Monday, May 25, 2009

Roller Derby Madness

I've never been to a roller derby before, but this is one of those kooky hipster things that I knew would be too too wacky to pass up. So, let me begin by saying this -- I greatly overestimated the camp and underestimated the athleticism. In fact, writing about the derby in this little blog is probably a complete mistake. All the same, I'm going to stick it under the big banner of culture since it is a subgroup of the city's culture that merits some attention.

The roller derby might look (or project the image of being) all fun and silly, but in fact, its pretty hardcore. The girls out there kick each other in the metaphorical balls. In front of my nose (and the noses of my two manly companions), a girl went down and twitched on the floor after a power hit. Like a real champ straight from the Bell Centre, she was back on her feet and managed to skate off at the end of the night at warp speed. Roller derby is a sport in the same way rugby is a sport. This is a tough, physical sport.

So what is a roller derby if it isn't girls in tight dresses who pull each others' hair, you might wonder. Basically, it works like this. A pack of girls (I think 5 or 6 from each team) skate around an oval shaped track. They wear crazy outfits (more on this shortly) and the kind of skates that one used to wear back when skating rinks were all the rage (our local hotspot was called Hot Skates -- my brother and I renamed it Ghetto Skates after a recent because the clientele are now the sort of peeps who budget their welfare checks for a big night out at the White Castle. YEOW! Okay, that sounded funnier to write than it should have. Hot Skates is ghetto, though, and ghetto has nothing to do with race or color, but rather with an aesthetic and an attitude). Okay, so these girls skate around in a pack and push each other around, trying to create a difficult moving obstacle course of limbs and bodies. Meanwhile, two Jammers, one from each team, take their positions behind the pack, and at the whistle must elbow their way through the pack and get in front of it. The Jammer who gets in front of the pack first is the Lead Jammer and earns points for her team. Obviously, the pack makes it difficult for the Jammers and there is a certain amount of strategy and skill, as well as some smooth moves, that the teams employ. Sadly for Montreal, Toronto had more skillz n' moves. The whole process requires a certain amount of brains, strength, pluck, and lunacy to do. It was not at all what I thought it would be.

The part of the night that falls under the cultural banner is the "ethos." What do I mean by that? Well everyone from the audience to the announcers, look as though they raided the Blue Light Burlesque's wardrobe closet. I think I saw five or six Betty Paige lookalikes in the crowd, and at least 10 women and men who got into their pinup girl getup for the evening's shenanigans. Meanwhile, down on the track, the refs wear kilts, crow wings, multicolored leg warmers. Scores are taken by a few good trans folk (or shemales?) who came wearing full length gowns (I exaggerate, there was only one lady in a gown and my friend had met her the night before... and told me that she was a trans person). The skaters come out dressed not like the bobsled team for Team Canada, but instead bedeck themselves in team outfits that are tight, revealing, and highly personlized with crazy names, imaginary and invented numbers, and sparkly undergarments meant to entice.

According to my two companions, the audience comes to look at the T&A, I think, and what it perceives to be cat fighting. However, I did not see cat fights. I saw hardcore tough women skate their butts off and play hard. And personally, I couldn't quite understand how people could play such an intense sport and not present themselves with such frivilous frippery. But I guess that is the appeal. One need not look like an Olympian to be one. Athletes come in all shapes and sizes, and challenging preconceived notions of what athleticism and that culture entails is absolutely valid.

Yes, this sounds a little big academic for DMM (om!), but roller derby could easily become a legit study for social norms and things of that nature. The very weirdness of the juxtaposition of exterior wrapping vs. interior athleticism would have the average academic (also a rather strangely dressed subculture) drooling their way straight into the gender studies section of the library.

Anyway, I rank this as the second weirdest thing I have ever done in this city, with naked breakfast at La Princessa taking top honors.

1 comment:

Lunchbox said...

Thank you for your well written observation. You have represented roller derby like a skater would if she were as talented a writer. Montreal has an amazing fan base and even though they were not cheering for us I enjoyed the game just the same ... but I guess it is easier to enjoy when you are the ones winning!
Hope you will spread the word of derby,
Lunchbox #7-11
Toronto Roller Derby