The development and evolution of the sport is something that has really surprised me. It’s changed so much since it started in the 1930s as a commercial circus-like spectacle. Nowadays, it is run by the players for the players and is not about profits.
It all began during the Depression after the wall street crash in 1929. Leo Seltzer was a successful sports promoter and the inventor of the original Roller Derby. He made fast cash by inventing new and crazy forms of entertainment for the spectacle hungry unemployed workforce of America. Some of his schemes that preceded the Roller Derby included walkathons, ice-sitting contests, vaudeville comedians and unusual public wedding ceremonies. Roller Derby in its origination took on the form of the Transcontinental Derby which started in Chicago in 1933. It was a skating marathon that ran for seven weeks from midday until 2am every day, where 25 couples would try to skate the distance from New York to San Diego while their progress was tracked on a map of the famous cross-US highway Route 66.
The format of the sport started changing when at a marathon in 1937, one of the male skaters elbowed one of the other skaters and the crowd went wild egging them on. It was then that Leo Seltzer realised, with the help of journalist Damon Runyon, that what people wanted to watch was violence. Together they devised a new set of rules where on-track violence prevailed.
For the next decade the sport was immensely popular, with the 1949 National Roller Derby League world series drawing in a crowd of 55,000 at Madison Square Gardens. However, by 1953 the sport had almost entirely died out with only a few games held for the die-hard fans.
Roller Derby re-appeared again during the 1960s and ‘70s on television as a late-night entertainment that saw skaters committing staged acts of violence. Its popularity died out again by the 1980s but during the late 1990s the Seltzer family transformed Roller Derby into Rollerjam. Rollerjam was inline skating show played on a banked track played by speed skaters and roller hockey players with stories from pro wrestling. However, this new format only remained popular for a short time and the sport disappeared again.
The flat track roller derby that we all know and love today was born in Austin, Texas in 2001. A scenester known as Devil Dan hung had an idea to launch a Roller Derby for the angry women of Austin. His vision was for a circus-like show with midgets and fire twirlers to perform in a theatre. His idea was very popular amongst the locals and he shortly devised four teams: Rhinestone Cowgirls, Holy Rollers, Putas del Fuego and the Hellcats. They had signed up about twenty scenster girls to participate but it took a while before anyone started skating.
According to the rumours, Devil Dan suddenly disappeared and the newly appointed captains of the teams took it upon themselves to get organised. Team captains Iron Maiden, Miss Information, La Muerta and Hot Lips Dolly were given the nickname the SheEOs and it was them that started up the first league. The formed Bad Girl Good Woman Productions and with the help of the other new recruits, they pooled their skills to teach each other how to skate, play the game and get themselves physically ready to play. Sparkle Plenty captained the Rules committee and together, they adapted the rules of the extinct sport to make a new set of rules for flat track roller derby. The flat track was adopted because there was no way the texas skaters could afford to buy and install a banked track in the same style as the original roller derby. They adapted the measurements of the old style banked tracked and calculated what the dimensions would be if the track was laid flat using a CAD programme.
By early 2002, the league had 45 players and they had all volunteered to help run one part of it, establishing the tradition of the skaters running the league. They played their first public bout on June 23rd 2002 for an audience of friends and family. The bout was a success and the league had established itself.
However, there the management of the league soon became political leading to a split into the Texas Rollergirls and the Texas Roller Derby Lonestar Rollergirls, formed by the original SheEOs. At, this point roller derby started spreading across the US like wildfire but you’ll have to tune in next week for the next chapter in the story…
I have started this blog to track my growing love for and addiction to the fast and furious female dominated sport that is flat track roller derby. I started playing six months ago and in this short time I feel like I’ve learned so much but I know I still have a long way to go. It’s opened my eyes to so many new things and great people that I thought I would share my experience with others. For now, I’m going to leave you with an image that sums it up for me