This is modern #roller derby: ‘It’s gone away from the fishnets and the fights’
The gimmicks, elbows and unabashed fighting are gone, and its participants hail from an array of professional backgrounds. This is roller derby, 21st century style
It’s an austere scene inside #Thunderbird Roller Rink. Gaudy hues of luminous green and blue stripe the interior walls in two thick banks. Tarpaulin sags from the roof over a rain-induced hole, the intermittent streamers shimmering overhead seemingly an antidote to the unsightly spectre. The dank yet cosy ambiance as the girls of #Assassination City take to the floor of this 40-year-old Plano institution seems to belong to the 1980s.
Successive owners have struggled to keep the suburban arena a short drive north of #Dallas open for some years. The 1970s, disco-infused heyday of roller-skating faded with the economic and cultural winds of change in the 80s. But the humble roller skate is experiencing something of a resurgence. Nostalgia plays a part. Counter-culture, too, perhaps. But the renewal owes much to its chastened old bedfellow, the muscular emblem of the roller rink that in many minds is cloaked in female fury, smeared with their blood and dotted with their bruises. The kitschy world of roller derby.
But this is neither your mother’s nor your grandmother’s version of the sport. #Assassination City Roller Derby, a league of four home teams, is part of a grassroots movement that emerged out of Texas capital Austin in the early part of the 2000s. But not on the traditional banked track of derby, the kind that invaded TV screens in the 70s and 80s. This new iteration involves the new world of a flat surface. Rooted in bootstrap feminism and sporting integrity, here gimmicks, elbows and unabashed fighting no longer apply.
Or as Amanda Warner puts it, flat track still exhibits some of the sartorial flourishes of past renditions. Hot pants abound. The occasional set of fishnet stockings make an appearance. But this go round, sport and competition reign. “We have rules, we have regulations,” says the 29-year-old marketing professional from Plano. “We serve penalty time in the penalty box. You can only hit each other with certain parts of your body, so there’s no throwing elbows or punches or anything. So I feel like it’s safer in the sense that it’s not all, ‘I’m going to punch you and pull your hair’ or anything like that. But there is always the risk for injury. You know, we’ve had broken ankles, concussions. It’s kind of common but it’s a lot safer than it used to be. I don’t think we play to try to intentionally get injured, but it’s the risk that we take.”
The re-boot spawned the new Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (#WFTDA), a governing body that claims hundreds of local leagues worldwide. Still today, derby is often viewed through a WWE-like prism. The basics remain. Two 30-minute halves. Teams of five, one jammer and four blockers. Points are scored for each opposing team member passed by a jammer. But old truisms that it is staged, the results pre-determined, stalk participants. Yet the worst of the faux, lowbrow visage that characterized this piece of Americana in the 20th century are fading. Roller derby’s Dark Age witnessed violence on a brutish scale. Not now. More than a decade into a Renaissance, there are competing governing bodies laying various claims to primacy.
Which is where things get a little complicated. There are different nuances to the rules depending on the governing body along with diverging rites of passage. USA Roller Sports, or USARS, the national governing body of all roller sports in the United States, is the chief foe of WFTDA. Recognized by the Fédération Internationale de Roller Sports(FIRS) and the United States Olympic Committee, USARS seeks to unify the various forms of derby – juniors, men’s, women’s as well as groups who continue to play on the traditional banked track – under a unified umbrella. Attempts for Olympic inclusion have been mooted. But faint hopes derby could make an appearance alongside other roller sports at Rome 2024 seem to have abated.
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