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Pump Up the Jams

April 10th, 2012     by Derek Hogue     Comments

Walking onto the track, the first thing you notice is the women are taller and faster on skates. Much faster. They bump and pass each other, and in the last jam the crowd is screaming, cheering, and pumping their fists. Margaret Smackwood blocks an opponent; her teammate Viktory Lapp overtakes the pack. It looks like they’ve done the impossible, that they’ve got this in the bag with only a breathless 25 seconds left in the game. The stands are erupting and the crowd is practically feral.

At the Toronto Roller Derby season opener last month The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, or the D-VAS, split their team in half to play against each other for the first of the night’s two bouts. When I asked the team’s co-captain, Margaret Smackwood, if it would be weird to play against her teammates, she shrugged. “Yeah, we practice against each other all the time. And at parties, someone usually ends up hip-checking someone else. We can’t help it; we always end up making contact. There are always hits.”

It was the hits that interested me when I approached Smackwood for this piece. When she’s not on wheels her name is Meghan MacDonald, and, like me, she works with books and publishing. The literary world may be where our paths originally crossed, but it was her occasional bad ass Derby tweets that intrigued me. When I met with Smackwood at a coffee shop I couldn’t keep myself from telling her how intimidated I was by the Derby girls. She laughed. That’s how almost everyone feels at first, she told me. These skaters are made of some seriously tough stuff.

Before every bout a video is played to illustrate the basic objectives and rules. While I imagine this would seem strange in a football stadium or at basketball game, I definitely appreciated the primer. Derby is played by two teams of five on a flat oval track, matches are called bouts and each bout is split into jams that last for two minutes. Each team is made up of four blockers and a jammer. The two sets of blockers start ahead of the jammers, and points are awarded for each blocker that the jammer passes as she tries to skate ahead and overlap the pack. Each blocker has two aims: keep the opposing jammer behind them and enable their own jammer to pass through the pack.

There are additional rules that limit the kinds of contact blockers can make. Nevertheless, there is this terrifying move called the can opener, where a blocker gets a little ahead of whomever she wants to take out, skates low to the ground and then pops up like a jack in the box, pushing her shoulder blades right into her opponent’s sternum to forcefully knock her down. Like I said, tough stuff.

Guided by a profoundly progressive ethos, the Toronto Roller Derby League (ToRD) really does put inclusive, intersectional feminism into practice; the league is trans-inclusive and body positive, and the Derby community is built on the active participation of all members of the league. Players are expected to put in about ten hours a week to practice and volunteer. As an incorporated business run almost entirely by the women in the game, everything about the ToRD, from PR to T-Shirt sales is handled by someone who knows how to booty block; the organization is fueled by passion for the sport.

Passion was definitely in high supply when I sat in with the D-VAS for a strategy meeting two weeks before their opening bout. The session was led by Smack Mia Round, or as Smackwood introduced her, the D-VAS resident rule nerd. In addition to rule nerding, Mia also sits on the ToRD stats committee, and at the end of the meeting she exhorts her teammates to volunteer. There was a real sense of community in the air; the women laughed easily and made many overtures to do more, to get even more involved. They couldn’t get enough of Derby and they couldn’t get enough of each other.

Even when discussing the technical minutia of the game, the whole meeting had a deliciously ribald flavour. Mia went over illegal blocking zones, and, without taking a breath, she quipped: “Every Derby girl has grabbed another Derby girl’s boobs on the track.” She smiled, adding “Or off the track.”

The D-VAS are the farm team for the other six teams in Toronto, and they’ve mostly all come up together in the ranks. Smackwood said that there were about 90 women registered for the initial Fresh Meat training session. Including Mia and Smackwood, 25 women passed the skills test at the end of last season’s Fresh Meat, and so were eligible to join the D-VAS. “You probably lose about half of the people halfway through. That’s when the contact part of the sport comes into it,” Smackwood said. “[It’s like,] C’mon, it hurts! That’s scary!”

The game is still relatively new, just over a decade old. Having been reinvented from the scripted 1970s pageantry into a competitive game requiring strategy, skill, and major sass, Roller Derby is continually negotiating its own identity. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association is the international governing body for the game, and its tagline is “Real. Strong. Athletic. Revolutionary.” I take this to mean that the sport is in the process of outgrowing its own kitsch factor. What other sport requires the word ‘real’ attached to its governing body?

While most players still skate under sassy pseudonyms, and fishnet tights remain an important part of the uniform, Roller Derby seems to be gradually moving away from its retro roots and staking a claim for more athletic legitimacy. In an interesting move, the inaugural Roller Derby World Cup, held in Toronto last year, saw team USA playing under their real names.

I asked Smackwood if she thought that the move helped legitimize the sport. “This is what we do!” she said. “There’s something about the pseudonym that allows me to be a different person out there.” While performance remains a part of Derby, the league is aware that it straddles a strange line between sport and spectacle. “We’re very cognizant of that… but it’s a real sport! It’s not just for show. We practice, the same way you would if you were playing hockey.” She added, “But we know that there is an entertainment value. And we’re okay with that.”

Watching Viktory Lapp come racing down the track towards me, I feel more than entertained. With her team trailing, Smackwood stops short on her opposing blockers and clears a path; Viktory charges through, picking up nine points in the final jam. I am surrounded by whoopers and hollerers. My face flushes and suddenly I’m standing up, screaming in the stands. The last jam closes a long score gap and the D-VAS make serious gains. They take the lead. The points just keep coming, and holy shit they’re gonna win! My eyes dart from the track to the scoreboard and back again, and I nearly miss it when the opposing jammer sneaks by the pack at the last second, scoring four final points. Smackwood’s team loses by two points. On the sidelines the D-VAS all come back together, slicked with sweat and flashing wide mouth-guarded smiles. The women hug, give each other high fives, throw themselves at each other. Here they are, on the same team again.

Emily M. Keeler is a writer based in Toronto.

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