My name is Ellen Yuska, and I am a senior at Central High School. Although I feel more comfortable riding around on the two wheels of a bicycle more than the eight wheels of roller skates, I have always been intrigued by roller derby. Throughout middle and high school I have had a few friends who joined junior roller derby leagues and always thought it was very fascinating compared to traditional sports like soccer that I was involved in. When brainstorming subcultures to observe and study for this ethnography I wanted to try and get out of my comfort zone and meet people that I would not normally interact with in a subculture I knew almost nothing about. I was pleasantly surprised.
Roller derby is one of the few sports that originated in the United States and then later spread internationally. The spark was started in Chicago by entrepreneur Leo Seltzer, who built the banked roller skating tracks which led to the one of the most popular entertainment events in which Americans in the 1930s used to escape the hardships of the Great Depression. Seltzer created the Transcontinental Roller Derby: a roller skating marathon in which teams of men and women would race around a track 57,000 times to simulate the 4,000 mile journey across the country from Los Angeles to New York.
The competition could sometimes last for more than a month and skaters were required to stay in the arena for the duration of their time in the race and skate a certain number of miles a day to avoid being eliminated. Soon cities around the country began to host the races, and popularity for roller skating continued to spread. Leo Seltzer and Damon Runyon joined together and evolved the sport away from endurance-oriented play to those where two teams would battle to try and pass each other and score points. The constant interplay of offensive and defensive skating kept fans hooked.
In 1949, ABC began televising bouts and the popularity for roller derby expanded even more dramatically. Leo Seltzer transitioned to the West Coast and transferred his business to his son Jerry Seltzer in the late 1950s. Seltzer, the main derby operator at the time, opened up the San Francisco Bay Bombers derby league, but soon competition formed as a group branched off from Seltzer and moved to Los Angeles, where the Roller Games league was formed with the Los Angeles Thunderbirds as the home team. The Roller Games was an instant success and focused more on roller skating as a form of “theater in a sports environment” (Rodriguez), which drew a different crowd than that of Northern California. The teams’ rivalry and success led to league startups across the U.S. and resulted in the largest crowd at a roller derby bout in history: 50,118 people showed up to Comiskey Park in Chicago in 1972 to witness the match between the Midwest Pioneers and the T-Birds. Seltzer’s success even spread across borders to Japan, Australia, Canada, and more.
By the mid 1970s, however, the family-owned Seltzer Roller Derby business was suffering from the weak economy and sold their promotional rights for roller derby to the Los Angeles-based Roller Games organization. Roller Games had the potential to be an international sensation as well, but soon the “phony,” theatrical effects that Seltzer’s classic version avoided were becoming the main objective. The Roller Games became defined by the over-the-top, theatrical ways that players scored points, as well as the artificial, scripted environment. Unfortunately for Bill Griffiths, the owner of the Roller Games organization, his show — the repetitive “one ring circus act” (Rodriguez) — began losing popularity and in 1975, he had to stop large scale production in order to stay afloat financially.
The Roller Games’ future continued to look bleak in the 1980s. The T-Birds still performed, but audience numbers were a fraction of what they were a decade earlier. The L.A. training facility closed, allowing few new stars to be born in the area. It was only until 1989 that roller derby had yet another surge in popularity, this time in the form of a television series. The show, Rollergames, had the same purpose to entertain, but on a much grander scale. It featured the same excessive drama and violence akin to a pro wrestling show, but added a whole new twist to roller derby. Instead of a circular banked track, the show produced a one-of-a-kind figure-8 track with a 14-foot tall bank called the “Wall of Death” on the upper loop of the track, and a 2-foot high jump ramp leading back to the lower loop, where an alligator pit was used to determine a winner in the event of a sudden death tiebreaker.
Points were awarded for how far a skater could get up the Wall of Death and the distance traveled from the jump, but scoring points was really the only thing that Seltzer’s version and the extreme ridiculousness of Rollergames had in common. The show was immensely popular and was broadcasted during prime time slots, but the immensely high production costs eventually required the producers to declare bankruptcy. This put an end to the Rollergames era and a mute on roller derby in the public eye until the early 2000s.
Roller derby finally reached its modern form when a group of women in Austin, Texas started their own roller derby league to revive the long lost tradition of classic roller derby. In 2003, membership split into a banked-track league and a new flat-tracked league. Banked tracks are very expensive to build, so the transition allowed more leagues to form from a financial standpoint. It also resulted in a whole different set of rules, because the physics of play changed when the velocity of skating up on a curve no longer propelled a skater forward. This led to the creation of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) in 2004, which provides the rule guidelines that the majority of all derby leagues follow today. The Minnesota RollerGirls are one of the founding members of the WFTDA, before they opened up new memberships to other teams. The Donnelly sisters started the Minnesota RollerGirls league in 2004 and were one of the first modern leagues to hold a public bout. They have four home teams: the Atomic Bombshells, Dagger Dolls, Garda Belts, and Rockits who all compete every season from October to March.
The Minnesota RollerGirls, along with most other leagues, is run by unpaid, amateur skaters who donate a portion of their profits to charities. They are currently ranked 11th of 288 teams in WFTDA’s most recent ranking in April 2016. Although the sport is mainly run by women and was reintroduced as a means for women athletes to combine strength, strategy, aggression, and confidence in a sport outside the confines of traditional femininity, they are very inclusive of transgender or intersex participants and there are also opportunities for men to become referees or join a men’s league.
My initial knowledge of roller derby revolved around the ideas of aggression, feminism, and tattoos. I pictured the standard derby player to be well-built and muscular, with multiple piercings and a dislike for smiling. I imagined thirty-year-old women joining roller derby as a way to vent their distaste for the patriarchy through full-body contact, mouth guards, and bruises. As I approached my first observation, scenes from Whip It flashed through my mind as I tried to stay calm and unintimidated.
Roller Derby Vernacular
Bout (n): A game between two teams consisting of two thirty-minute periods
Jam (n): Two-minute plays
Helmet Panty (n): Helmet covers used to distinguish different player positions
The Pack (n): A group of four players — three blockers and one pivot — from each team that form a “wall” of defense
Jammer (n): The skater with the star helmet panty. They are responsible for scoring all the points by passing through the Pack once and then circling around again to earn a point for every player of the opposing team they pass a second time
Blockers (n): Three skaters with unmarked helmets. They work together to try and stop the other team’s jammer from passing through them while simultaneously propelling their own jammer forward
Pivot (n): The skater wearing the striped helmet panty. A special blocker who sets the pace for the Pack and is the last line of defense
Derby Name (n): Nicknames skaters are referred to when in a roller derby setting. Usually involve wordplay and are often satirical, violent, sexual, or a reference to pop culture
The walls of the Roy Wilkins Auditorium echoed the sounds of skates on concrete, pads on concrete, and whistles. After walking through a dark hallway I arrived at the brightly-lit flat track, which was defined by tape on the floor. I quickly noticed the women with colorful dreadlocks and tattoos side of the track putting on the essentials: skates, knee pads, elbow pads, wrist pads, mouth guards, and helmets. It became clear to me in the first five minutes before practice that these women didn’t mind having their personal space broken by other teammates, enjoyed swearing, and were extremely friendly.
The Minnesota RollerGirls (MNRG) league has four home teams which compete against each other in the regular season and then for the Golden Skate trophy and league champion bragging rights at the end of the year. The best and most dedicated of the home teams tryout for the All-Star team, who compete throughout the spring and summer against teams across the country. For many, the first step of joining derby is by attending a clinic, a place where beginning players can get coaching from more experienced players and get ready for the intense tryouts. All the players who attended the clinic, even if it was their first day on skates, had already chosen a derby name.
Choosing a name is a very important process, because it is what that person is referred to whenever in a roller derby setting — it is very common that players who have known each other for years and have played on the same team don’t know each other’s real name. Derby names have to be unique for every player, and a new player must first make sure no other skater in the country has taken their name or one similar to it — if someone has, they must contact them and ask permission to use the similar name — and then claim their new name on twoevils.org, the official website of derby names. Needless to say, it was very underwhelming to introduce myself as Ellen to people with names like Steel Magnailia, Jacked Pipes, Terror Swift, and Second Hand Smoke.
A week after my first observation at a practice, I attended the last All-Star bout this season at the Roy. The lines to enter and buy tickets stretched down opposite ends of the hallway as far as I could see — I was unaware of the crowds roller derby drew in the Twin Cities. In the lobby before the the auditorium entrance, stands of MNRG’s sponsors were lined up, along with encouragement for youth derby teams, a lipstick stand, and a Black Eye Booth for fans who want a little face paint to get pumped up.
The auditorium had fog machines and dramatic lighting with bright light beams outlining the oval track. Audience members sat in the ascending balcony seats and as well as at track-side floor seating, although that came with an individual risk of being hit by a flying skater. I risked my luck for some good seats and sat down about ten feet from the edge of the track, surprised to see all ranges of people finding their seats around me; I was near a couple out on a date, a very enthusiastic child with her mom, a bunch of beer-drinking guys in their twenties, and a large family. Up in the VIP seats were some hardcore fans who had painted MINNESOTA on their stomachs and were drunkenly singing pop songs parodied with roller derby terms.
After a brief explanation of the basics of roller derby, the opposing team — that night from Denver — was introduced and as the Minnesota team entered the auditorium the little girl next to me screamed as loud she could as the roar of the crowd filled the entirety of the expansive room — they were clearly her idols. It way difficult for me to associate the people I was just talking to backstage as the skaters under the lights — they almost seemed famous out on the track. They looked intimidating, but strong, and as I watched them use physical force and skill to knock people out of play, it was hard not to be in awe along with the girl next to me.
For the second half of the evening I sat with my cultural broker, BOoM, who is a veteran skater on the Atomic Bombshells, a former All-Star coach, and someone who seemingly knew everyone in the derby world. It was when I sat with her that I realized all the strategy and skill that separates the All-Star team from the rest as she explained each play and and the different formations of the blockers to effectively both hinder the opposing jammers and help their own, many with their backs to the action. The game’s complexity and my understanding of it was even further confirmed for me at the practices I later attended.
The crowd was so invested in the plays that at some point almost everyone, most of all BOoM, stood up and yelled either in excitement of a good play or in disbelief at a ref’s call, many times with some swearing mixed in. At half time there was a break in the play, but not a break in the action. Every bout features a spunky, fun cover band to play at intermission — that night was no exception with a Beatles band — and audience members come down from the balcony and dance, sing, and drink a lot of beer with the skaters who have just finished their half-time talk.
The MNRG All-Stars won by a sweeping 334 points to Denver’s 42. Each time during this ethnography when I asked the question “What made you get involved in roller derby?” I got the same answer. Every skater, referee, and coach I talked to at practices said that after they attended their first bout and witnessed the thrill, crowds, and community, they got inspired and said to themselves, “I need to do that.” I’m not saying that I’m going to immediately go out and buy myself some skates, but as I left Roy Wilkins that night, I could see what those people were talking about.
People who join roller derby are pretty normal — they have kids, pets, college degrees, and well-paying jobs. In fact, I think that if it weren’t for roller derby participants always talking about it or wearing MNRG merch all the time, an outsider might not even guess they were a part of the subculture. Yet, a majority of the free time in these people’s lives are dedicated to lacing up their skates and circling a well-worn concrete track, all under a second identity and different name. This new identity becomes a place where the person can speak their opinion, swear as much as they want in a public setting, and mute the struggles of their daily lives when putting on roller skates. The people involved in roller derby join to make new friends and stay because they have made life-long friends. It is a place to gain leadership positions and be surrounded by strong women. They hold recruitment events and are an extremely tight-knit community. They drink lots of beer and give to charities.
In many ways, they sound similar to a college sorority. This might seem outrageous to some of the individuals in the subculture — and they might even be offended — because many have felt like they never fit in as a kid or were very popular or athletic, unlike many of those who join Greek life. I think the major overlap between the two groups is the presence of a community of women. In roller derby it is strong, passionate, and powerful women who are smart and strategic. They promote healthy bodies over skinny bodies, and pass that empowerment down to younger generations by inspiring them to play and teaching them about feminism in women’s studies classes. But I did not find roller derby gender exclusive, like I think I expected. The community is extremely open and inclusive, and I experienced that as an outsider joining in for just a few weeks. For many, this community is a place of refuge and support, and it gives adults a place to make friends easily and get better at a skill and accomplish goals. It is a community that has each other’s back.
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