The female contact sport roller derby seems a modern notion but its origins stretch back to the 19th century during a mostly forgotten period when roller skating races were a popular spectator sport in the United States. Some of these races resembled present day extreme sports with the racing competitions covering hundreds of miles on occasion. Sometimes these competitions were so intense and grueling they resulted in injury and even death. Despite the potential bad public relations of these outcomes roller skating races continued to attract the attention of the sporting public and press into the early 20th century.
From the beginning, the sport consistently maintained a strong element of physical contact - if not violence (and a predictably rowdy fan base) – which did little to make roller sports legitimate in the eyes of the sporting public. Conversely, it also did little to derail the interest of the sporting public and by the time the 20's and 30's rolled around marathon roller racing on flat tracks became quite popular, mirroring the Depression-era interest in marathon sporting events involving walking and dancing.
The birth of modern roller derby can be traced fairly directly to 1935 when a savvy publicist named Leo Setzler organized a kind of Woodstock of roller racing with the Transcontinental Roller Derby in Chicago. The race covered 3,000 miles over a period of a couple of weeks and was meant to replicate a cross country journey from New York to Los Angeles - except it was confined to a roller track. This race was a sensation and Setzler took the show on the road staging roller skate races all over the country, filling up stadiums and attracting golden-age Hollywood A-listers such as Cary Grant, Jack Benny, and Henry Fonda.
These competitions were naturally combative with racers jockeying for position. This contact became a large part of the sport's appeal and the sport and its rules began to evolve to not only allow for substantial physical contact but to encourage it as a fundamental part of the contests. This "evolution" helped solidify roller derby as a contact sport first and foremost.
Despite the sport's grass-roots popularity and strong fan base, roller derby only became a national phenomenon through the power of early television. It was first broadcast in 1948 and featured "bouts" between teams from New York and Brooklyn. And, like pro wrestling, roller derby benefitted from television's ability to focus on charismatic individuals, melodramatic storylines, and good old American sex and violence since by now roller derby was exclusively female. Pretty soon, nearly every city of any size in the United States had an organized team and/or league.
Roller derby has gone through several boom and bust cycles since its peaks in the late 40's and 50's, but it never went away and always maintained at least a cult following among its appreciators. The 21st century has seen the sport surge in popularity thanks in no small part to a number of factors including an inclusive spirit, the DIY aesthetic, and the rise of social media which has helped drive some of the publicity for the sport and the teams.
New York is and always has been a central part of the history and popularity of the sport, and with the current renaissance of roller derby, teams and leagues have popped up around the state. Long Island’s Roller Rebels (longislandrollerrebels.com) arrived early to the present roller derby resurgence having formed in 2006. The Roller Rebels have built a strong fan base due to an interesting combination of family-friendly entertainment, playful sex appeal, and charismatic, colorful participants who sport outfits (or as they are referred to in derby parlance, “boutfits”) emphasizing the sports connection to burlesque, tattoo, and rockabilly imagery, with a typical boutfit consisting of fishnets, booty shorts, and accessorized helmets with their “derby names” (e.g. “Sleeping Booty”) splashed across them.
The Long Island Roller Rebels’ 2013 season is winding down at present with their last bout scheduled for November 9th. However, the team has already started preparing for the 2014 season with a boot camp having been held on October 27th (as a kind of short term preparation for later Derby tryouts), and official tryouts on November 12th.
So what kinds of people try out for the Long Island Roller Rebels? “We have all kinds of people from different backgrounds,” says Long Island Roller Rebels Vice President Breakneck Brie. “We get moms, teachers, professionals, students; as [roller derby] has become a more organized and serious sport we tend to get more athletic types with backgrounds in skating and hockey. We also tend to attract a wide range of ages, from early 20’s to women in their 40’s.”
According to Brie, the tryouts for the team are short, although disciplined and intense. “Our tryouts are for one day. Since we are Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby sanctioned we have to abide by their skill tests and participants aren’t allowed to participate in bouts until they pass certain skill tests. So for tryouts, we usually have them do all of the drills three or four times. This helps those who are trying out to get a sense of both being comfortable training and also helps participants figure out pretty quickly if this kind of training is for them or not.”
Passing the tryouts is an important first step in joining the Roller Rebels, but it is still only a first step. “After the initial tryouts the team gives you 3 months to polish basic skills like crossovers and stops. Once a participant is comfortable with the fundamentals we introduce the contact portion of roller derby.”
Brie believes that the tryout process is crucial to the Roller Rebels remaining vital to the Long Island and New York roller derby culture. Indeed, even those who don’t make the team can contribute in a significant way to the Roller Rebels. “We encourage and offer skaters who don’t make it through tryouts the possibility of joining support staff like the referee squad to help build support for the Roller Rebels and allow for people interested in the sport the opportunity to learn more about the sport and to stay with the league, learn the rules better, and be part of a healthy social scene where you can make a lot of friends.”
So, even though Roller Derby is, for most, a great spectator sport, for a select few it is a chance to be part of something very athletically unique with a strong “cool” factor. At the very least it is a great excuse to break out the fishnets and give yourself a catchy nickname.