Thursday, October 04, 2007

This Ain't No Roller Disco

It's not every day you get tempted to a roller derby game with a free ticket, and I was hardly going to turn it down. My only expectations of the sport were rooted in bleary late night memories of a sci-fi dystopian called Powerball, where nutters wielding chainsaws whirred around a track after each other on skates and motor bikes.

After half an hour spent on transit I'm outside a high school on the outskirts of Montreal, watching promoters strain to organize a growing throng of fans panicked by rumours of sold out tickets for a Triple Threat Match play off that's set to decide the city's roller derby league final.

The contest tonight is between Les Filles Du Roi, a team of "roller skating misfits who love to knock other chicks to the floor and crack a smile when they bruise" and Los Contrabanditas, a bunch of "bootlegging betties" who escaped to Montreal after issues with US Customs to dish out some "black market brutality" or so an over blown biography claims. Inside the door, a stand sells cans of beer to fans for a couple of dollars, but most are whipping out their own from bags or starting to crack into slabs carried in with their mates.

Its only when you see a swelling audience of hipsters begin to chant along to tinny baile funk rhythms breaking across a high school auditorium PA system that you get even half way to grasping the buzz of the DIY grass roots roller derby rebirth sweeping cities across North America.

"I waited and waited for it to start here, and it didn't happen, so I started it myself. Derby has turned into a big sisterhood across the world. I was just in Vegas at Rollercon '07 and I met tons of amazing roller gals from all over the place," explains Georgia W Tush, a fan favourite in the Montreal League she helped found and now stars in.

The atmosphere is thick with pre-club land anticipatory ramblings crossed with a football match; and with so many sub cultural codes on display you'd be forgiven for thinking all the record stores had emptied out at the news roller girls were about to don short skirts and helmets.

Down a set of bare concrete steps closer to the hockey rink, two off track derby girls power a table, one gathers disclaimers from fans waiving any rights to personal injury claims, as the other tags passes on to eager wrists as people scramble for "suicide seats."

These are located right at the corner of the track behind a yellow line, an area where throughout the game the gallant spill of the chase is most likely to career violently out of control right in front of you. As Georgia describes, the injuries can be excessive.

"I've only been involved since April 2006 and I have seen broken ankles, noses, collar bones, the most disgusting bruises ever, and some mad fishnet burns. It's not if you're going to get hurt - but when."

The standard jam lasts 20 minutes and consists of five girls from each team—three blockers, a pivot and a jammer. At the first whistle, the skate starts, four from each team form a pack, while another player takes on the role of the pivot setting the pace and directing the team.

Suddenly there's another whistle and two girls begin to hurtle through the pack, they score points by lapping the track and forcing their way through over and over again. Of course, the opposite team tries desperately to take them down while their team mates guard them.

Left sort of dumbed by the circling effect of the skaters and the difficulty of following the rules I was happily distracted by the carnivalesque moments that dotted the game. They early started with a fake brawl between two of the team managers.

At half time two semi nude luche libre wrestlers emerged from the crowd, to chase each other around the ring, before being humiliatingly chased off by a demonically skating queer in a dress with wings stitched on. Eventually she gave up and grabbed a mike to provide a foul and sharp mouthed bi-lingual commentary on the game.

On the track the players are clad in short red skirts, some are ass busting dyke like, others play bookish, often with sex kitten lingerie tricks and fishnets to accompany their retro-style roller skates; some have cut their uniforms to a provocative approximation of suicide girls on skates.

This is the image obsessed over in the media and on the web, to the detriment of other aspects of the sport much to the frustration of skaters like Mia Culprit, a representative for the Toronto league of six teams and 75 players.

"Although there are the guys that go on and on about us being cute girls in skirts who fight, most people love it because we're for the skater, by the skater. We're passionate about it and it shows. People want to be involved and be a part of something like that"

Most of the players' names send mixed messages, trapped between punk zine politics and glamour rag personality. Georgia W Tush has her name spray painted across her arse stencil style like a Holy Bible era Manic Street Preacher on roller skates. She also carries her own crowd of piss taking friends from game to game. Tonight they stood at the side wielding placards inviting her to invade their bedrooms in a blend of sexual and political double entendre.

(Photo courtesy of Bubba Brown)

Laden with alter egos and theatrical characters, the sport allows its mainly twenty something participants, who like most of us, are stuck chasing ambitions in between McJobs, school, internships and the cacophonous ho-hum of the ordinary an escape.

The Montreal league's derby logo gives visual bent to this empowerment, being an image of a skating fifties waitress about to fling a skull in a patron's face.

"I think the alter-egos give derby an extra excitement during a bout. Some women live a generally normal life throughout the day, and by night there are the bad-ass of the track.," says Tush.

Then with a quickly developing fan culture outside the original mix bag base of new wave psycho-billies, punks and the queer scene, some new elements mightn't get the staged aspect of the theatrical sass, so there is the security of anonymity as Mia Culprit hints.

"I don't have to worry about any fans finding out more about me than I care to tell them. It also allows me to be someone else when I'm out on the track and live through Mia Culprit. She's a little terror!"

The sport has a growing surrounding culture that strikes like an ambiguous dance between a respectful but ironic reclamation of white trash culture and a third wave feminism busy re-assessing aspects of feminine sexuality and fifties kitsch.

Within this critical space some derby participants and fans are remarkably conscious of the potted social history of their sport, both haunted and inspired by the forgotten starlets and stories of a predominantly female sport as Mia tells me.

"This sport used to consist of a man with money dressing the girls and telling them what to do. The players knew what was coming and those women who did skate, didn't have any control over the game."

If you can remember an old Waltons episode where Jim Boy came up with some scam to win enough money to buy a type writer by dancing all night in a marathon competition, then you have some hint of roller derby's origins in working class depression era desperation.

A canny business man, Leo Setlzer, realised such dance marathons were interfering with his cinema takings, so he moved into simulated cross country roller skate races with two teams circling a track repeatedly for paying fans.

Of course the charm in this dizzying medley of repetition wore off quick for the spectator. Setlzer realised the most interesting aspect of his idea lay in dramatic collisions and falls, so with the help of a sports writer he developed a set of rules to maximise the carnage.

The fifties saw the North American public go on a derby binge, with a movie about the sport staring Mickey Rooney called The Fireball propelling its growth further. Troupes of women toured the states in exhibition roller derby games that pulled in massive crowds every night

"These were like touring punk bands lugging their own gear around the country" enthused Rebel Rockit to me, as I scabbed fags off her drunk outside a Toronto after game party.

At its height the sport featured on TV several times a week across 120 syndicated channels, with the indoor crowd record set at 19,507 at Madison Square Garden in 1970.

Just three years later the Seltzer killed off his league, due to the expense of moving teams around thanks to the oil crisis. Competing leagues continued, split along business lines much the same as the factionalism in pro-Wrestling.

Powerless players were trapped in the middle and the classic era of derby was over. Then the ad men pulled their money out.

Sociologist Paul Fussell sees it as a simple equation, "they discovered that the people watching it were so low-prole or even destitute that they constituted an entirely wasted audience for the commercials: they couldn't buy anything at all, not even detergents, antacids, and beer."

The leap of difference between that incarnation of derby and today's grassroots revivalist leagues couldn't be more pronounced as Tush explained to me.

"MTLRD is a non-profit organisation run by elected board members. We keep checks and balances by voting on major issues at general meetings. Anytime an outsider gives us fancy pants propositions, we often stand our guard and keep caution. Others realize there's a lot of money that can be made out of this, so it's always important to keep control close to home."

With a documentary called Hell On Wheels about the 2001 Austin league that sparked the current rebirth, piquing attention at South by Southwest back in March and Melissa Joulwan's anthology of Rollergirl: Totally True Tales from The Track sneaking around as cult bathroom reading, Georgina is optimistic about skater run derby.

"I'm sure there will be a league in most cities in Canada and US, and many more popping up all around the world."

Back inside Les Fils du Roi have taken the Triple Threat cup and track invading fans have built massive beer can pyramids for celebrating skaters to smash through.

Outside, as people wait for the teams to get their asses in gear to hit the after party, a cop car and a fire brigade have arrived in a hysterical over-reaction to the sight of some supporters with swirling fire poi and en masse street boozing.

The crowd of around 200 jeer them good naturedly, and some of the derby girls offer the uniforms swigs of lagar as they start to back off. I'm left to think what more evidence is needed for the momentum behind derby, than a football style roving, belligerent mob of drunk and happy fans heading into the Montreal night?

Shouts to Coach McWhopper, Mia Culprit, Georgia Tush and any one else from the Toronto and Montreal Leagues and thanks to Totally Dublin for carrying it.

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