Twice a week at Sissons school gym an alternative universe takes shape, one where women jostle for position, knock each other off-kilter with hip and shoulder checks, and most importantly, never say sorry.
Gliding around on eight wheels known as quad skates — some in booty shorts and muscle shirts, tattoos in full display; some in tights and tutus, face paint, or glitter — besides their helmets and protective gear, there’s nothing uniform about these women. Short, tall, large, small, their bodies don’t conform to any prescribed notion of an athlete.
Yet make no mistake, they’re here to get fit, hone their skills and compete. Roller derby in its newest incarnation is bona-fied sport.
While it’s an all-female team in Yellowknife right now, everyone is welcome — men, women, and all gender identifications in between — and every body size is useful.
The sport involves four blockers who play vital offensive and defensive roles, forming a pack to help their jammer make it past the other team’s blockers to score, while simultaneously working together to block the opposing team’s jammer.
The results can often look like 10 people wrestling in a moving, chaotic ball, but there’s a ton of intricate footwork and strategy going on, with intense scrutiny from seven referees, no less, known in the derby community as Team Zebra.
Lee Fowler is president of Diamond City Roller Derby (formerly the Yellowknife Roller Girls), now in its third season of recruiting and training roller derby skaters for eventual bouts. In a city renowned for unusual outdoor activities — say aurora viewing after a dogsled ride down an ice road — Fowler moved to Yellowknife from Victoria a year ago and hit upon roller derby as a no-less peculiar way to experience her new home.
“I moved here and I didn’t know anybody or anything so I started Googling things I could do and that was one of the first things that popped up and it sounded like an awesome idea,” says the tall brunette, a 26-year-old emergency services worker by day, Miss Dee Meaner when she dons her 9-1-1 jersey and roller skates by night. “It is a very therapeutic experience for me,” she explains. “I have a very high-stress career, so I get to come here and work out my stress in a healthy way.”
She’s still learning the building blocks of roller derby — plow stop, T-stop, jumping, hip check, shoulder check, transitioning from forward to backward, how to fall properly (because if you’re not falling in derby, you’re doing something wrong), endurance. In derby lingo, this means she’s “fresh meat.”
Of the 20 Diamond City skaters, seven are in the fresh meat program. It promises to teach absolute rookies everything they need to know to attain the Benchmark certification (which includes a written test, as well as physical skills) required to compete in an official bout.
Yellowknifer skaters who’ve reached those milestones are invited to compete in more established sister leagues in High Level or Grimshaw, Alta., and some are planning to attend the massive Roller Con conference in Las Vegas this July.
Mad Trapper, Gilly McNaughton
Derby has shed the highly-staged, wrestling/circus-like bent that made it popular on American and Canadian TV networks in the ‘60s and ‘70s, back when it was played on banked tracks, was often co-ed, and prominent stars like Gwen “Skinnie Minnie Miller” became household names.
Its checkered past dates back more than a century, coming in and out of favour with varying degrees of sport legitimacy, largely tied to the degree in which promoters could monetize it as either a full-on athletic competition, or theatre.
Despite sporadic attempts to revive it under any guise, roller derby had largely died out by the late ‘90s. Then a group of women in Austin, TX founded four teams and staged their first public match in 2002. A highly feminist revival of the sport began. DIY teams began popping up across the continent, with Edmonton hosting the first all female Canadian league in 2005.
Rollergirls, a 2006 reality TV series, helped spawn another growth spurt. Then in the 2009 movie Whip it, Ellen Page inspired a whole new crop of derby skaters when she starred as Bliss, a rebellious Texas teen who leaps off her beauty pageant trajectory in favour of the crash ‘n tumble derby world.
There are now more than 1,000 roller derby leagues in North America, most of them flat track, and women’s and men’s leagues worldwide.
“The movie Whip it was one of the reasons I joined, and it was a way for me to meet people,” says Paige Scott, or Rampaige, a 24-year-old, fresh meat member of Yellowknife’s fledgling derby team.
Apart from a little curling, she hasn’t played sports in the past. Through roller derby, she’s able to push her body to new heights with great workouts in a non-intimidating, supportive environment.
“I find derby very accepting,” says Gilly McNaughton, or Mad Trapper, the 32-year-old team coach.
McNaughton says there are still a couple of stigmas the sport is trying to counter, one is that it’s phony. Even though derby names and neo-burlesque dressing persist, they are optional, and as much a testament to the democratic, non-judgmental feminist nature of the leagues as they are a nod to the sport’s entertainment legacy. Many derby skaters eschew both.
The other stigma, says McNaughton, is the assumption that roller derby attracts a certain personality type, tough and aggressive. “I think part of that has to do with it’s a female-dominated sport and anything that encourages a little bit of aggression or contact with women is typically looked down upon. You look at women’s hockey, at least for the juniors, they’re discouraged from playing contact whereas with the boys that’s normal, you see full-on fighting.”
And yet McNaughton says Yellowknife’s league has librarians, lawyers, teachers, students…”it draws the most unexpected types just as equally.” Like Sharon Laframboise, 37, an obstetrics nurse who joined to meet people and push herself out of her comfort zone. “It’s scary because you’re doing something that’s not in your nature, you don’t usually hurt people, you’re saying sorry all the time, which you’re not supposed to do,” says Laframboise.
Indeed, when roller skating first made its debut in the U.S. in the late 1800s, any form of physical exertion for a woman was considered dangerous to her health and, most importantly, reproductive ability. Women were not allowed to be athletes. According to the online journal, The New York Sociologist, roller skating was ground-breaking for women. They could attend a skating event with a chaperone, usually a parent, because it was not considered sport. It resembled formal dance in its structure, providing a loophole that allowed Victorian women to experience this new freedom with their bodies.
From roller skating to roller derby, the sport has been breaking gender boundaries for women from the start. “I do identify as a feminist and I find (roller derby) very empowering,” says Myranda Bolstad, A.K.A. Hermione Dangerous, also fresh meat. “It’s a sport where every body
type has an advantage, it doesn’t objectify.”
McNaughton says Bolstad is a prime example of derby’s broad spectre of participants. “Government worker by day, bookstore clerk on the weekend, a guru on literature who on occasion brings cupcakes to practice and I don’t think I’ve ever so much as heard her drop an F-bomb, but she’s quickly becoming a formidable force — revealing her inner wrecking machine.” In time, the coach believes Yellowknife will form a competitive travel team. Her dream is to host a Yukon match here and if Nunavut ever forms a team, hold a pan-territorial tournament.
If any of this sounds like it’s for you, McNaughton encourages you to get in touch. Diamond City Roller Derby is also willing to train people interested in becoming refs and officials, and would be over the moon if anyone wanted to offer up an airplane hangar for practices.
Malice Moo, Mandee McDonald