They wear their bruises like symbols of honour, brandishing them with pride on faces, arms and legs. They show no mercy in the face of punishment, turning to meet their foes with a hip check or aggressive block. They are pierced, tattooed, fit and furious; and sister, do they ever have style!
The girls of roller derby are in a league of their own: bastions of a countercultural sport that marries athleticism and fashion with just a touch of thumping rock music for good measure. To attend a roller derby game is to encounter an all-encompassing experience, as the ECA Review found out at the Stettler Agriplex on Saturday, February 22 when the Central Alberta Roller Derby Association (CARDA) travel team, the Missfits of Mayhem, played Fernie, BC’s Avalanche City Roller Girls. In two half-hour segments the teams battled it out, skating with spitfire intensity and boldly accepting strikes and blows with sage-like composure. The game ended in a 274 – 154 win for Avalanche City, but no matter the victor: roller derby holds it’s own as a standout entertaining watch and equally compelling play for those brave enough to enter the oval abyss.
Derby ye say?
Derby is a game of high intensity mobility and extreme contact that takes a few rounds to get the hang of. Five ladies skate counter-clockwise around an oval track, with one player from each team occupying a helmet with a star on it. Known as the ‘jammer,’ her task is to skate around the track more rapidly than the other team’s jammer to gain points with every successful rotation.
The caveat of this feat, however, is that the jammer must break through the blockers from the other team to gain points, and all four blockers are armed with various methods of knocking the jammer on her butt or out of bounds to prevent her from scoring. Using hips, bum, shoulders and the coveted full body-check these girls spare no expense in attempting to pummel the other team into defeat – and it’s within this unique athletic domain that this cult sport thrives.
Many notable features define roller derby against other traditional sports. For one, derby girls have names specifically for their player persona. Jam Slamwitch, Kat Scratch Cleaver and Atomic Toaster are prime examples of the distinctive monikers the girls adopt as their derby identities.
The game has the unique quality of combining athletics and aesthetics without appearing contrived. Bold colours and patterns abound in the sport; as do tattoos, piercings and general stylistic attitude.
Fishnets, skirts and dresses worn for game play were a crowd draw in times past explained Judy-Lyn Sylvester, President of the Heartland Rollergirls Association; bringing an entire cultural demographic in to participate in spectatorship of the sport.
“The past couple of years I’ve noticed a shift. A lot of girls stick to a pin up style or a punk look, but you see some girls in regular athletic pants and tanks too,” she said. “It’s a total mishmash of style.” Comfort is paramount where style is concerned, as the girls have to be able to body check, fall and skate comfortably and confidently while in play.
Yarr, derby history!
Roller derby has a rich history in Alberta, stemming from Edmonton and Calgary around 2006 and wheeling across the province from there. The modern manifestation of the game is an evolution of the 1935 endurance race that became popularized in the sixties and seventies.
“Roller derby, when it began, attracted all the people on the fringe of society,” explained Sylvester. “A lot of women were into punk or alternative music, lifestyle, culture, the pin up style; they brought a lot of fun into it.”
Stettler’s status as a derby town was born when Grand Prairie native and derby player Stephanie Hadley moved away and couldn’t quite quit the derby life.
“She kind of missed [roller derby] and put a notice out on Facebook asking if anyone was interested in starting a league, so it all started from there” said Sylvester. “It will be three years running this year.”
A board of six women oversees the league, with Sylvester as their current president. The decision to join under the CARDA was fueled by a desire to see more routine game play, as the league currently hosts five teams: the Rez City Rollers (Wetaskiwin), Vexy Beasts (Lacombe), Mia Dolls, Misfits of Mayhem and Stettler’s Heartland Rollergirls.
“Under CARDA we can plan out our seasons and games,” said Sylvester. “We’ve got an amazing pool of talent, experience and training for everyone involved.”
For Sylvester, the appeal of the game hit from the onset. Viewing a match on television five years ago, she felt a fellowship with the derby women and saw that it could fit into her busy life as a new mother.
“In the video it was a team being interviewed and one of the interviewees was a mom,” she noted. “I had really young kids at the time and I realized this was something I could do in my free time. It clicked in my head like, moms can do this.”