By day she may be your check-out girl at Safeway, an honour student in the faculty of business or a physiotherapist at your neighbourhood clinic. In the evenings she laces up her roller skates, dons a superhero getup, goes by a badass name, and takes her place in a rowdy roller derby pack.
By Pat Fream
Photo by Neville Palmer
Walk into any arena on a scheduled roller derby night and you feel like you’ve peeled back a curtain and crossed over to another planet. Esoteric-ville: where racy rambunctious women on roller skates are the main attraction. Outside this place these women may have little in common, but in here, once they’ve slipped into their alter-egos, a distinct set of qualities unite them.
Feisty spirit and gutsy attitude are a given. Tattoos and fishnet stocking are optional. “Roller Derby is back, and it’s spreading like wildfire,” says Sherri Higgins, an Okotoks Herbal Magic consultant. Higgins, AKA Crissy Cruizzer, has just wrapped up her fourth season of roller derby, playing the position of jammer (point scorer) for Calgary’s top team, the Thrash’n Lassies. She is also on an all-star team of Calgary’s best rollergirls called the Hellion Rebellion. It’s tough to sum up the untamed pulse that is the hum of this culture, but Higgins names what it is for her. “I’m attracted to the athleticism, the competition and the showboating, but most of all, I like the sisterhood.”
From the stands one gets the sense the real appeal has something to do with power. These women are at the mercy of no one. This is their sport – their world – they own it. “I’ve always played sports, but I was always one who would pass the ball to someone else to be great,” says Higgins. “In roller derby I’ve come to see that I can be great – I can be a superhero.” Higgins amasses points for her team by “finding the light” which basically means zipping through openings along the track – made available by her blocking and bulldozing teammates. “There’s a lot more skill and strategy than you can tell when you’re watching from the sidelines,” says Higgins.
“You have to be fit, fast and have good stamina.”
In the stands you get the beer drinking boisterous fans on one side, and families who are slightly more subdued, but equally enthralled, on the other. Everyone present is obviously having a good time. “It’s a great place to go to people watch,” says Higgins, eyes twinkling. Still many people have no idea that roller derby is in the throes of a great revival in cities and towns across the country.
The entertainment sport, at its peak during the 1960s, fell off the grid for a few decades but is now back on track and rapidly gaining momentum, thanks to zealous women, and fuelled by media attention, such as the 2009 movie, Whip it. Today there are at least eight active roller derby leagues in Alberta, and though the foothills doesn’t have its own league – plenty of its own have jumped on board in Calgary. Michelle Roddy, a customs and exports manager in High River skated into the world of roller derby after overhearing coworkers discuss a weekend event involving beer, roller skates and cupcakes. “I had to know what it was all about, so I went to watch. After my first game I was hooked!” said Roddy, adding,
“I absolutely love the energy, atmosphere and environment. The ladies that play are a phenomenal group.” Roddy’s current schedule doesn’t allow her the time commitment required to be a team member, so instead she’s a roller derby referee and can be spotted at games calling penalties and ensuring the bouts run smoothly. “It gets rough at times! During the first bout I reffed, one of the rookie girls snapped her ankle and later had to have surgery,” said Roddy, adding that for the most part the regulated gear that includes helmets, wrist guards, knee pads, elbow pads and mouth guards, keep severe injuries at a minimum. “More often than not, it’s a whole lot of bumps and victory bruises!”
In Alberta, roller derby is played on a flat-track, usually in an arena during the months when hockey is not in season. To join, you have to be able to skate a certain number of laps; be confident on your skates, and sport some serious sass. “If you pass certain benchmarks you make it into the ‘fresh meat’ pool,” Higgins explains. “You skate with fresh meat for three months and then you either get drafted onto a team or pulled up if a team needs an extra.” Roller derby is not for everyone, but some know instantly – they are meant to answer the call. Wanted: Fresh Meat. Guts and grit an asset. Sissies need not apply.
The Rules of the Game
Bouts are played in two – 30 minute halves, divided into jams that can last up to two minutes each. Each team sends out five skaters: a pivot, three blockers and a jammer for each session. The pivot and the blockers must skate together in a pack. The jammer skater is the point scorer – she skates through the pack and gains points for the team by passing opposing players. Pack skaters strive to assister their jammer in getting through, and to stop the opposing jammers. They do this using hip checks, shoulder checks and positional body blocking. Actions that land a skater in the penalty box include throwing elbows, tripping, and hits to the back or above the shoulders
The Calgary Roller Derby Association (CRDA) was founded in 2006 by a small group of women with nothing more than vintage roller skates, a photocopy of the rules and a whole lot of tenacity. The group swept broken glass off a parking lot, drew themselves a track using sidewalk chalk, and tirelessly practiced skating. Five years later, the league has grown to more than 60 members and has just wrapped up its fourth season. Roller Recruitment The CRDA is always looking to recruit new members (and a place to play and practise all year). Currently the team practices at West Hillhurst Community Centre and plays at the Triwood Arena in Brentwood. Tryouts are held early each spring, and successful newbies earn a place on the ‘Fresh Meat’ squad. The main requirements are that you are over 18 and adept on roller skates.