By Mia Kennedy Sports Editor
I’m not going to explain how to play roller derby; there are YouTube videos for that. To tackle some FAQs: Yes, it’s all on roller skates. No, there isn’t a ball. No, players can’t punch each other in the face – not anymore.
In its early days, roller derby was a little different: mid-game fights, theatrical feuds, throwing players off the track. Women playing an aggressive contact sport was enough of a marvel to bring thousands to tournaments. Sports equity for women was new in the 1930s, when roller came to derby. Leo Seltzer was an event promoter hoping to attract larger crowds with an exciting new sport. He organized flat track matches where teams of two, each with one man and one woman, raced on skates. Later, a more structured and daring version of the sport was born: roller derby. Seltzer marketed it as a place where women could experience true equality, although the same couldn’t be said for their salaries.
Today, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association sets a new standard for gender equity. In their 2020 Strategic plan, the WFTDA ensures that women-identifying and gender expansive communities lead leagues. To create an inclusive training environment, the Association invites teams to develop policies on pronoun usage, dead names, and accountability. Despite the Association’s dedication to inclusivity, white players heavily outnumber those of colour. Since teams mainly recruit from white communities, major leagues have very few minority skaters. The River City Roller Girls from Washington, USA were the first WFTDA all Star team to have enough minority members to have a full “pack on the track” that wasn’t white. But while American and Canadian leagues have a long way to go, many players find support in their roller derby leagues.
Chanel Bach, a first-year in Arts and Culture and the friend who convinced me to play roller derby, is very attached to her team. The sense of community attracted her to Rhythm and Bruise, the Junior League. “It’s such an inclusive space where everyone immediately feels welcome no matter what your identity or your sexuality is. Being around so many empowering women and non-binary people was amazing. It was a great environment for a bi teen who had just moved from one country to another and was trying to find herself.” After a move from New Jersey to Montreal, Chanel was looking for a sense of belonging. She found it in roller derby’s team spirit and community values.
Growing up queer isn’t easy. Data compiled by the American Psychiatric Association shows that LGBT+ youth are more likely to suffer from mental illnesses, making safe spaces for them even more important. The roller derby community acts as a refuge, offering young, queer people a place to engage with proudly queer role models and fully be themselves.
Chanel thinks the practices also teach kids lessons that will last a lifetime. “Roller derby is not only a physical effort; it’s also very mental. You get taught from day one to automatically get back up when you fall. It teaches you how to be brave, to not give up, to stay focused. You don’t stop until the whistle blows.”
Before the pandemic, Arena St-Louis would be bustling with bodies every Saturday. Now, I haven’t seen my teammates in a year. Although Chanel and I can still skate in our neighbourhoods over the summer, nothing compares to pushing, tripping and body-slamming our friends.