 8th 1950.

Two women’s league roller derby skaters leap over two who have fallen, 10 March 1950. From Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs division.

To begin with Roller Derby was more about endurance racing, but occasionally, massive collisions and crashes occurred as skaters tried to lap those who were ahead of them. In 1936, 1937, or 1938 (sources vary), after seeing a match in Miami, Florida and realizing this was an exciting element of the sport, sportswriter Damon Runyon encouraged the main organiser of the sport, Leo Seltzer, to tweak the game to maximize physical contact between the skaters, including elbowing, “whipping”, and slamming each other into the track’s outer rail, as well as exaggerating hits and falls. Seltzer bristled, wanting to keep the sport legitimate, but agreed to the experiment, which fans ended up loving.

The spectacle evolved into a sport involving two teams of five skaters, with a team scoring points when its members lapped members of the other team, which is the basic premise of roller derby to this day. In its heyday of this format it was televised on forty US TV stations, but its popularity waned during the 1970s and Jerry Seltzer (Leo’s son) ended up shutting it down entirely.

However, nearly all contemporary roller derby leagues are all-female and self-organized, and were formed in an indie, DIY spirit by relatively new roller derby enthusiasts. These leagues deploy traditional quad roller skates, and a punk aesthetic and/or ethic is often prominent. Many, if not most, are legally incorporated as limited liability companies, and a few are non-profit organizations. Most compete on flat tracks.

Each league typically features two or more local teams which compete in public matches, called bouts, for a diverse fan base. Members of fledgling leagues often practice and strategize together, regardless of team affiliation, between bouts. Moreover, as the business and infrastructure of the sport matures, successful local leagues form travel teams to compete with the roller derby leagues of other cities and regions.

Most players in these leagues skate under aliases, many of which are creative examples of word play with satirical, mock-violent or sexual puns, alliteration, and allusions to pop culture.

One thing I love about roller derby is the costumes. They’ve often got a bit of a punk or rockabilly thing going on – fishnets and stockings, stripey knee-high socks, tutus. Coupled with the quad-wheel roller skates and the nicknames each skater takes, they’re really characters already.


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