KNAU and Arizona News
4:14 am
Tue March 19, 2013

Roller Derby's Feminist Revival

Roller derby began as a form of cheap entertainment during the Great Depression. By the 1950's, it had become an iconic sport - part athleticism, part spectacle. Back then it was a co-ed sport, but fast forward to today, and roller derby is played predominantly by women. Arizona Public Radio Intern Sarah Kolb reports on derby's modern revival - a combination of sport, kitsch, rock n' roll and feminism.

Risa Garelick is a sociology professor at Northern Arizona University. And last year, she decided to study roller derby as a sub-culture. "It's this interesting combination of what society sees as feminine and masculine", Garelick says. "You can express your femininity with your name and the way you dress. But you're also super aggressive and powerful and really strong." Garelick launched her research project after she began playing roller derby on a whim. She had never played a team sport and Garelick says it transformed her life. "I'm 46 years old and I'm drawn to a sport where I can get hurt. But I'm so drawn to it that nothing else matters."

According to Garelick's research, this is a common feeling among derby players. It's not only a sport for them, it's a lifestyle complete with alter egos ranging from clever to crude. Margo McClellan is a player with Flagstaff's High Altitude Roller Derby team, but on the track her name is Pippi Wrongstockings.

Margo McClellan (a.k.a. "Pippi Wrongstockings") leads a pack of derby players
Margo McClellan (a.k.a. "Pippi Wrongstockings") leads a pack of derby players
Credit Rick Johnson

"That comes from my childhood hero, Pippi Longstockings", McClellan says. McClellan plays for Flagstaff's Dark Sky Starlets. "We're not supposed to be aggressive or loudmouthed or obnoxious", McClellan says. "And there's a little bit of that in derby. I think just our derby persona is where we start with that." At a recent practice, McClellan says she was surprised she would enjoy such a hard hitting sport. "I think it's because women have waited so long to find something like this where there's this huge sense of camaraderie and we can knock each other around and be as aggressive as we need to. And then we're all friends at the end and we all give each other hugs and it's great."

Drama has always been a part of roller derby. It started out as a long distance race in the 1930's where teams of two would switch off to skate as long as they could. The bouts could last months. James Vannurden is the director and curator of the National Museum of Roller Skating in Lincoln, Nebraska. "The goal of the derby was to skate 3,000 miles", Vannurden says. "It's supposedly the distance between Los Angeles and New York." Vannurden says players realized that collisions were the most exciting part of the sport, so the

Derby bout from the 1950's
Derby bout from the 1950's

rules were changed for the benefit of the audience. Early derby teams had male and female players, which Vannurden says, might explain why it's so popular with women today. "Women and men were on equal footing during the derby since its inception. And that was one of the only sports back then, if not the only sport, that a woman could compete in the same sport as a man at the same time."

At a local bout in Flagstaff, it's all women, all the time - except for the fans. There are a lot of men drinking PBR and cheering for their favorite players. Ken Sager says he likes derby because if allows women to be powerful. "I think that a lot of women nowadays are finding a place in derby", Sager says. "And I think that it's good for building role models in our community as a whole, for young girls and for women everywhere." But, he also admits it's just a lot of fun to watch. "It feels like maybe uranium being compressed until it explodes, reaches critical mass", Sager says. "It's just so much energy, it's just fantastic."