Saturday, June 02, 2007

Skating gets rough in roller derby revival

02/06/2007 10:49:29 AM

Leading her opponent on a lap of the oval track, a nimble skater decked out in a short skirt and blood-stained apron approaches a pack of skaters trying to impede her from passing through the group.

Saira Peesker
Smoke City Betties skater Demolition Dawn surveys the track in advance of Toronto Roller Derby's May 26 event. (Jessie Adams)
Smoke City Betties skater Demolition Dawn surveys the track in advance of Toronto Roller Derby's May 26 event. (Jessie Adams)

After struggling to get around a girl with an uncanny ability to put herself in the way, the skater's lead is terminated when she's knocked to ground with a hip check from her blind side.

Members of the 500-strong crowd leap to their feet, yelling encouragement to the fallen skater or congratulations to her aggressor.

This is roller derby -- the high impact and unabashedly bizarre sport experiencing a revival among athletes who feel more comfortable in fishnets than track pants; who'd rather put on a show than play to a set of empty bleachers.

The game places two teams of five girls on a flat oval track. One skater from each team -- the "jammer" -- has the mandate of passing as many of the opposing team's players as many times as possible.

The jammer fights her way through a gang of blockers ready to stop her or knock her down, then skates around the track as fast as she can to do it again.

She earns one point for each opposing skater she passes on each lap. Each round, or "jam," lasts two minutes or until the first jammer to break through the pack decides to call it quits. A full game ("bout") runs for three 20-minute periods.

Despite the obvious risk of injury and physical endurance required to play, derby is quickly becoming a subculture phenomenon in cities across Canada.

Following the success of Austin, Texas' Lonestar Rollergirls -- and "Rollergirls," the reality TV show that followed their exploits -- leagues or teams have popped up in cities including Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Hamilton, London, Halifax, Edmonton and Calgary.

"It's such a refresher from conventional sports," said Gordie Wornoff, 26, who attended Toronto Roller Derby's inaugural event dressed head-to-toe in a rat costume on May 26.

"I find most sports so typical, with sort of a tough-guy energy... There, I felt at home in my freakiness."

Costumes and pageantry: part of the game

Wornoff was part of a large group of friends who showed up at the event dressed in costumes. He defined his outfit as "bilge rat," saying he came from the depths of a sailing ship to cheer on his team.

While there were few other costumed fans among the crowd of about 500 assembled at the west-end arena, pageantry does hold a prominent spot in the game.

Competitors wear elaborate costumes and create "derby names" and personas to match.

It's a sport that boasts a punk-rock aesthetic -- players choose pseudonyms like Chili Con Carnage, Splat Benatar, Tara Part and Chastity Pelt. They're not exactly the type of gals one takes home to mom.

The Toronto league, the largest in Canada, is made up of six teams: The Death Track Dolls (who wear aprons splattered with blood), The Gore-Gore Rollergirls (wearing various shades of leopard-print); The Smoke City Betties (vigilante super-girls); The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (also known as the D-Vas); The Bay Street Bruisers (white-collar gals letting loose); and Chicks Ahoy (sailors gone wild).

While some leagues emphasize wrestling-like entertainment over athleticism, Chicks Ahoy captain Lindsay "Cookie Toss" Casey says she likes that the Toronto league has its priorities straight, focusing on the game.

"I like showboating as much as everybody else, but I don't want to see the actual sport get completely removed," said Casey, a public relations student. "I don't want it to all be about fishnets and what colour underwear everyone is wearing. I think there's a line, and I don't think our league is crossing that line."

League president Jennifer "Killah Cupcake" Capes, a member of the Bay Street Bruisers, sees the ideal balance as enough flashiness to bring in the crowds, but enough quality skating to keep them coming back.

"Certainly with six teams in our league there is more than enough room to develop rivalries and personalities for teams that we will want the public to get involved in," said Capes, a Grade 6 teacher.

"Financial success is really secondary to having a league that produces the kind of events that people are really excited to see."

Not so 'down and dirty'

It's the physical contact that not only thrills fans but also plays a main role in defensive strategy. While shoulder and hip checks are allowed and minor injuries are common; however, it's a far cry from the all-out roller battles that took place in the days of Skinny Minnie Miller, prominent derby queen of the 1970s and 1980s.

"I probably expected it to have more physical contact and was anticipating at least several injuries," noted Barry Leigh, a 57-year-old aerospace engineer who attended the Toronto event with his son. "Clearly, this version is a lot less violent."

Kathy Last, 48, can certainly vouch for that. The Guelph-based administrative assistant was a player in the sport's 1970s heyday. When she wasn't playing, she was following the Montreal-based Canadian All-Stars to their games, trying to learn whatever she could from the women she considered her "idols."

"You might have been prim and proper off the track, but there was a lot more physicality back then," she told "We used to go behind (the opposing players) and knock them down. We'd do full-leg blocks across their midsections. It was down and dirty."

In fact, some of the most famous pictures of San Diego's darling Miller show her punching other skaters in the face as she passed them on the track.

That said, there was certainly enough aggression to keep many fans cheering at Toronto's Friends and Family Day on May 26, particularly those who were new to the game.

"I'd only seen it on TV and it was way more exciting than I expected," said Andrew McCracken, 24. "To see a bunch of sexy females pumped and pushing each other around... it was worth the trip."

Saira Peesker has covered news and Canadian Idol for and is a member of Toronto's "Chicks Ahoy" roller derby team.

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