R. Jeanette Martin
A world of pain is coming down on Toronto as roller-girls from Buenos Aires to Bristol swarm the Bunker at Downsview Park for the first-ever Roller Derby World Cup - bringing four days of hard hits and serious attitude, December 1 to 4.
And along with the hundreds of thousands in 20 countries sure to be watching the tourney via live-stream, I'm giddy/amazed our rag-tag sport has come so far.
I started playing derby six years ago, a refugee from school sports where I always seemed to be the weird person on the team. (I think the term was "drama fag" back then.) It seemed a natural step from kick-boxing and ice sports, my fave outlets in my younger years, to lace up the rollers. I was attracted to derby's physicality, feminist vibe and open-mindedness.
I'm not the only one. "If it had been a mainstream sport when I started, I never would have got into it," says Toronto-based Kayla "Brim Stone" Wilkins, an impish powerhouse of a skater who's the co-captain of Team Canada.
Modern derby's overt acceptance of players regardless of age, sexuality or body type makes it a safe space for people who often feel like misfits, says Kaitlyn Regehr, a sexuality researcher at King's College in London, England.
"There's the freedom to have an alternative lifestyle in a variety of ways. The majority of women I interviewed who identified as lesbian said they did not feel comfortable coming out until they joined roller derby."
Today's derby began in the early 2000s, with deep roots in the punk, rockabilly and queer communities. The sport was awash in fishnets and tattoos on girls who'd never worn athletic footwear in their lives.
Most leagues are now run by women, with the help of a few brave men, so the whole community has a super-charged, woman-power atmosphere that expresses itself in lots of intra-league dating and pants-less parties. In her research paper, Regehr asserts - and I agree - that derby is a rare space where expressing female sexuality isn't seen as a negative.
So what if the fans think our asses are hot? We know they are. I never would have worn booty shorts - a mainstay of derby attire - before I started playing, but now I rock them with pride. And while derby fans are a particularly enthusiastic sort, it's unheard of to get cat-called.
All of this aside, there's still one aspect I wrestle with: our league's annual awards, where - in additional to best jammer, best blocker and such - we still honour girls for best tits and ass. I was both flattered and embarrassed to win one of those this year, after once campaigning to get rid of these categories. I'd love to see the awards focus on stats, but that's just my jock side coming out.
The sport has grown exponentially worldwide, but its public image hasn't caught up, so derby still struggles to shake its past. Televised versions of the 1980s and 90s sport are what most people remember: skaters erupting into outright brawls or having to jump over a crocodile pit as they skate around the track.
In the game today, a pack of eight skaters - four from each team - moves around a flat oval track while jammers from each side try to lap the pack, earning points for each opposing player they pass legally.
Bouts are officiated by a full complement of trained referees who call penalties on players who trip, throw elbows or otherwise behave viciously, although bodychecks of all kinds are fair and square.
But misconceptions abound, sometimes fuelled by the sexy outfits worn by some teams. The trend was especially popular at the outset of the renaissance but gradually faded as teams became more competitive. Even the most scandalous uniforms are no more revealing than those worn by athletes in soccer, tennis or basketball, says Dave Miller, who writes a blog called The Derby Nerd.
Then there are the punning pseudonyms skaters adopt, like Tara Part, Clitty Clitty Bang Bang, Dolly Parts'em or my all-time favourite, Liz-On-Ya. These names are hard to take seriously, but that's sort of the point.
Lindy Hartsfield, who helps run Blood & Thunder, the derby magazine organizing the World Cup, says she can understand why sports editors might feel weird printing derby names. "Skaters need to consider names that would work in the media without being censored."
But in spite of its own ethos, derby is undeniably becoming more mainstream. There are now more than 1,000 leagues worldwide, many inspired by the 2009 Drew Barrymore film Whip It. Selling out professional sports complexes isn't uncommon in some U.S. cities, and Team USA jammer Suzy Hotrod was featured in ESPN The Magazine this year.
"If you'd told me this in 2004, we all would have laughed," says Hotrod, whose real name is Jean Schwarzwalder. "There's a lot of potential, but I look around and realize I've [always] paid out of my own pocket for a uniform, a flight or a meal."
In a sport largely funded by the players themselves, there's a lot to be gained from more attention and large sponsors, and nearly everyone interviewed for this article seems keen to go in that direction. But drifting too far from the counterculture place where derby began risks losing the edge that made it special in the first place, and before you know it, it's about as unique as women's softball.
"Part of me wants it to go mainstream and be on TV, and the other part doesn't want to lose what we have," says Team Canada's Wilkins.
So in the meantime, we wait to see what happens at the World Cup and beyond. And some of us dream about going pro.