Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mid-derby Identity Crisis

Hearing a lot of buzz about the Oly Rollers this past season, I was looking forward to seeing them skate this past weekend at Nationals, but nothing prepared me for the actual outcome of Nationals and how that would affect our community of skaters and leagues after the last bout on Sunday.

Two jams into the Oly/Gotham game, I turned to my teammate Holly Gohardley and said, “Should we just get up and head to the Marriott gym now? Cause I don’t know if we have enough time to prepare to play Oly in April.” Like everyone else in Philly or watching from home, we were stunned and astounded by Oly’s sheer athleticism.

I don’t claim to know much about the Oly Rollers as a league, but I’ve gathered from their website and from other people in the derby community who claim to know what’s what that they are a small league comprised of two traveling teams – an A team and a B team – whose home base is a roller rink in Olympia, Washington. It makes me think back to CCRG’s days at Skateland. The disconnect that arises in my thought process next is that I, for one, had always made the assumption that we would not rise to become a national contender until we had a larger/better venue. It sounds silly now having just typed that out. Why would the size, location, or facilities of the venue where we held bouts even matter when it comes to game play? Along those same lines, what does a high-quality website, sponsors, a professionally-designed program, or a vast media outreach have to do with becoming better skaters? Maybe it doesn’t – but is that still derby?

Like many leagues out there, Charm City faced a crossroads of sorts several years ago when we decided to align ourselves and our goals with becoming a more athletically-minded league – a more competitive league. The decision angered and greatly discouraged some of our skaters who were more in love with the idea of being a group of rollergirls (with the names, the uniforms, and the WWF-mentality) than our league’s idea of being a group of athletes who just-so-happened to be rollergirls. We spent years reconditioning the media in and around Baltimore to stop writing so many “Librarian by day” stories and write more stories about derby as a sport. We focused more on building our Charm City All Stars. We completely redesigned our skater training program. So you might see from this description of our metamorphosis to become athletes that I was rather taken back when a league mate of mine who claimed to know the bare-bones, nothing fancy, just-there-for-the skating mentality of Oly told me that “that’s not roller derby.”

All the while we were growing our skaters back in Charm City, we were also improving our league’s operations as a whole. We moved to a new amazing venue, we landed strategic sponsors, we crafted better merch, and we developed the now exceptionally-high standard we have set for anything artistic that represents our league (website, posters, programs). We’re all really proud of this, like many other leagues who have also worked hard to grow these elements in their leagues that have absolutely nothing to do with athleticism. Or do they?

Modern-day roller derby remains an institution that although we are committed to the idea of “by the skaters, for the skaters”, we are also committed to using the structure that we’ve built to keep the sport going, to grow the sport, and to hopefully finally leave a respectable legacy of derby for generations to come. The structure I’m referring to is all that other stuff that “has nothing to do with athleticism” but that puts butts in seats. By keeping fans coming back, we can finance our dream – a dream that if you had asked any of us would have included and still includes athleticism and love of the sport at the top of the list. Yet there seems to be an undefined definition or an unseen line that marks and explains how the majority of us envision roller derby and how we don’t envision roller derby.

What should roller derby be? We say we want athleticism, but we chose to dedicate at least a portion of our time spent on “derby” to the derby admin that enables all those other things to happen that frame the sport for our audience. If we REALLY wanted this to be about pure athleticism, wouldn’t we say “screw it” to the production and instead spend that extra time practicing?

It’s odd that as a community I have no knowledge of us ever having really considered NOT being as “big” as we are. Several years ago while still growing WFTDA, we were somewhat consumed by not allowing outsiders to step in and make our sport “so commercial”. We live and breathe by this value of being our own owners, yet we’ve never really considered making things easier on ourselves by reducing the fanfare associated with derby. Why?

Now, I know I seem to be going down this road that implies we all say “fuck it” and stop trying so hard to make our leagues and our sport successful in the minds of the public and “shut up and skate,” but you’re wrong. My answer to this is that like everything else in life balance is needed. I don’t think we have to choose between either pure athleticism or derby as most of us know it.

After this weekend there seems to be a slight panic in our community that there’s no way we’ll be able to both keep the spectacle going AND excel in our athleticism, yet without improving upon both at the same time, our sport’s popularity and growth could plateau and our dream could be shattered. I think that by going “big” and not resigning ourselves to flag-football-esque derby, we’re keeping the dream alive and we’re not compromising our values or desires, which may be a longer road to “having it all” – a place where retired-skater admins perpetuate the bigness of our sport and active skaters CAN spend more time focusing on being athletes – but that long road is worth it (in fact, I think it’s the only way we can fulfill our dream), and I think we’re close.

Let’s face it, most of us wouldn’t be playing this sport if it were another attempt at pure spectacle, just like most of us wouldn’t be playing this sport if bouts between really great skaters took place on Wednesday evenings in a church gym. Where derby’s concerned, sport and spectacle are not mutually exclusive – one simply cannot exist without the other, and modern-day roller derby wouldn’t exist without both.

I think we should use the panic as motivation to taking the next step in modern-day roller derby, just like I think I should use the panic to get my ass to the gym more and kick it up a notch, so I don’t have my ass handed to me by someone twice my size in April. This sport’s growing faster than we can keep up with it, and some of us are growing faster than we even realize. I dare say our dream has already come true, but like any athlete, I also know there’s always room for improvement. Who’s ready to do this?


Holly said...

oh, oh...ME!

PENALTYna said...

I AM!!!!!

I AM READY!!!!!!!!



deathany 666 said...

i'm so ready.

The Coroner said...

Good reading! Very thoughtful post.

Bulldog said...

Thanks, Cindy! You make some really good and thoughtful points.

I think a balance is definitely needed. It's worth pointing out that every sport is at least partly spectacle. Look at football half-time shows and end-zone dances, the wacky mascots and performing field groomers in baseball or the grandiose introductions at basketball or hockey games. Even the Olympic Games both starts and ends with epic, spectacularly produced ceremonies.

So it's certainly not wasted effort to try to put on an entertaining show. I mean who would seriously dare to even suggest eliminating an act like Montreal's New Skids on the Block halftime show last Saturday! The tournament would not have been the same without that!

However, there's always a point where the spectacle takes a backseat and gives way to pure sport. We're still trying to figure out exactly where that line belongs in derby.

But I think there will always be plenty of room for both. And if you want to beat Oly, hitting the gym is probably a good way to start.

howie~swerve said...

What a great post, Cindy. You read my mind. Listening to these debates, I think people are missing the difference between "being athletic", which can be a great part of derby culture, and "athleticISM", which... like all "-isms", implies a lifestyle and perhaps an ideology (one full of protein shakes and fitness gurus).

I worry that "athleticISM" is *not* compatible with derby culture. It's like the difference between "being beautiful" and the "culture of beauty" -- or "being smart" and "the culture of intellectualism". Sure, Oly skaters are powerful and athletic, but that's not really what bothers people. It's that they seem to belong to the culture of athleticism rather than the culture of derby. I say this as a mere observer of the debate who doesn't know any Oly skaters, so this could be comPLETEly unfair, I admit. Would *love* to be corrected on this.

On the other hand, as long as Dumptruck is singing the national anthem, we won't need a "Keep Derby Weird" campaign anytime soon!


Anonymous said...

League start off as do-it-yourself business'(D.I.Y.) As that is a punk rock ethic, I think another ethic, "If you become successful, then you're a sellout" might play into this.

When a league grows and expands, it's tricky to go from being a group of people to becoming a structure. There are things you gain, and things you lose. Kind of like the differences between living in small towns and big towns.

-- Ill Rev

JeLLyPiG said...

Great post.

I'm sure ready to see Charm City out here in the NorthWest in April. Hell I'm even planning to shine on my usual RCR bout to see you guys in the flesh, in Oly. You won this derby fan over in Regionals.

Anonymous said...

Stay tuned for the Roller Derby Workout Challenge coming January 11th. We will spend 8 weeks guiding rollergirls through a daily diet and fitness plan with a free blog. We are calling on experts from Men's and Women's Health magazine to help us preach the word of fitness and turn anyone willing into an athletic machine! It will be completely free and participants will be eligible for a free trip to Los Angeles! More info coming soon!

Tara Armov said...

To me, this is a very tricky crossroads.

Yes, everyone was blown away by Oly. But...wasn't part of the appeal of DIY derby that it WASN'T like other sports?

I don't know if "spectacle" is really the opposing word to "sport" in the entire discussion, but yes, that whateveritis is what made me interested in derby, while getting into better shape is an incredible side benefit.

After this weekend, I sense the panic might end another era in DIY derby if done wrong. Maybe this is the time to start talking divisions not of geography, but of skill. That would leave more room for more skaters of more levels.

As Dumptruck would say, "WORK IT OUT!!!!!!!"

Vince said...

Excellent post. It's interesting and inspiring to see that many leagues share the same evolutionary arch. Even leagues divided by thousands of miles with skaters who have never met- the transition is similar and shared...

In LA, while the Derby Dolls are banked track, I think we've manage to allow both a concentration on athleticism and spectacle by having volunteer staff who handles production of events (incorporation of Sound, Lighting, Video, more) while the skaters can concentrate on skating. By extending the world to really be a volunteer COMMUNITY, things continue to grow.

For me, it's still about the skaters 100%: but I think what the girls do on the track is pure rockstar, and we just strive to make the rest of the event compliment and keep up with the amazing action of the athletes on the track.

-Vince Wheel,
Team RaD, LA Derby Dolls

DayGlo Divine said...

Watching Oly take down the reigning titans of derby was bittersweet in a way. Not in the sense that their victories were in any way undeserved; they are an awesome team, and their blockers in particular deserve far more credit than they've received. But perhaps even more than the "spectacle," derby's appeal has always been the fact that even in competitive play, there are people who don't come from an athletic background, and perhaps were woefully out of shape or didn't know how to skate when they started. And a team like Oly, with several Nationals-caliber speed skaters who quite possibly rolled before they walked and have invested their entire lives into skating, changes that landscape. From my understanding, speed skating is historically far stronger in the PNW than just about anywhere else. Most leagues are lucky if they have one person with those skills, let alone half a team. Teams at the top level of play are really going to have to raise the bar if they have any chance of competing with that. At that point, it becomes more than something people do a few times a week, for a few hours after work. It requires training like an Olympian. And while there's nothing wrong with putting that much effort into the sport, it does mean some level of attrition.

Masonte Burn said...

I think this entry really captures aspects of the evolution of this sport as I see it. Where there was once jammers in the lead throwing horns to the crowd there are now speed skaters nose down and fast as hell. As a fan and photog in the Pac NW I witness the entire gambit of teams from the machine that is Oly to the crazy new startup that "unleash the dogs of war!"

The question is absent consensus will the league move in the same direction or fracture and part ways, athletes in one direction and showmanship in another.

Rink Rash & Recreation said...

Not like I want to say it but I will; if curling (a sport that provides beer within the membership fee) can be in the Olympics, then derby shalt not be threatened by termed athleticism nor by the possibility of spectacle elimination.

Derby will survive (formative years began in the 30s right), if it can keep the buy in of the people. And people will always love strong, athletic, and FUN sports. Those girls are fast, we all can be faster; it does take work and by golly work is not something we are strangers to.