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Roller Derby subculture deep dive

Assignment Become immersed in the roller derby subculture to understand how it works, why people get involved, and what keeps them coming back

Roller derby is indisputably tough

After all, it’s the only contact sport on wheels. That’s why there’s a helmet and a mouthguard, and why you get bragging rights. Pain is a promise, not a punishment. And there’s no such thing as an apology, because saying “sorry” is forbidden.

Injuries make for good stories For most people, an injury is considered a misfortune - but in derby, it’s the gateway to bragging rights. Skaters fondly reminisce about the moments leading up to a torn ACL or a trip to the emergency room. Busting ass is unavoidable; in some cases, quite literally. One skater confessed to breaking her coccyx on 3 separate occasions. There’s something to be said about flaunting your fearlessness and your tolerance for bodily harm.

Research methodology Attended a couple bouts to witness the horror and excitement firsthand Sat in on a practice to get a behindthe-scenes look at what it takes Interviewed members of Richmond’s River City Roller Girls to find out what makes derby so addictive Surveyed our derby neighbors to the north - the entire South Jersey Roller Girl team Supplemented my primary research by reading blogs of new recruits, visiting derby websites and listening to an NPR podcast on the sport

Pain is a side-effect of pushing yourself

What’s most addictive about derby is that it continually challenges you to push your limits. It provides that unmistakable adrenaline rush that comes from knowing you put every ounce of your energy into something. This is the reason skaters relate to the pain, because it says something about who you are and what you’re capable of.

I talk myself into giving all I have at practice, even when I’m throwing up in the trash can. Bi-Paula Before derby, I never really tested my body before or looked at it as a machine capable of physical feats. Mace Kelly

I’m proud of my scar. When people ask what happened, I say I got in a knife fight. Then I tell them the truth and they still don’t believe me. Thérèse Hell I have no gnarly stories yet. It really, really makes me mad. I dream of getting a sick black eye! Lady and the Trample

Alter-egos encouraged

Each skater has a derby name, an identity they bring with them to the rink. In fact, derby is one of few team sports that encourages its members to express their individuality. Actually, it mandates originality. Each name is checked against an online database to ensure its uniqueness.

Freedom to act (out) For some skaters derby is an outlet, allowing them to break free from the routine or the boring 9 to 5. It fosters an environment where each person feels comfortable acting more impulsively, closer to how they actually feel or how they want to feel. That could mean louder and more confident, wilder and more aggressive, or just sillier than usual.

Alternate reality

For others, derby allows them to see a different facet of themselves. In a way, it allows the skater to distance herself from the person she normally is, almost like leading a double-life. I work in a custom seamstress shop, where we do bridal gowns, and whenever someone stops in I put my little cardigan on to cover up the marks. Psycho Seamstress It’s nice to step outside my typical day job and basically have an alter ego, hiding bruises by day, and inflicting them by night. Pounder Faye Sin

You can be yourself or who you wish you were. Rockets Redglare

Derby names make it easier to hit your league mates. I might not want to hit Charlotte, mother of 3 and a sweetheart of a person, but I can lay into Sky Scrape Her. Mace Kelly

The all-inclusive secret club

By keeping derby outside the mainstream, advertising almost exclusively in local bars and tattoo shops, it attracts only those who seek to find it. But what’s interesting about this underground sport is that it allows anyone to participate. It attracts people from all social classes, careers and lifestyles. Skaters from remarkably different backgrounds talked about the sense of cohesiveness among them, just like a second family. The accepting environment derby fosters is often the reason why so many people are drawn to it.

People from all degrees join together for this private party on the track. Suki Suki Now On our team we have teachers, strippers, a librarian and me - I’m a nanny. Shaken Baker

Derby is rife with contradictions

There’s a lot of duality to the sport, much of it stemming from roller derby’s sheer determination to defy convention and break the rules.

Derby is the fight club with etiquette, the motorcycle gang that loves to do car washes in bikinis. Suki Suki Now

Drinking with the enemy In most sports, you do your best to avoid heading to the same bar as your opponents after the game. But in derby, skaters purposefully meet up with the opposing team to relive the action on the rink, discussing play-by-plays and exchanging thankyous after a good beating. You might spend the whole bout trying to get revenge on someone, then at the after party they’ll make you a toast for knocking the snot out of them. Southpaw Siouxsie

Looking good and playing hard

You don’t put on makeup to play a hardcore sport. Unless, of course, you want to look like a knockout while you’re delivering one. Derby makes it acceptable for women to be both beautiful and aggressive, to wear fishnets and bruises. Billy Rae Siren

Putting on makeup is something I thought I’d never do before I competed in a sporting event, but I don’t think I would feel right if I wasn’t made all purty. Rainbow Fright

Fiercely competitive delicate flowers Finally, you can’t pull off the elegance of a ballerina with the ferocity of a sumo wrestler. Well, as it turns out, the physical aspects of roller derby actually require skaters to be capable of both. It is both yin and yang - it requires grace to be able to maneuver on skates and the strength and toughness to be able to take a hit. Goody Two Skates

Roller Derby Deep Dive  
Roller Derby Deep Dive  

Fought tooth and nail to uncover what makes roller derby so addictive, intriguing and unique by immersing myself into the subculture.