Saturday, February 24, 2007
Roller derby mania hits Montreal
READY TO ROLL: Les Contrabanditas
by ANDREA ZANIN
“It’s kind of a retro sport that’s back, and a lot of people don’t know exactly what it is until they see it. The new era of roller derby is a mix of burlesque and competitive sport and rock ’n’ roll—that’s what’s cool about it. It’s a sport, but it’s slightly off, something’s different with it.” So says 22-year-old Alyssa Kwasny, president of the Montreal Roller Derby league and captain of les Contrabanditas, Montreal’s first-ever roller derby team.
Harlots in helmets
Les Contrabanditas begin to trickle into Laval’s Récréathèque for their Sunday night practice. They’re easy to spot among the usual crowd of parents, kids and teenage boys. Tattoos, studded belts, dyed hair, septum piercings, leopard-print pants… yup, there’s definitely a theme here. And that’s before they hit the changing rooms.
When they come out, they’re clad in short red skirts, black lace crinolines and fishnets. They each sport a pair of retro-style roller skates, or “quads.” Some have bright red lips; some cut out the necklines of their T-shirts to expose some cleavage. They’re not exactly the kind of uniforms you’d find on your average athletes. But les Contrabanditas will be the first to tell you they’re anything but average athletes.
Twenty-nine-year-old Kim Martin, aka Special K (#8 1/2), explains, “It’s really easy to skate in skirts, and it goes with roller derby—kinda girly, a rough sport but with a feminine aspect to it. But we’re totally protected with gear, wrist guards, elbow pads, knee pads, helmets, mouthguards.” Before long, they’re on the rink, flashing an alarming amount of thigh as they lap the track to warm up.
Their coach, none other than Montreal club promoter legend Dom Castelli, has the skaters stretch before they start their endurance work. “You should be feeling some sorta pain!” he bellows. He wears black cutoffs and a red necktie along with his skates and helmet. The ladies have dubbed him Long Dom Silver (a name coined by Martin, who hastens to assure, “Though I don’t know that personally about his privates”).
As the team works out, Castelli recounts how he landed himself the coaching job a few weeks ago by mouthing off at the team. “You guys are way too slow! This is not a coffee break!” Heckling aside, he speaks about them with visible pride. “There are a lot of very talented ladies on this team. It’s an aggressive team for an aggressive sport.”
Martin, who is also a Montreal Roller Derby board member, cheerfully explains the appeal. “It’s such a great sport for women to play, it’s an aggressive outlet. You get to go in and bodycheck people!”
The standard jam is played by five girls from each team—three blockers, a pivot and a jammer. “Eight of those girls are in what you call a pack, four from each team,” says Martin. “The ref blows the whistle and the pack starts skating.” The pivot sets the pace and directs the team in its efforts.
The jammers stay behind the pack, and take off when the ref blows a second whistle. They race to push through the pack first, and then score points by lapping the track and attempting to pass through the pack over and over. Of course, the opposite team tries to take them down while their own helps them through—leaving plenty of opportunity for roller derby’s trademark pushing, shoving and other antics.
“It’s a tough sport,” says Kwasny, aka Georgia W. Tush (#40 oz.). “A lot of our skaters are injured, like me. Bruises have become a sort of trophy to show off at practices.”
Martin agrees. “It’s like we’ve earned them. I don’t know, maybe it’s some sadomasochistic thing running through us!”
The referee skates by, sporting goth-black hair and a lip ring. “Even the referees get injured in this sport,” she deadpans.
From Depression-era derby to retro revival
Roller derby was born in the 1930s, the brainchild of film publicist Leo Seltzer, who was seeking ways to boost his Depression-era earnings. After a strange progression from dance marathon to walk-a-thon to rollerskating race, the first incarnation of roller derby was a simulated cross-country race with two-person teams lapping a track thousands of times. But audiences were most enthusiastic when teams crashed into each other or got into tussles in an effort to get ahead. As a result, eventually roller derby evolved into its current form, with kooky stage names and creative uniforms to complete the picture.
Until the early 1970s, roller derby sustained enormous popularity as a form of sports entertainment. At its peak, the sport drew crowds in the tens of thousands. But by the ’80s it had fallen into obscurity, and it stayed there for two decades despite several attempts to revive it.
Not long after the turn of the millennium, a new grassroots roller revival began to take shape in the States, largely led by DIY-style women’s teams. By now, more than 130 leagues have sprung up in urban centres all over North America, many of which are members of the new Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), which sets the rules for the sport.
Getting in on the action
Kwasny pinpoints the beginning of the wave north of the border: “January 2006. That’s when stuff really started happening in Canada.” Fledgling teams and leagues began to form all over the country—in Victoria, Toronto, Edmonton, London, Vancouver, Hamilton—and now, Montreal.
“I heard about roller derby happening in the States, and it just sounded really sweet, but I didn’t even really know what it was,” she says. “I knew there was body contact and roller skates, so I kind of imagined from there. I waited for it to happen in Montreal, but nobody was doing anything, so I decided to avoid my schoolwork and do it myself.”
Kwasny, a political science student at Concordia, did some research and put out feelers for interest. She launched the Montreal Roller Derby league in April of 2006, and became captain of its first team, les Contrabanditas. Thanks to the sudden surge of interest, “the Canadian teams are all on the same level and we’ve really helped each other out, we’re all figuring this out together.”
Thirteen women showed up at that first meeting, of whom more than half are still involved. Interest has been steadily growing, and new players continue to swell the ranks. A second Montreal team has recently formed—les Filles du Roi, whose Web site cheerfully describes them as “sluts and criminals.” Recruitment efforts are in full swing for a third team, as well as for referees and sponsors.
Martin outlines the requirements for joining: “You have to be at least 18, but the oldest person on our team is 38 and she has three kids. All sorts of women play this. It doesn’t matter if you’re big or small, there’s a position for everyone.”
Kwasny grins, “But of course when we practise we whip you into shape.”
It ain’t easy being sleazy
The league is faced with the ongoing challenge of finding appropriate venues for their practices and games. For instance, on February 24, Toronto’s Gore-Gore Rollergirls will be playing an exhibition bout against les Contrabanditas—but unfortunately, due to a too-small venue, fans will have to wait; this one’s just for friends and family.
“There are no roller rinks on the island; there’s one in Laval and one in Longueuil,” says Martin. “So we’re going to build our season around when we have a place to skate in.”
“The moment the ice comes off the hockey rinks in April, we’re gonna be playing les Contrabanditas vs. les Filles du Roi,” Kwasny promises.
“I wouldn’t have thought, ever in my life, I’d be playing roller derby,” says Martin. “I just think it’s awesome. More and more girls are interested in playing. I just don’t see how this could stop.”
For more info, check out www.mtlrollerderby.com or
Interested players can send an e-mail to