VIDEO: The rise of roller derby

By Amy Russell 29 November 2013
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There’s a new sport on the block and it’s more injury prone and tougher than any rugby: it’s roller derby

MOTHERS, WIVES AND professional women all over Australia have discovered a way to unleash their inner beasts – a hard-hitting, rough-and-tumble sport called roller derby.

There’s something powerful brewing in our cities, in suburbia and our country towns. Day by day it grows stronger and its rhythm picks up speed, feeding out into the wider community and luring unsuspecting victims into its fold. It targets outcasts, lost souls, the lonely and those simply seeking a new purpose: they are attracted to this cultural phenomenon like strays making their way home. The force is roller derby. And, with more than 70 new Australian ‘flat-track’ leagues created in just five years, it’s one of the nation’s fastest-growing sports.

The game is just as it’s hyped to be – fierce, fast and fiery – but it’s also surprisingly tactical and requires a high level of fitness and finely honed skills. It’s also played predominantly by women. 

Deeply ingrained in the foundations of roller derby are the concepts of escapism and reinvention. From as early as the 1930s, when promoter Leo Selzter first held endurance ‘roller races’ in Chicago, USA, skaters created characters to roll out on the track. This tradition continued as Leo, working with author Damon Runyon, moulded the game into a contact sport, after noticing spectators hit fever pitch when skaters collided.

Derby’s popularity skyrocketed in the USA in the ’40s and ’50s, drawing huge crowds who revelled in the performances of the aggressive, loud-mouthed female players, dressed in outlandish uniforms inspired by the rockabilly scene. Throughout the ’70s and early ’80s, banked-track (sloped) leagues toured the country until it became too costly and the sport died out from lack of funds.

Derby was revived in Austin, Texas, in 2001 with the creation of the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls, and is now played in more than 35 countries around the world. Today, as flat-track leagues continue to crop up around Australia, roller derby is less of a circus, and is blossoming into a serious sport.

But remnants of the spectacle and rockabilly aesthetic linger: new league members create a fierce derby name and a number, and log them with an international register. And, before stepping onto the track, most players still shed their everyday skins – their professional and personal personas – and slip into a pair of fishnets, or the like.

Read the full story on roller derby in #111 (Nov/Dec) of Australian Geographic.