Thursday, 28 July 2011

Hell on Wheels - Some Thoughts

Hell on Wheels is a 2007 documentary on the roller derby revival in Austin Texas, directed by Bob Ray. Originally spear-headed by "Roller Derby Dan" Policarpo, the movement quickly became appropriated by the players, an enterprising group of captains in particular. Forming Bad Girl Good Woman Productions in 2001, in the name of athletic, theatrical derby (complete with a penalty wheel with penalties such as "Reverse Spank Alley"), these captains' struggle to maintain control over the league seems to foment a later schism that leaves Austin Texas with BGGW (later TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls) and the Texas Rollergirls, a flat-track, player-operated league .

As a documentary, it's solid, certainly and gives the impression of setting forth a balanced perspective on the revival of roller derby in Texas. It feels familiar, certainly, though it doesn't labour to explain the rules of the game the way that derby movies and docs often do.

What really got me while watching the film was the sheer feeling of relief of being a member of a player-focused league that also happens to be a non-profit organization. Concerns regarding ownership and feelings of being an employee rather than a member seem to have been what really tore Texas' first derby league in two. Today, player-run flat-track leagues (with that sweet blessing, skater insurance) are basically the norm. The lack of consistent insurance is certainly one of the dangers portrayed in the film, which manages to be both a paeon to the sheer guts needed to form and successfully run a derby league and an extensive catalogue of the mistakes made in BBGW's early days. Ultimately, the film is a pretty solid endorsement of standardized organizations like WFTDA and CWRDA.

Happily, the film doesn't gloss over inter-league and extra-league conflict. This is no amazonian paradise. With that said, the film does have to tread a difficult line between not giving in to stereotypes about how women interact in groups (read: bitchily) and that aforementioned glossing over.

Similarly, the film neither revels in nor shies away from the relationship between exploitation and derby. BGGW's early days feature a lot of focus on the sexualized parts of derby and a promoter the league brings in focuses firmly on the sexiness of girl-on-girl (on-rink) action. Perhaps BBGW's lowest moment depicted in the film, aside from the loss of 65 of its 80 players, is a fundraising (lube?) oil-wrestling segment at a bar. Shown just after a meeting composed of the financially-strapped executive and players that are clearly exhausted and unhappy about fundraising downtown so close to Halloween, the sequence is off-putting rather than titillating. Players wrestle in bikinis and I have to admit that as a feminist derby player watching the sequence, I had my head in my hands.

Though I support sex workers and adult entertainers, the depiction of derby girls working for a corporation fundraising by wrestling and spanking each other for a largely male audience bothered me pretty intensely. Earlier, in what is a sadly unsurprising bit of double-think, the BGGW league had openly embraced slut-shaming, emphasizing that players should be "sexy, not slutty". Accusations of sexism and exploitation are still leveled at derby and I really value that this aspect of derby isn't a part of my derby.

Texas Rollergirls gets a lighter touch than BGGW, perhaps in my eyes because the former looks so much more like the derby I play and watch today. Egalitarian voting, emphasis on fun and athleticism rather than theatrics and long-running discussions mean a lot to a solitary player and it's what I've come to expect from my league. BGGW, in contrast, comes off a bit poorly. Unsafe skating conditions and decisions come off mostly as the mistakes of a nascent league doing something for the first time, but the film-makers clearly show the frustrations of disenfranchised players and the costs players face when skating without insurance. Even during the schism, BGGW execs tell players they need to leave the costumes and names they created (sewed, built, you name it) behind if they want out. Another sequence shows BBGW skaters showing up openly drunk to harass Texas Rollergirls players before being escorting away from security. At the same time, BGGW's remaining and new players' feelings aren't brushed aside: they feel ambushed and imitated. All of the women involved love derby; they just can't quite agree about the best way to do so.

Ultimately, Hell on Wheels is a good look at the early days of the derby revival. It's a testament to how much damn work it is to get something like this up and running. Whatever the wisdom of some of the decisions of the BGGW organizers, they certainly worked their asses off. The film wisely rests on the continuing strength of the revival, showing a derby map of the world with skaters littering the States and ranging as far as New Zealand. HoW is a great start to derby-viewing, showing the complexities of the sport-culture and how much it has changed since 2001, let alone from its previous incarnations. If you've seen derby films like Whip It! and want a little more of the sport's recent human history, certainly give it a watch.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Pride Outside

LOCO Jumps @ London Pride 2011. Copyright SUE REEVE/LONDON FREE PRESS/QMI AGENCY

I'm not a gifted outdoor skater. The last time I tried, almost a half a year prior to this week, I got to the park early, fell a lot, and slunk away just as my league showed up. It was not a sign of great things to come. This weekend, we practiced our skate-dance on Friday night, the better to boogie down King street on Sunday at London's Pride Parade.

I was concerned.

On Friday, we met at a skater's house and headed to a nearby cul-de-sac. We skated behind a Jeep, bouncing, clapping and shaking our wrist guards to Ke$ha and Gwen Stefani while some lookers-on clapped and some made drunken misogynistic noises. I fell twice, once rather mildly, and once spectacularly. I landed on an oil patch on the road, ruining my shorts and merely mildly staining my shirt. Once practice was over (and we had recalled the skater who had gone over for a drink with the misogynists and co.), I actually had to grab a shower when it became obvious that I had oil scraped up my side. Not wanting to turn our hosts' pool into a BP-style environmental incident, I cleaned up and hopped in the pool. A lovely derby party ensued. We jammed in the pool.

On Sunday, I was a bit more nervous. Skating on asphalt has always felt to me like hooking up batteries to the soles of my feet. It's like getting a particularly vibratory foot message from a stranger (i.e. the road). It's just weird. Being more used to sport court, wood, or concrete, I had to get over the sheer foot-weirdness of asphalt in order to face the bigger perils of a downtown road. London Pride went up King street, starting at the Western Fairgrounds. Initially, King Street had a gorgeous surface, but cracks soon emerged. I had a few tumbles, handed out a few suckers, and then I had my real shining moment, or rather, two of them.

Once we hit started to really get downtown, we met protesters, looking dour, holding homophobic, plainly lettered signs. Frankly, they looked bored. Much happier were the faces of the anti-protesters, holding very sweet, colourful signs saying "Love is Louder" and "I'm with Stupid". Once the protesters started to bunch up, I got shouty, exhorting the crowd to cheer if they loved pride. They did. On my third and final shout, I landed on the asphalt and apparently some of my fellow derby-folk thought I did it on purpose or that I was merely overcome with emotion. I tripped on a pot-hole. But I did so with pride in my league's willing to support our community.

My second moment was more of a tuck and roll. Throughout the march, we had been showing jumps. Our ref would skate and leap over two derby girls lying in the road, as pictured above. For our last jump, another skater got me to lie down on the asphalt with me. She stopped cleanly. I did something else. When my double knee drop failed to halt me, I tumbled and posed, legs splayed, one bent behind me. Again, the kinder folks among us assumed I was mugging for the crowd. In actuality, I wrenched my thumb and neck and had serious, if faint concerns that I had just bent my knee in a way knees were not expected to bend. Still, I rolled over and kept my head down as instructed as our ref sailed over us. It was awesome.

This was LOCO's second London Pride. We had a blast, handed out candy and fliers and let London know there's a low-contact derby league friendly to all women and men, too. Though only women are allowed to play, men are welcome to volunteer and referee. Recently, the Women's Flat-Track Derby Association officially stated that all women, whether cisgender or transgender are welcome to play derby. It's too bad this decision wasn't made earlier, but it does say a lot about our sport. Derby is a feminist, progressive sport and it's at its strongest when we're true to that.

Once the parade was over, the LOCO skaters were soaked with sweat and, almost to a person, grinning. During our practice and prep, there had been some concern that we shouldn't do Pride without a large contingent, but I think we learned that Pride is damn good fun and that what you need is heart rather than numbers. You just need skates and the willingness to get back up after you trip, or get tripped, and that's really what Pride is about: getting back up and joining hands with (or jumping over) the people you love.

Monday, 18 July 2011

99 Bottles of Beer - LOCO vs Green Rollergettes, South Simcoe Rebel Rollers vs Rollergettes

Derby Lesson of the Day? If you want to know the score at the bout, don't work the beer table.

I arrived in Toronto yesterday, carrying a back-pack and a duffel bag after spending a few weeks house-sitting with my brother. I schlepped my way across the city to the George Bell arena in Toronto. After locating my buddies from LOCO, there to play a pre-game "mini-bout" against the newer members of the Rollergettes, I dumped my bags in the locker room and offered myself up to the volunteer coordinator, the lovely Jillenium Falcon. I ended up spending the evening taking beer tickets, slinging drinks and occasionally jumping to avoid broken glass from exploding beer bottles.

I can't tell you much about the pre-game 20-minute bout, save that the LOCO ladies rocked it, 34 to 20. As for the main bout between the Rollergettes and the South Simcoe Rebel Rollers, I can say even less. But here's what I can comment on - at a derby bout, the fans are thirsty, they tip well and if the beer you've poured in their cups has too much head, they'll gladly down what's left in the bottle to save you having to fill another cup, bless them.

From a high corner in the humid George Bell arena, I saw sweaty, fantastic derby girls - South Simcoe looked tough and hot in their black tees, the Rollergettes looked home-team confident in purple, white and green, and LOCO showed the crowd that low-contact still means an exciting game. I saw equally sweaty fans, cheering the players and routinely coming back for more beer, and paramedics coming to snag some of our ice.

Our set-up was simple. We had a tub of ice and three kinds of beer courtesy of Great Lakes Brewery. Fans' choices included Golden Horseshoe Lager, Orange Peel Ale and Green Tea Ale, all of which were godsends in the hot arena. The crowd favoured Horseshoe all night, but Green Tea made significant gains as word of mouth spread. A valiant fan lent us his bottle opener when our original was proving a bit lackadaisical and I made enough tip money to buy a South Simcoe t-shirt (thanks, Toronto!).

Notable happenings: beer exploded. Two bottles of Green Tea Ale popped without warning; one, in the ice-bin and one all over the floor. A sweet fan fished out most of the broken glass from the bin, mindful of my poor fingers, which are currently band-aided. My injuries (bout beats of a kind, to be sure) are mostly limited to some cuts and blisters from frequent ice baths, sharp bottle caps, and the general business of opening beer bottles for four hours.

So what did I learn last night? Derby is a family game and derby is a hard game. One guy is there strictly for beer and hotpants while the patron behind him dandles an adorable child over his tattooed arm. Cute hipsters stalk the arena and sweet dresses are often in evidence. People who love derby embrace all of it, from the hits to the sweat to the sequins.

Derby Lesson of the Day #2: If volunteering, always put your cell phone in the pocket less likely to get beer and ice-water repeatedly poured on it.

After my (awesome) shift, I got a Green Tea Ale for myself (it tasted like ginseng and danger) and finished 650 ml of beer in about two minutes. I congratulated my friend and LOCO alumnus Knuckle Slamwitch on her win and a kick-ass jam and then caught a ride back to London with my league-mate Avalanche. We got lost on the way into London, but my night ended, as I like it to, safely in my partner's bed.

I'm proud to have had my first bout as a volunteer. Derby bouts are electric and it takes hard work on and off-skate to make it happen. I was thoroughly impressed by both the volunteers and players brought in by LOCO, South Simcoe and the Rollergettes. Next time, whether my shirt is soaked in sweat or beer, I know to look forward to the quality crowd derby brings out.

And I'll know a bout is nothing if there isn't flying glass.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Quick Links and a Derby Update

I found this today: It's a great blog, absolutely bursting with resources for writers, ranging from literary agent listings to contest information. Not to be missed!

Also, two literary agent listings: Literary Agent Listings from the Writer's Union of Canada

National Literary Agent Listing from

In other news, I'm taking some time off-skate, but I'm delighted to be volunteering at The Rollergettes' Rockin' Rollin' Ruckus on July 16th, in Toronto, ON. LOCO will be playing a pre-bout low-contact game at George Bell Arena, 215 Ryding Avenue, Toronto. Tickets can be snagged at

Shox's Sports Saloon - Junction, Dundas & Keele
Good Catch - Parkdale, Queen West (@Sorauren)
Freshly Baked Tees - 557 Queen Street West (e. of Spadina)
The Mascot - Parkdale, Queen West (w. of Dufferin)
Hell's Belles - 463 Queen Street West (w. of Spadina)

Look for my blog of the event on the 17th, if you can't join us the night before!