April 13, 2010

Derby girls roll with the punches

The first rule of watching roller derby is that it doesn’t matter whether you know the rules. In fact, I would hazard a guess that knowing the rules significantly diminishes roller derby enjoyment. Would you rather know what it means when the Lead Jammer passes the Pivot but steps out before the Engagement Zone, or would you rather yell with equal parts enthusiasm and confusion when the girl with the best alter ego name decks someone? The Windy City Rollers hosted a bout between their four competitive teams at UIC last Friday as part of their regular season. I was cheering for Beth Amphetamine, Notorious D.I.E., and Zombea Arthur. I was a fan of Loco Chanel until she nearly killed a girl and was asked to leave the game.

But certainly some small notion of what the game entails is required. A game is played between two teams in two 30-minute halves. Each team has one jammer, their point scorer, who earns points by legally passing the members of the other team, all of whom are attempting to block her and make room for their own jammer to pass through. There are penalties aplenty for improper blocking, and most of the time they are incomprehensible. It was difficult to determine what a legal pass was, and don’t even get me started on Grand Slams. My favorite team, the Manic Attackers, at one point was suddenly losing by 30 points because The Fury kept Grand Slamming them.

The pack of skaters whips by so fast that knowledge of the rules takes a backseat to pure visceral enjoyment, and there is plenty to be had. The game is played in bursts of two minutes, facilitating fast and well-controlled violence. The brutality of the matches goes without saying—like football, aggressive blocks happen often enough to be non-notable. The women of roller derby are athletes of the punk variety. The audience, on the other hand, is not very intimidating. I would suggest wearing your best “I’m considering getting a motorcycle” get-up, coming drunk, and treating your fellow patrons politely.

The Windy City Rollers is just one of more than 80 all-women’s roller derby leagues in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). WFTDA was founded in 2004 as part of a growing movement to reincarnate roller derby as an athletic sport, instead of the fake-fighting, performative, and corporate-backed spectacle popular in the 1970s.

The modern roller derby is, at its core, “by the skaters, for the skaters,” with a DIY ethic. The flat track, as opposed to a more traditional banked track, is a conscious effort to make teams easy and inexpensive to found. All one needs is a big flat space, some tape, and very serious knee-pads to get a derby going. The idea has spread like wildfire and with it a subculture that is quickly becoming mainstream; last year Ellen Page starred in Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut about roller derby, Whip It. We didn’t see any small-town girl find her sport all while finding herself, unfortunately. The players of Windy City are slightly older alternatives, and they seem to have found themselves already. One woman had two full black eyes and no inhibitions; another smashed into an audience member and didn’t even dust off before reentering the fray.

The leagues are overwhelmingly all-women, and though the modern derby player is seriously athletic, she is decidedly campy and burlesque. Third-wave feminism, punk, and sex play crucial roles in roller derby culture. Tattoos and fishnet stockings are as much a part of the uniform as helmets and quad skates. The players have a great time and they look very, very cool. The referees had their own aesthetic too—each had co-opted the classic black and white vertical stripes into their own alter egos. Ref Sheik Yerbouti’s helmet was modestly covered by a turban, and he was wearing harem pants. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that no small part of my derby-going experience was spent considering how feasible it would be to join a team.

But if I participated I would have to learn the rules, which appears to be far too academically challenging. That won’t stop me from attending again, though. The next bout is on May 1, and the national championships are being held in Chicago in the fall. I’ll be there with a beer, a little more eye make-up than usual, and my roller derby alter ego: Sin-dee Lou Who.