Mon­treal roller derby

Ex­plor­ing THE sport’s His­tory AND Culture

The McGill Daily - - Front Page - Writ­ten by Amy Cur­rie

“A lot of peo­ple don’t know what [roller derby] is, and a lot of peo­ple think it’s like re­ally badass and we are just beat­ing each other and rip­ping each other’s hair and stuff,” Ju­lia Ro­driguez, a fourth year Mcgill stu­dent and a for­mer mem­ber of Mon­treal and Den­ver’s roller derby leagues, told me over tea. Un­til re­cently, my only knowl­edge of derby came from the 2007 clas­sic Whip It!, which I had only re­ally seen be­cause of my clos­eted crush on Ellen Page.

It took three years in Mon­treal for me to fi­nally ex­plore the derby scene. My only re­gret is wait­ing so long to do so.

I had heard that, in Mon­treal at least, derby culture is im­bued with a fem­i­nist and queer vibe, and I had to see it for my­self. “It’s not re­flec­tive of ev­ery in­di­vid­ual or ev­ery league,” Ro­driguez said of the as­sump­tions of queer­ness of­ten at­tached to derby play­ers, “but it def­i­nitely rings true for this league.” In terms of struc­tures, rules, and com­mu­nity dy­nam­ics, she said, “derby is ba­si­cally like a soror­ity of ath­letic queer pos­i­tiv­ity, which is great!”

My first derby ex­pe­ri­ence wasn’t dis­ap­point­ing. The match was hosted by a drag queen, the play­ers were un­apolo­get­i­cally rough and de­ter­mined, the beer was cheap, and the spirit it­self was both com­pet­i­tive and light­hearted. “I’m not sure how it de­vel­oped in this way,” Ro­driguez said, “but the val­ues associated with derby are com­mu­nity, ac­cep­tance, and gen­eral pos­i­tiv­ity.”

“Most women’s sports are wa­tered- down ver­sions of the men’s sports, whereas derby is like kind of the op­po­site,” Paula Youwakim, a cur­rent mem­ber of the Mon­treal league, told me. Un­like other fe­male- dom­i­nated sports, such as fig­ure-skat­ing or vol­ley­ball, derby is a con­tact sport. “Women’s derby mat­ters so much more than men’s and it’s just as phys­i­cal, just as tough,” Youwakim added.

Roller derby, how­ever, wasn’t al­ways like this. Orig­i­nally part of an en­durance sports craze in the twen­ties, roller derby used to be a long- dis­tance race last­ing sev­eral days that fol­lowed imag­i­nary routes across the U.S.. Par­tic­i­pants skated laps that were equal in dis­tance to th­ese routes. Much like a re­lay race, skaters would switch in and out when ex­haus­tion hit them, and if a team could not com­plete this dis­tance, it was elim­i­nated.

Gov­erned world­wide by Women’s Flat Track Derby As­so­ci­a­tion (WFTDA), the roller derby we know to­day is a result of a re­vival in 2000 in Austin, Texas. Phys­i­cal con­tact is per­mit­ted, and the scor­ing sys­tem re­wards teams for over­tak­ing op­po­nents. Up to five play­ers from each team play in each two-minute round called a ‘jam.’ Each team se­lects a ‘jam­mer’ to score points by lap­ping mem­bers of the op­pos­ing team, and a ‘pivot’ to block the op­pos­ing team’s jam­mer. If the jam­mer in the lead wishes to end the jam be­fore the two min­utes are up, she taps her hips, and the game moves on.

Over­all, WFTDA and the associated leagues have worked to cre­ate an in­clu­sive and friendly culture and en­vi­ron­ment for all play­ers. “I once went to a train­ing camp close to Bos­ton and they told me, ‘do you wanna stay over with some­one here so you don’t have to pay for ho­tels?’ We are com­pet­i­tive on the rink, but as soon as the game ends peo­ple are like, okay let’s go out for drinks!” Youwakim re­counted. Ro­driguez added that, “you can even drop in on other leagues’ prac­tices, so the sys­tem is re­ally flex­i­ble. If you wanna skate some­where most places will let you.”

Women’s sports, by and large, suf­fer from a lack of spon­sor­ship and fund­ing. As a grow­ing sport that has re­mained largely mys­te­ri­ous in pop­u­lar culture, roller derby can be fi­nan­cially in­ac­ces­si­ble to cur­rent and prospec­tive play­ers. Al­though the games of­ten draw

“Derby is ba­si­cally like a soror­ity of ath­letic queer pos­i­tiv­ity, which is great!” —Ju­lia Ro­driguez For­mer mem­ber of Mon­treal Roller Derby

large crowds, the Mon­treal league is pri­mar­ily funded through par­tic­i­pants’ dues. In Mon­treal, play­ers es­sen­tially run the league: be it coach­ing, ref­er­ee­ing, or or­ga­niz­ing events, the league is the result of the play­ers’ vol­un­tary labour. For league mem­bers, the bare min­i­mum of at­tend­ing prac­tices can amount up to ten hours a week, and you can be placed on pro­ba­tion if you can’t make 75 per cent of prac­tices. The play­ers may be ded­i­cated, but “at the same time,” Youwakim said, “you can’t live off of derby.”

Other leagues have found dif­fer­ent strate­gies to fund them­selves. For ex­am­ple, as Youwakim ex­plained, the Rose City Rollers of Port­land, Ore­gon, re­quires new league mem­bers to bring three spon­sors in or­der to join the league.

Echo­ing Youwakim’s sen­ti­ment, Ro­driguez added that, “[derby] is an ex­pen­sive sport to play. Equip­ment is re­ally ex­pen­sive as an up­ward in­vest­ment [...] You have to do main­te­nance on [the skates] and buy dif­fer­ent wheels. I’ve gone through four dif­fer­ent kneepads un­til I found the right ones.”

The lack of fund­ing, Youwakim said, could ex­plain why the growth of the sport has been so strained. “A lot of leagues don’t have the peo­ple to train them or they don’t have ac­cess to the equip­ment and it’s re­ally ex­pen­sive,” she said.

Founded in 2006, the Mon­treal league com­prises of around 150 mem­bers. It is the first derby league in Canada and the first non-Amer­i­can league in the WFTDA. Sea­sons run Novem­ber to Au­gust for home teams, and to play­offs – of­ten in Septem­ber – for travel teams. “A lot of teams in Canada look up to Mon­treal, be­cause we’re also the big­gest league in Canada,” Youakim told me.

Last year, Mon­treal Roller Derby hosted the In­ter­na­tional Cham­pi­onships play­offs. Mon­treal’s “A” travel team, “The New Skids on the Block” (or just “The Skids”), be­came the first Cana­dian team to make it to the Cham­pi­onships, but lost 116-217 to An­gel City Derby Girls, and was elim­i­nated early-on. Re­gard­less of the de­feat, Ro­driguez was op­ti­mistic about Mon­treal’s suc­cess, “At least they made it,” she said. In de­fense of the Skids, she added, “Cana­dian derby just isn’t as well de­vel­oped as in the States. It just hasn’t been played here for as long.”

Another dis­tin­guish­ing fac­tor of roller derby is the play­ers’ unique nick­names. Two of the play­ers in The Skids, for ex­am­ple, are called Al K. Traz and Rus­sian Cru­elette. And let’s not for­get Ter­ror Me Suzie of Mon­treal Sex­pos, the league’s “B” team, and “Hip­squeak of Les Con­tra­ban­di­tas,” one of the league’s home teams.

“Some­times [nick­names are] given to you,” Youwakim, also known as Falafel la Gazelle of the Sex­pos, told me, “es­pe­cially in Mon­treal, be­cause you go through boot­camp for three months and you don’t have a name when you start, it’s ei­ther some­thing you choose or you get. Some­times af­ter that three month ex­pe­ri­ence we al­ready have a name for some­one and it’s like ‘okay, you can’t change now, this is what we’ve been call­ing you for three months [...] It’s just a fun thing.”

Racially, roller derby is of­ten a white-dom­i­nated space. As the only Arab per­son in the Mon­treal league, Youwakim said that the Mon­treal league’s lack of racial di­ver­sity can be an ef­fect of self-per­pet­u­at­ing so­cial net­works. “I don’t think the [Mon­treal] league has made the ef­fort of go­ing and reach­ing through other com­mu­ni­ties to try and bring in other peo­ple,” she added.

Still, derby can be di­verse in the types of peo­ple you meet. “You meet su­per young peo­ple from the ju­niors, you have like 45 year old moms [...] you have stu­dents, you have doc­tors, you have de­sign­ers. You have ev­ery­one,” said Youwakim. Over­all, Ro­driguez added, “If you can skate it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter who you are or what you are, you can do it.”

Both Youwakim and Ro­driguez told me that the com­mu­nity they have built through derby has been im­por­tant to them. Hav­ing gone to Catholic school, Ro­driguez said that, “It was re­ally cool as a teenager to be around peo­ple who were like, ‘no, you’re unique,’ and en­cour­age that. [Within derby] I was meet­ing peo­ple who were more like me in the sense that we were weird. Ev­ery­one was dif­fer­ent, and no mat­ter what you wanted to be you could be that. The com­mu­nity was bonded by the fact that we liked the sport.”

De­vel­op­ing sports, es­pe­cially derby, of­ten have to mod­ify the rules reg­u­larly, and with new rules each year come new strate­gies and new in­juries. Last year, Youwakim said, rib in­juries were wide­spread in the league. Ro­driguez added, “At first it was just fun, party, get kind of drunk, skate, and hang out. I think as the sport has be­come more se­ri­ous, the com­mu­nity is fo­cused on equip­ment be­ing ap­proved and con­cus­sion preven­tion. But I also I think this came a lit­tle late.”

For those wish­ing to par­tic­i­pate in roller derby, keep in mind that Mon­treal Roller Derby is es­pe­cially tricky to get into. Ro­driguez ex­plained that, “Peo­ple who are per­fectly ca­pa­ble skaters some­times don’t get in, which is a bum­mer.” This is par­tially be­cause, as Youwakim elab­o­rated, the league’s ex­pan­sion could make its man­age­ment very dif­fi­cult: “The big­ger the league, the more com­pli­cated and bu­reau­cratic it gets.”

The manda­tory rookie boot­camp takes place in Au­gust for three months. There are five tests: four on skills and one on the game’s rules. If you pass, you are of­fi­cially in the league, but not nec­es­sar­ily on a team, as draft­ing takes place later. Also, those plan­ning to leave Mon­treal can still join the Mon­treal league and ask for a trans­fer to another league later. As Youwakim told The Daily, how­ever, peo­ple can show up on Mon­days to the rink and of­ten have the chance to rent equip­ments. She said, “Usu­ally peo­ple start train­ing be­fore boot­camp, so come Mon­days, there’s al­ways peo­ple to help.” Men and chil­dren can also try roller derby through La Ligue Mon­tréalaise de Roller Derby Mas­culin or the Mon­tréal Ju­nior Roller Derby.

Age-wise, any­one who can skate and play is wel­come to try out. “Most peo­ple stop play­ing sports at a cer­tain age, like when they leave univer­sity and it’s not avail­able to them,” Ro­driguez told me. “I haven’t played in a while, but I al­ways feel like I can go back at any time.”

“A lot of peo­ple think [Roller Derby] is like re­ally badass and we are just beat­ing each other and rip­ping each other’s hair and stuff.” —Ju­lia Ro­driguez For­mer mem­ber of Mon­treal Roller Derby “We are com­pet­i­tive on the rink, but as soon as the game ends peo­ple are like, okay let’s go out for drinks.” —Paula Youwakim Mon­treal’s Sex­pos player [Two play­ers] are called Al K. Traz and Rus­sian Cru­elette. And let’s not for­get Ter­ror Me Suzie of Mon­treal Sex­pos [and] Hip­squeak of Les Con­tra­ban­di­tas.

Marina Djur­d­je­vic | The Mcgill Daily

Tay­lor Mitchell | The Mcgill Daily

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