Roller Girls Revive A Moribund Sport

By Ross Everett

Roller Derby has been around for years and was a staple of the early days of television. It was similar to its better known counterpart, pro wrestling and was seen on many of the same low powered UHF stations in the same bad timeslots. It had a similar borderline sleazy group of promoters and businessman that was common in the regional territory era of pro wrestling. Roller derby didn’t have the success or popularity that pro wrestling did. There was a serious athletic component to be sure, but the dim witted storylines made pro wrestling look like Shakespeare. The sport does have its own history–most know that the LA T-Birds were the perennial champions of’70’s, and Ann Calvello and Ralphie Valladares had been in the sport forever and were considered legends–but it never really stuck in the public consciousness like the pre-Hulk Hogan era of pro wrestling.

New era roller derby reached a national audience through the A&E reality series Roller Girls. It featured a local, all-girl roller derby league in Austin, Texas and followed the lives of the players on and off the track. While the show was oddly engaging, it was the first clue that many had that such a league existed in the first place. A sport that was never taken seriously to begin with and that was really living on borrowed time since the’60’s before fading into the lowest level of obscurity had been rediscovered and embraced by an eclectic group of young women. They had kept the same essential format, thrown in a healthy dose of burlesque camp and Varga pin-up inspired glamour and made it into their own vibrant subculture. They changed some of the nomenclature and competitive format–in lieu of regularly scheduled games they renamed the competitions “bouts” a la MMA or boxing. The result was a compelling mixture of glamour, toughness and athleticism driven by a healthy dose of punk rock “do it yourself” mentality.

Today, roller derby is a full blown worldwide phenomenon. There are hundreds of local roller derby leagues not only in the United States, but Canada, Australia and Europe. Most of the local groups similarly play up the campy retro pin-up/hot rod iconography and everyone involved sure looks like they’re having a good time. Between teams there’s a vibe of good natured competitiveness and camaraderie.

This organic rebirth and growth of roller derby is a result of young women taking what essentially was TV time filler and made it into their own distaff ‘action sport’. The community that has sprung up around it bears a striking resemblance to the skateboarding or snowboarding subculture. Granted, there are plenty of talented female skateboarders and snowboarders but they’re typically male dominated disciplines. The roller derby circa 2009 is just the opposite–a living, breathing matriarchal success story. No one is in it for the money, as these local groups are typically run as non-profit organization. The women involved have recreated this sport, and run it, promote it and compete in it on their own terms.

The new generation rollergirls also pay homage to their sports’ pioneers. Many of the individual group websites have sections devoted to the history of roller derby, and the late Ann Calvello–regarded as the Queen of the original Roller Derby–is revered as something of a patron saint. The Texas Rollergirl group featured in the A&E series has renamed their championship the Calvello Cup.

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