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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Roller Girls Revive A Moribund Sport

By Ross Everett

Roller Derby was never really a big deal in the US, but has been around forever and was a staple of the early days of television. It was similar in its promotional format to its better known "sports entertainment" cousin, professional wrestling. It was frequently seen in the same bad timeslots on the same low powered UHF TV stations, and it was run by the same loose confederation of promoters and businessmen that characterized the regional territory era of pro wrestling. That's where the similarity to wrestling ends--it's storylines made pro wrestling angles look like high drama. While there is a definite history to the sport--great teams like the LA T-Birds and Bay Bombers, and legendary skaters like Ann Calvello it never really stuck in the public consciousness like the pre-Hulk Hogan era of pro wrestling.

When the original purveyors of the sport quit promoting in the early'80s most thought it was dead and gone until a 'new school' of roller derby surfaced on cable TV via 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. A sport that had faded 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 changed the competitive format and 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, the same sort of league featured on "Rollergirls" had become a full blown cultural phenomenon. There are now literally hundreds of local "roller girl" leagues in the US, many under the auspices of a national organization called the Womens Flat Track Derby Association. Las Vegas has the 'Sin City Roller Girls', Portland, Oregon the 'Rose City Rollers" and Seattle the 'Rat City Rollers'. There are now groups in not only the larger and traditionally "hipper" cities but also smaller flyover country environs such as Birmingham, Alabama and Omaha, Nebraska and all over Canada, Europe and Australia. 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 roller derby circa 2009 is a 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 much in the same way that skateboarders give props to Duane Peters and Tony Alva. 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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