Roller derby: The world's friendliest rock concert
In the feature, I do my best to play up the fraternal and social aspect of the team, to show why someone who already spends an absurd amount of time in class and has a part time job would want to get beaten up with a bunch of other women in her off time. The answer: (Spoiler alert) It's a great group of women who will accept you and show you a fantastic time, even though they had never met you prior to joining.
The secret answer is that you get to be part of one of the most fun amateur productions avaliable, as anyone who has ever been to a roller derby has undoubtedly been a second time.
I used to be a regular up at the Boston Derby Dames. The bouts took place at the Shriner's Hall in Wilmongton, Ma., and only sat the 900-or-so rowdiest people who were smart enough to buy tickets in advance. My first attempt to see a bout at the Shriners' hall saw me turned away with hundreds of others who thought, "Seriously, there is no way a roller derby could sell out a half hour before the bout is supposed to start."
The people who left with their jaws hanging in amazement at the popularity of the sport included an astonishing array of people. There were families there with grandparents, mixing with hipsters, punks, bikers, goth kids and whatever other counter-culture group could possibly be represented. There are not many things that mainstreamers, family-friendly-types and counter culture purists can agree on, but it seems roller derby has become an accidental highway of folks wanting to be entertained.
Roller derby is a grassroots amateur sport program built on passion for the sport and passion to have a great time before you die. The crowd understands that the participants are members of the community, and that the outcome of the bout is not nearly as important as the bout itself.
Imagine going to a professional sporting event without the fanatics who live and die by the franchise, calling in to sports talk shows and having a holier-than-thou opinion on everything each athlete does. (Wait, did a guy who loves pro sports enough to cover them for a living just write that?)
That is the atmosphere, where the only boos are directed at unpopular official's calls each girl is cheered for her accomplishments by their teams' fans during the bout, and by the whole audience after the bout. I have yet to see somebody leave the roller derby without smiling.
Also, there is only as much commercialism as it takes to fund the event, and even that is subtle and more charming than anything else. At one bout in Wilmington, the event was sponsored by Cabot cheese, so during halftime, some friends of the team grabbed some boxes of Cabot samples and walked around throwing them into the stands. Otherwise, Cabot had a poster on the door, and that was it. Cupcakes and team merchandise were sold at the door like the world's friendliest rock concert.
For halftime entertainment, sometimes the mascots for the different teams would have a dance-off. The team I supported was the Cosmonaughties, which had a sci-fi astronaut feel to the theme. What were their mascots? A happy robot and a gorilla that yelled at it and chased it. Random, right? The league's other local teams were the Wicked Pissah's whose mascot was an inebriated seagull, and the Nutcrackers, whose mascot was a man dressed as a hip-hop Mr. Peanut and two grade-school boys dressed as squirrels.
The mascots would sometimes try to operate a hand-me-down T-shirt cannon in between bouts, or two friends of the teams would bring out some electric pianos and duel them. The whole thing felt very thrown-together, and yet heartfelt and endearing. If things didn't work or if the mascots' home-made costumes fell apart, you laughed and cheered with them as you would a bunch of kids putting on a talent show. Just by being there you felt welcomed and a part of the overall production.
The bouts are great fun to watch, as they should be, since they are the centerpiece of the event. For those who have not seen one before, it may take some time to figure out the scoring rules and the official's gestures, but soon, you begin to see the strategy, strength and finesse of the competitors and not just a group of girls trying to hip check one another off their skates. (Granted, the prospect of seeing girls try to hip check each other off their skates is probably the selling point that got you there in the first place, amiright guys? Guys?) Anyway, the point is it is an easy sport to understand, and a fun sport to learn.
I believe fans realize that the bouts are shows as well. Sure, each team is trying to win, but the show is in the costume accessories the participants wear, and the makeup and the roller derby alter-ego each girl becomes when the bout starts and the clever signs in the stands. What you end up with is a glam rock sports show with fan interaction, as put together by a female-empowerment group that is both bad ass and a roll model.
Face it, if someone offered you tickets and summed it up like that, your interest would be more than piqued.
Unfortunately, since I have moved to the Capital Region, I have not yet been able to take in the local bouts, but this year's season is just starting. Laurie's team, the Oz Roller Girls, will be in town on Feb. 5 to take on the Hellions of Troy (Awesome name, I know) at the Rollarama in Schenectady. Without experience here, I cannot claim to know that the atmosphere is on par with the bouts in eastern Massachusetts, but I know the potential of local roller derby, and I implore you to discover it for yourself, and give me your take on it.
Official Oz Roller Girls website
Official Hellions of Troy website