The Tao of Roller Derby


Obviously I am not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, but I am thankful for the various stages of my life, because I think I understand the new Roller Derby.

I was born three years before my dad invented the game.  I grew up with it and eventually was drawn into the management and excitement of the promotion of the game.  I was able to see it go from a defunct attraction to a huge game with millions watching each week on television and then saw it go crashing down in the early 70’s, and I had to get on with my life.  The next 30 or so years I worked in various enterprises.

During that time, I learned about Rock and Roll, sports teams, theater, concerts and more, and the people and personalities that went along with them.  I loved music and probably saw hundreds of performers and concerts in that time and got to understand why people attended these sometimes overwhelming events.  I left that part of my life in 1997 and did other things (related earlier).

Then Gary Powers, someone I had never met, contacted me.  He was planning the 70th anniversary of Roller Derby in Chicago (Gary is the ultimate fan; he has the RD Hall of Fame in his house in Brooklyn).  It was to be held at the Chicago Historical Society.  On the night of the event, some 80 people were on hand, including 3 participants in their 90’s who were in the very first Roller Derby.  Also on hand, were about a dozen members of the Windy City Rollers, members of the new league of Roller Derby women.  (And one, the great Val Capone, would become my first Derby Wife).

I had been hearing rumbles of the new Roller Derby but frankly had not been really aware.  Since we had shut down in 1973 so many attempts to revive it had followed, most following the terrible example of roller games with clowns and humiliations and more – don’t misunderstand me, roller games had some great skaters, but Roller Derby was different.  I had worked as a consultant on Rollerjam in the early part of this century which had great in-line skaters, but unfortunately that had also turned into a travesty, so I was through looking for any successful revival of my father’s game.  He loved it so much; he wanted it to go from the exaggerated skating to a fully legitimate game which would eventually be in the Olympics, but he never got to see that happen.

The night after the event in Chicago Gary, the skaters and I were invited to the Congress Theater in Chicago to see the first flat track game I had ever seen.  We were greeted by loud alternative music which went on all game long and women who skated the game I knew but in a very different way.   And there were pillow fights, and suitcase races, and other facets I did not like, but the women were wonderful and so respectful of what those before had brought to them. The Windy City Rollers named their league championship “The Ivy King” cup.  I didn’t know that eventually these non-skating fooleries were ended.

I started following the growth of the women’s leagues and attended Rollercon, their annual event in Las Vegas the following July along with Loretta Behrens who also has followed the leagues avidly.  I met so many bright and wonderful women (about 2000 in attendance from as far away as Australia and UK) and started to understand what this was all about.  These were women who were attracted by a culture they did not have in their every day life.  A friendship and sisterhood that set them off from others, often characterized by tattoos and costuming and derby names (Val Capone, Juanna Rumble, Venus Envy, etc) and a connection with each other that certainly transcended sports.

Roller Derby was the ultimate empowerment.  They had their own game which was only skated by women at that time (I asked one player from Texas why they didn’t let the men who were all around and helping them skate also: “they’re our bitches”).  I spoke to one woman who was a therapist (I was amazed at how many therapists, teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers were among the throng) why she was doing it.   She told me that all Derby women were in it for some reason to make their lives better, to escape their daily problems, etc.  It does sound strange when you think that these women, many who had never skated before, engaged in an extremely difficult boot camp, training and learning sessions, to achieve the goal of being able to compete in a full body contact sport and displaying their bruises and injuries the same way that Prussian officers used to show their dueling scars.

But it goes way beyond that;  unlike our games which were professional promotions aimed at an audience, these were women who formed their own non-profit leagues, paying monthly dues or fees, raising money not only to continue but also for the community and charity commitments.  They are hard driving, hard playing athletes who go to bars after the “bouts” for fun and dancing with friends and fans.  And they are doing it for themselves, not for an audience.

It is a little hard especially for men to understand that these women (on the whole) are dressing and acting the way they do not to entice anyone but to please themselves.  The games are 100% legitimate (yes, you can find some of the old-fashioned phony roller games in some areas, but it is not the Derby Girls), and almost in spite of themselves they are attracting paid audiences, with over 7000 attending recently in Seattle and crowds of 4000 or more are not unusual in Chicago, Toronto, Australia and elsewhere.  There are all kinds of different Derby now, flat track under the auspices of the WFTDA; OSDA, skated under the old rules; banked track and who knows what else.  There are now 13 banked track leagues, 31 men’s leagues usually under the auspices of a woman’s league and more.

As of this moment in time there are some 540 leagues worldwide, with up to 30,000 women competing in 16 countries, and I feel it will double within 2 years.  There are now inter-city and inter-state competitions and even inter-country, with championships each year.

It is not enough to say that theirs  is a sisterhood between the women, it seems to go deeper than that.  What is commonly expressed is that “I hate Derby, but I can’t live without it” or more commonly, “Derby saved my life” .  There are two new excellent books you can get that explains the authors’ personal experiences: “Down and Derby” by Alex Cohen and Jennifer Barbee, and “Going in Circles” by Pamela Ribon.

I don’t think Leo Seltzer would have ever thought that Roller Derby would have been as it is today, a real life event for its participants, many of whom have daughters participating in junior Derby or husbands or boyfriends as referees or other participants.

Don’t dismiss what is going on, as it is not going away this time.  And if you are unhappy or happy, overweight or not, or anything else, get off your butt and do it.   Even if you don’t make the team, it just might make your life better.

13 comments on “The Tao of Roller Derby

  1. You got it! I’d like to add one important thing that I think hits the nail on the head for a lot of the women out there. It’s what come to mind for me time after time. When I’m on the rink it is my “Happy Place”. I don’t think about my divorce, or worry about how I’m going to pay for my kids clothes, or summer camp. I don’t have to negotiate with ANYONE about ANYTHING. It is peaceful in the rink. It is for me, not anyone else.

  2. Exellent Blog Jerry!! And yes, I really do think that New Roller Derby will be in the Olympics within the next 10 years for sure. The growth of derby in just the last few years is insane, makes you wonder what a few more years will bring,huh?

  3. amazing!
    roller derby came to me in a time i was really in need of something to get me going, my “real” life was full of problems and i had nothing to care about. as soon as i saw roller derby i knew i had to bring it to my country, people had to know about that AMAZING sport.
    in Brazil people dont know what roller derby is but i didnt care, i got my skates, learned to skate, got a group of women together and yes we are working hard so the 1st brazilian league is actually playing!

    roller derby is loved worldwide

    i still have a lot of work to do so we can actually have our bouts and everything else, but i wont give up, because roller derby already stoled my soul and im forever in love with it!

  4. Jerry– Could you do a blog that includes links for us to buy tickets to a Roller Derby game? My wife, Lori, is totally excited about going to see a game… probably in Sacramento. Your blog has really got us interested in the new game.

    • the best thing to find out about any of the roller girls leagues and games is to go to derbyroster.com, which lists all the current leagues. look up Sacramento (or San Francisco) and click on and it will generally give you all the info on their next game. it really is fun for the whole family and the rules strictly forbid fighting or phoniness.

    • Another great article by a derby great! Thanks Jerry. Love you long time! Mr. Erokan, You can find Sac City rollers at http://www.saccityrollers.com We had our last game of the season Saturday but please come join us in Woodland for our 5th annual Redred multi-league extravaganza. All day, all derby. Dec. 11th. find us on facebook. All proceeds from vendors & raffle benefit the Sacramento food bank. Teams from across the state are joining us to take part in this year-end tradition. Skaters from all participating leagues have their names put into a hat, then twelve teams are formed at random. Participants are guaranteed to make some new friends and possibly skate with their Derby heroines… or their rivals! It’s a celebration of the end of another Derby season, and the start of the winter holidays. Hope to see you there!

  5. I don’t skate men’s derby (I’m old, lazy, and suffer from “Arthurbursitis”). But I am an athletic supporter.

    Men’s derby leagues tend to be independent of women’s leagues. Often because they prefer to be, sometimes because they need to be. Because the skaters in men’s derby tend to be coaches, referees and “widowers” from women’s league, it’s not terribly uncommon for the men’s league/team to share practice space and/or skate doubleheaders with the local women’s league (WFTDA or not). They tend to share staff/volunteers with the local women’s league as well.

    There’s a fast-growing association of men’s derby leagues/teams called MDC (Men’s Derby Coalition). They started off with a smallish East Coast base but this year have pretty rapidly added teams/leagues from around the country. They now have eleven member leagues from Massachusetts, to Florida, to Tacoma, to Dallas.

    There’s a documentary being produced about them, called “This Is How I Roll.” I’m looking forward to adding it to my collection.

    Their recent meeting in Chicago had WFTDA’s Executive Director Juliana “Bloody Mary” Gonzales as a guest, she reportedly expressed WFTDA’s support of MDC and the development men’s derby. They’ve got a press release about it on their web site.

    http://www.mensderbycoalition.com/

  6. As always Jerry you hit the nail on the head, We both watch this grow to what has now become a sport instead of a three ring circus as it started out in the beginning, with there story lines and many other stunts that became out of some others in the name of roller derby.
    Derby is the name of the sport like in ice hockey or baseball, football, its a name .No matter what you called you groups there skating the game called derby.
    In the past derby had many rules to its game to follower, bank track,coed teams, uniforms that were classy,in the period of time things sure did change some for the better and others forthe worst to ruin the name of skating games. Now so many years have gone by and the gals who started there leagues became the coaches and teaches for another generation to carry on,Ladies you have my full support and any time things need to be wuestion both jERRY 7 myself are open for discussion.I now live IN Georgia and how as soon as i get settled I WILL BE ABLE TO BE INVITED TO MEET MANY OF THIS NEW GENERATION OF GALS AS MOST FROM 6 YRS AGO WHEN I FIRST MEET THESE LADIES MOST HAVE RETIRED, I can be reached at MATZIODINE@AOL.COM,OR CHECK ME OUT ON FACEBOOK.
    LORETTA ‘LITTLE IODINE’ BEHRENS ALSO SKATED WITH NICK NAME

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