Roller Derby's Roots? The Great Depression - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Roller Derby's Roots? The Great Depression

Comic Slams vs. Smash Malice during the Richter City Roller Derby Season Grand Final.
SourceHagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Roller Derby's Roots? The Great Depression

By Carl Pettit


“Because it looked like such fun, skating fast and hitting people.”

By Carl Pettit

Joan Weston, the golden-haired 6-foot-3 captain of San Francisco’s Bay Bombers, barreled through a line of blockers in a bid to score points. But her archrival on Brooklyn’s Red Devils, Ann “the Lioness” Calvello, wasn’t thrilled about being passed. Pushing 50 and with decades of derby fighting behind her, Calvello grabbed Weston, and fists and elbows began to fly. Tempers flared, penalties ensued and the skating eventually resumed … until another scuffle broke out a few minutes later, this time with Calvello using her helmet to bludgeon the opposition.

Both women, albeit battered and bruised, “were true pioneers of the sport,” says Alex Cohen, host of Southern California Public Radio’s “Take Two” show, co-author of Down and Derby: The Insider’s Guide to Roller Derby and, as “Axles of Evil,” a former member of Austin’s Holy Rollers and the L.A. Derby Dolls. Calvello, with varying punk-rock hair colors, a brash personality and tough resolve, played the perfect foil to Weston’s valiant “Blonde Amazon” persona. Having met Calvello, Cohen says, “I was so impressed by her rare combination of true grit and kind spirit. She was a woman like no other!” 

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Adrienne Donato, aka ‘Kandy Kakes’, from the Bronx Gridlock, part of NYC’s only all-female roller derby league.

Source Stan Honda/AFP/Getty

[Roller derby] has given women of all backgrounds, ages, races, shapes and sizes a wonderful way to feel confident about themselves.

Alex Cohen

There were many different derby rivalries, says Cohen. While skaters naturally felt more competitive toward some opponents, “many of us naturally gravitated toward a fellow skater who we considered our skating soul mate,” she says. Cohen’s nemesis? Myna Threat, a woman she also calls her “neme-sister,” because, despite fierce tussles on the track, “it was all in good sport and nothing was ever mean-spirited.”

Before there was all-female roller derby (banked or flat track), there was just roller derby, which went through decades of revivals and rebirths to become what it is today. In the late 1800s, derbies were grueling, long-distance roller-skating events that could last hours, or days, and sometimes even resulted in death. In 1935, Leo Seltzer established the first official roller derby league. Having worked in the film industry, Seltzer understood promotion and how to give the suffering masses — it was the Great Depression, after all — a low-cost spectacle. He formed the coed Transcontinental Roller Derby, which soon morphed into skating bouts with point scoring, blocking and deliberate contact. This eventually turned into races infused with larger-than-life personalities and plenty of staged theatrics. 

With radio and, later, television coverage, roller derby grew in popularity throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. But the sport began to fizzle after the ’70s (despite televised efforts like RollerGames and RollerJam), until Daniel Eduardo Policarpo created a wild, all-female incarnation of roller derby in Texas in 2000. It fused alternative sex appeal — akin to the pierced and tattooed models favored by the Suicide Girls virtual community — with the rough-and-tumble carnival nature of contact skating, leading to the rollout of grassroots leagues around the world. These developments, combined with a boost from films like Whip It (on which Cohen served as trainer and derby consultant), helped popularize the sport, culminating in 2011’s first Roller Derby World Cup in Toronto, where Team USA won big.

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Roller Derby circa 1953

Source Ron Burton/Keystone/Getty Images

Christy “Demons” Hughes, who skates for the VRDL All Stars, and laced up for Australia in the 2014 World Cup, says that she was initially drawn to roller derby “because it looked like such fun, skating fast and hitting people.” But she learned to love the sport’s rules and strategies — roller derby has shaken off most of the staged drama of its early years. “It excited me to come up with strategies that baffled the other team, to study other teams and be the best team we could be,” Hughes says.

Cohen thinks much of roller derby’s modern success can be attributed to women who grew up in the 1970s, “going to birthday parties at roller rinks and watching the derby episode of Charlie’s Angels and Fantasy Island,” and who then decided to live out their childhood fantasies in their 20s and 30s. “It was a great underground, countercultural phenomenon,” she says, which “has given women of all backgrounds, ages, races, shapes and sizes a wonderful way to feel confident about themselves.”

The grassroots approach to the “practice, promotion and recruitment” of modern leagues, exemplified by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, combined with the enthusiasm of players and fans likely means that this aggressive and spirited incarnation of roller derby will only continue to pick up speed.

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