Twice a week at La Taz Roulodôme in Mile End, helmet and hot-pant-clad women jostle their way around a rink in a pack of raw, sexy athleticism. This is Montreal Roller Derby, and bootcamp season is underway. Hopeful newbies are on the rink looking to block, jam, and pivot their way to Montreal Roller Derby (MTLRD) superstardom.
Ewan Wotarmy (her alter ego – “You and what army”), the Media & Promotions head of MTLRD, captain of the Contrabanditas, and player for the MTLRD travel team New Skids on the Block, explained that when the league was born in 2006, the players “didn’t know what the heck they were doing.” They “just basically, like, ran into walls,” said Wotarmy. The team, however, has come a long way from their wall-smacking origins. In 2009 MTLRD became the first international league to be part of the U.S.-based Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). “It’s become a lot more professional and we’re traveling quite a bit further this year,” said Wotarmy. Their fan base has also skyrocketed: “We’ve sold out every bout this year,” she said.
Roller derby is an offshoot of 1930s long-distance roller skating, though Wotarmy explained that they “realized the fans just like watching people bump into each other,” more than other elements of the sport, and so roller derby was born.
In contemporary roller derby, there are two teams on the track at once. The teams are composed of a jammer and four blockers, one of whom is also a pivot. The pivot controls the speed of the game and calls the plays. The jammer’s role is to score points by passing opposing blockers. As the two packs go slowly around the track, the jammers weave through the pack as quickly as possible to score points. The blockers meanwhile play both offence and defence. They help the jammer get through the pack while blocking the opposing team. What this translates to on the rink is a hypnotic circle of aggression and stealth. “It looks like organized chaos, but we do know what we’re doing,” insisted Wotarmy.
When watching a roller derby game, one thing that stands out from other sports is its ruthlessness. Although only limited types of hits are legal, players still manage to receive a significant number of battle wounds. Wotarmy nonchalantly listed off a cornucopia of injuries she’s sustained: “I’ve broken a couple fingers, displaced some ribs, those kinds of things.” You really have to have balls to go out there, or, as Wotarmy corrected me, “You have to have tits.”
Although roller derby is recognized for its subcultural appeal, the 2009 release of the Hollywood film Whip It, starring Ellen Page and Drew Barrymore, and based on the story of a young roller derby player, garnered mainstream attention. Possibly as a result, about 90 girls showed up for MTLRD recruitment this year compared to the 30 last year. A major draw of the league is the community atmosphere that the sport provides. The league is run from the ground up by the skaters. Everything from the league’s budget, fundraising, and sponsorship contracts are the work of its dedicated players.
A large part of the appeal of roller derby for both players and fans is this distinct culture that surrounds the sport. Athlete and team names, such as New Skids on the Block and the Montreal Sexpos, are perversions of pop culture or conjure up violent or sexual imagery. Although there isn’t a strict uniform to adhere to, players generally don playfully unconventional sports gear such as fishnets and knee pads.
Roller derby is a female dominated sport, but there are a few men’s leagues popping up in the United States. Participation in the Montreal league is limited to women as the team has joined up with the female-only association, the WFTDA. Wotarmy, however, was pleased to witness some men in skirts and cheeky shorts playing in a men’s league competition. She feels that they are missing out in their inability to participate in the overt sexuality and playfulness of Derby. “Sports are really homophobic and really sexist, unfortunately,” said Wotarmy. “That diversity that works really well with derby often works better with women and gets a bit lost somehow with men. I think there’s just a lot a pressure for [men] to look a certain way. I’d love to see them show me wrong.”
Despite the strict female orientation of the league, the teams within the MTLRD still display a startling range of diversity. “Women doing sport are not all one kind of person and our audience seems to recognize that and they like it,” said Wotarmy. “They [can] reconcile athletic women who are queer, athletic women who are sexy.” The age of the players varies from 19 to about 45 years old, and there is a range of sexual orientations represented on the team including lesbian, straight, and transsexual athletes. The players encompass a variety of societal roles: “There are moms, students, professors, doctors, nurses, and engineers,” said Wotarmy. “It’s a pretty amazing cross-section of humanity.” When I jokingly commented that I would love to know who the professors in the league are, I was in for a surprise. “I am,” said Wotarmy, “I teach at McGill.” Gulp. So next time you jostle in front of someone in the lunch line, be forewarned: They might hit back.
With their new recruits in hand, the teams of the Montreal Roller Derby League return to the rink in November to train hard for the upcoming season. Keep your eyes peeled for games, they’ll be worth the wait.