Shouts ricochet off the walls and ceiling. Voices are echoed by the sound of dozens of roller skates rushing around a wooden track. A far cry from the old-school derby of the ’70s, roller derby has evolved and moved away from the violent theatrics and staged “hits” of decades prior, and has shifted its primary rules and regulations toward recognition as a legitimate sport.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is in the fact that people assume roller derby is just about violence,” says Rachel Paris. “The sport has evolved into an intricate and elaborate set of rules… it demands a lot of skill beyond the old ‘American Gladiators’ style of play,” she adds.
Paris, who is a second-season bench manager for the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad — Toronto Roller Derby’s (ToRD) rookie team — has been involved with ToRD for three years and maintains that the sport is much more than throwing punches and kicks.
Perhaps due to the aggressive nature of the sport, teams and players alike have faced the struggle of getting roller sports, like roller derby, recognized and sanctioned as an official sport.
Roller derby is a highly sophisticated contact sport. Two teams of 14 choose five of their players at a time to play. It is played on a flat track — not a banked track — with roller skates rather than roller blades. The intention is to have a member of your team lap the other team as many times as possible. The person doing the lapping — the “jammer” — accumulates points by lapping the opposing team. The team with the most points at the end of two 30-minute “jams” wins.
The sport involves far more than skating in circles. Jammers must face an onslaught of retaliation by members of the opposing team while trying to score. These other players, “blockers,” simultaneously play offence and defence, making roller derby one of few sports requiring this kind of multitasking from its players.
The pace of play is exhilarating and entertaining for spectators. However, it is the passion and commitment of the players that make the sport. According to Jan Dawson, a seventh-season blocker and line leader for the Death Track Dolls, the passion fuels the competitiveness, which makes the sport enjoyable for players and spectators alike.
“There are many levels of play to be watching as a skater, ref, or fan,” Dawson explains. “This may be perplexing the first few times someone sees the sport, but soon they become track-aware and it all makes sense and sucks them in,” she adds.
Dawson, who started her skating career after watching a roller derby game while completing her master’s degree, posits that the sport is often met with mixed reactions because of its relative obscurity and the preconceived ideas people may have about roller derby.
“People aren’t completely aware that it’s a full contact sport on a flat track,” Dawson explains. “There are always questions about the roller blades and… the banked track.”
Each team in ToRD has a unique name and distinct look.
On game day, some players and teams don “boutfits” — uniforms for the match or “bout.” However, for the most part, players tend to keep it simple, sporting their team’s uniform.
“Some players go the boutfit route and wear tutus or fun patterned tights and some prefer to just wear a simple pair of athletic shorts or pants. It’s all about your comfort level,” says Ally Zingone of the Smoke City Betties.
Each player is encouraged to come up with a “derby name” or “rink name.” These nicknames sometimes manifest as alter egos for skaters, and are typically witty representations of some aspect of a player’s real name or something identifiable with their personality.
Paris’s pseudonym is Ani Phylactic. “I have a vast number of allergies; food, pollen, insects, synthetic fibers — you name it,” she explains, “and it’s pretty much become one of my primary identifiers, so I wanted to pay homage to that.” Ani Phylactic is a pun derived from anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction.
Zingone created her derby name, Zomboney, out of a life-long joke about her last name.
“As a kid I used to get teased by other kids who would call me Zamboni,” she says. “I was going to use Zamboni as my derby name but my friend suggested Zomboney since I’m such a horror fanatic.”
Zingone also maintains that a skater name isn’t a prerequisite of the sport. Some skaters — in an attempt to legitimize the sport — have purposely forgone a derby name in favour of their legal name.
“Some players have… been using their real names on the track,” Zingone explains. “[This is] an effort to have the sport more widely recognized as a real sport and not something kitschy.”
Dawson, who uses her last name as an identifier while skating, maintains that the “switch” she flicks on while skating is not an alter ego, but more of a competitive one that she is still actively developing.
“I use my last name because that’s what people call me,” Dawson explains. “I don’t have an alter ego, but I have an athletic switch.”
Though the league is open to and encouraging of interested individuals, players make it clear that it’s a serious time commitment. Being on the cusp of mainstream, there currently aren’t any pick-up teams or leagues for the casual derby-er.
“I would encourage the majority of people to try derby unless they have a fear of falling down or if they are too busy to commit to a pretty rigorous schedule of practice and volunteering,” Paris says.
The sport’s demands are akin to that of a competitive hockey or soccer team. Players are expected to commit to weekly practices, games, and fundraising. These efforts aim to grow the ToRD organization and help further the legitimacy of roller derby as a sport.
“I long for the day when derby is big enough to have low-commitment pick-up leagues,” says Paris. “But until then, you’ve got to be willing to put in time to support the organization that you play in, no question,” she adds.
Roller derby provides a unique formative experience and a venue for self-expression for its players. The iconic line, “Put on a pair of skates and be your own hero,” from the derby film Whip It, encompasses this feeling.
“I’ve learned how to be tough and confident on the track,” explains Dawson. “[This] has [infused] lessons about being tough and confident in my professional life,” she adds.
This feeling is something both Zingone and Paris relate to. “I think there’s a kind of self-expression in teaching and encouraging people to hit each other,” explains Paris. “I wouldn’t normally get to promote [that] in my chosen professional field of social work,” she adds.
Zingone attests to the feeling of community that the sport offers and attributes this camaraderie to the ease of expression that roller derby allows. “I would not be the person I am today if it wasn’t for this sport,” asserts Zingone. “Not only because I have a safe way to get out aggression… but also because of the personal connections I’ve made along the way,” she explains.
This particular sport offers more than the usual benefits of being active and part of a social group. Despite its aggressive nature, roller derby gives players a safe place to express themselves. Inclusivity and safety are paramount to roller derby, and are aspects that ToRD teams are trying to promote.
“We’re still in a period where the sport is getting established and growing, so it still offers the players who get involved a lot of opportunity to help guide what directions we’re growing in,” explains Paris. “We’ve generally got a lot of traction on making this an extremely inclusive and accepting sporting community, and are trying to make derby as accessible to as many people as possible,” she adds.
“Many leagues [are] having discussions around gender policies that include trans women and non-binary folk, and how to accommodate skaters/officials with disabilities, like hearing impairment,” Paris concludes.
Zingone refers to the gathering of many individuals who share the same interests and values as an important aspect of the sport, as it provides a safe place for people with alternative tastes. “It’s comforting to know that there are other people out there who are living an alternative lifestyle, and they are happy doing it.”
“Roller derby has really given me an opportunity to see that everyone lives different lives, and one person’s happiness may not be the same as someone else’s… It’s hard to see that there are other options in life when you’re surrounded by what’s ‘normal,’” Zingone explains.
“Everyone in our community is… super open-minded, which makes it very easy to just be yourself and feel accepted, even if you have blue hair and are covered in tattoos,” Zingone says.