COLUMN: Roller derby packing in spectators

Saturday Beat

Got my first dose of roller derby last weekend. Having never seen it or anything like it before, I had no idea what to expect.

The only summation I can come to is that it’s a cross between burlesque, short-track speed skating and hockey, and because of each girl’s willingness to take a bone-crushing bodycheck for a teammate, I found each and every one of them to be, well, kinda hot.

So much for sugar and spice and everything nice.

Guys dig that sort of stuff. Girls, sweat, loud music, the occasional sound of limbs crunching – it’s like a typical Nanaimo bachelor party. No wonder the stands have been packed in the league’s first season.

At first blush roller derby seems chaotic. Lots of fishnet stockings going around and around, bejeweled pink tank tops glistening in an otherwise dingy arena, the occasional yelp of a damsel in distress.

Sometimes, after an especially violent hit, a rogue boob will pop out much to the delight of the crowd. Unabashedly, its owner will slip it back in place and skate off to catch up with the pack, assuming she’s still conscious. If not, paid attendance definitely gets its money’s worth.

UFC can’t match that.

Fortunately, while perched trackside taking photos, I had the privilege of private tutoring from Nanaimo Nemesis player Lil’ F-Bomb, who had to sit out due to a busted coccyx (that’s a real body part by the way). Earlier in the season, she took a hit and fell awkwardly, followed closely by a blocker falling on her, introducing her skate to her lower tailbone. Ouch.

F-Bomb explained to me the premise of roller derby; speedy and often whispy girls called jammers try to skate through a wall of angry estrogen, some of it supersized, while trying not to get pummeled so hard their future babies walk around with ringing in their ears. If they manage to slip through ahead of the other team’s jammer, who is more than likely being scraped off the side boards with a spatula, they rack up a point for every player of the opposite team they pass.

As exciting as the action can be, the players themselves are just as entertaining. With names like Suckerpunch Sue, Flying Buttress, Lotta Knockers, Crown Jules, Carrie Rubbers and Dee Kapitate, the competition is matched only by the sexual undercurrents.

It’s like women’s lib with knee pads. Or, more acceptably, elbow pads.

In fact, roller derby is just that, but refreshingly retro in its bid to make a comeback. The earliest form of it occurred in the late 1800s to the early 1920s, when roller derby was more about endurance than extracting teeth from opponents. Eventually, participants got a little bored and started to smack each other around a bit en route to the finish line (take note, Olympic speed skating).

In about the mid-1930s, when America was game for just about anything that took its mind off the Great Depression, the sport took off. By the 1950s, it had become something of a cultural craze and was just as popular on theatrical stages across North America as it was on roller derby tracks. By the ’70s, when women were just hitting their sexual stride, theatrical elements were just as, if not more so, important as the sport itself.

Then came the ’80s with soul-extinguishing social constipation (I blame minivans) and everybody stopped having fun for 25 years, until the need for speed and cheap shots re-emerged in the form of today’s roller derby.

With a bit of luck roller derby will soon reach its peak like its heyday in the ’70s, but hopefully without the fuzzy dice, disco, butterfly collars and wood panel automobiles.

It’s well on its way. With more than 600 leagues worldwide and rules governed by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, roller derby is reorganizing, and the world will undoubtedly become a better, if not sassier, place for it.