If you liked this, check out my post on Roller Derby Parenting, which was linked to on Diary of a Derby Doll! You can see it on her Tumblr here. There are a lot of misconceptions about derby and after an icky comment from a man about tearaway pants, I thought I might clear some of them up. And while I’m clearing things up, this post is not meant to weigh in on strippers. The comparison to strippers was implied in the conversation that follows and reduced derby to something geared toward titillation. My point? Derby is a sport. I’m interspersing the post with photos from Danny Nguyen, one of our fabulous Houston photographers.
Go Ahead, Take Off Your Pants
I had just finished a speed skating class when it happened. The class is taught by a former speed skater and former derby girl and focuses on speed, conditioning, form, and whipping your sorry butt into shape. On a typical Saturday morning, you will find young and old in-line speed skaters as well as a mix of derby girls in their quad skates. I was taking off my knee pads while a young girl was trying on her speed skating uniform: one of those one-piece spandex numbers.
She was probably about ten years old, and I don’t know how she felt, but I would have been self-conscious at ANY period in my life wearing something that’s 100% spandex, so I made sure to tell her that she looked great. She smiled and seemed to appreciate the words.
Her father said, “You derby girls should try uniforms like this.”
“Derby has actually been moving in a more athletic direction for the past few years,” I said. “A lot of our uniforms these days actually are athletic jerseys. You never know–you might see a team wear a speed-skating uniform one of these days.”
He laughed, still in a light-hearted way, and said something this: “Yeah, preferably one that ripped open in strategic places every time you fell.”
Wait—what?!? Did this dude just insinuate that derby girls should be skating in tear-away spandex? In front of his pre-teen daughter? Yup. He most certainly did.
This was one of those moments where I was struck dumb. The conversation went on around me, but I was so shocked that I could not find words to respond, and it’s been stewing in my mind ever since. I started a blog post, but it was intensely epic, ranging from the controversial Lindsay Vonn Sports Illustrated cover to thoughts on the over-sexualization of women in sports and life in general. It got longer and longer and I found myself rambling and writing a thesis I never would have finished.
I finally decided that a lot has been written about women and sports in other places. What I want is to write a post that focuses on the inherent misconceptions in that icky (because I’m sorry–that was REALLY icky) father’s comments. I don’t think he’s alone in his confusion about what roller derby is. Probably the majority of YOU haven’t been to a derby bout, so let me take a little time to talk about what you are missing.
Nod to the Past, Movement Toward the Future
With skater names like Jekyll and Heidi, Maul McCartney, and Jenetic Defect, do I really expect you to take this sport seriously? YES.The roller derby my dad watched on TV when he was young might have had more in common with WWF, but in a nod to its history, roller derby has preserved some of the playful aspects of the sport. Some teams have done away with skaters names, simply using full or last names, but most leagues hold to this tradition.
When roller derby began its revival in 2001 in Austin, Texas, uniforms were more like costumes: Fishnets, tutus, catholic school-girl skirts. These days, while the names are still playful, uniforms are trending toward a more streamlined, athletic look (especially at the competitive national level). Tear-away stripper pants are NOT sanctioned by WFTDA (The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, which governs most flat-track derby).
Sometimes skaters will paint their faces or wear socks or fishnets that fit their personality or go along with their derby name, but the uniform itself is that: a uniform. While names and knee socks may add a sense of playfulness, they do nothing to take away from the athletic aspect of derby. I feel that they instead add to the accessibility and entertainment for the fans.
When I told Rob I wanted to skate, he had his doubts. Then we went to a Carolina Rollergirls bout. My husband, the one who is known for his insane athleticism, the one who was drafted to a pro-arena football team, gave me his blessing before the bout was halfway through. “I want you to do this,” he said. “This is a real sport.”
There are rules. Click HERE to see them. You can’t throw elbows and have fist fights. While the movie Whip It did get the word out about roller derby, it also perpetuated the idea of derby as a sort of WWF on wheels. Most of the on-track action shown in the movie would be illegal according to WFTDA rules. There are minimum skills required and for most teams, passing a rigorous rules test is a must before skating in a bout.
For the Love of the Game
How many athletes would still play for the love of the game if they had to pay for most or all of their uniforms, equipment, their travel expenses, and their practice space? The NFL would come to a screeching halt.For most adults, sports diminish after school to become something recreational with a minimum commitment.
To be an active member of Houston Roller Derby, I had to pay for a three-day tryout. I pay monthly dues. I have a minimum of six hours of practice a week. I am expected to attend fundraisers and promotional events. I am a member of one of a number of committees that keep our non-profit organization running. I have to pass a rules test. On bout day (once a month during the eight month season), I have to be at our venue early to set up or stay late to break down in addition to skating in a game. I pay for my uniform, my skates, my pads. No derby skaters get paid to skate.
This sport is expensive and time-consuming, with little glory other than the love of the game. And yet it is the fastest-growing sport in the United States right now. You read that statement correctly. Christian Slander got one thing right when he added roller derby to a list of Stuff White People Like: it take an incredible amount of work ethic. (Not just by white people, might I add.) To understand fully, you need to see it. And that means you need to get up from your computer and go to a bout.
There is so much more to roller derby than what you might think. You won’t ever know until you experience it, so please–go support your local derby league. Not sure you have one? Click HERE to find one near you. And if you enjoyed the photos, go give Danny Nguyen some love! He is one of our fabulous photographers who donates his time and photos for our league.