Dating back to the early 1920s, roller derby has given women a chance to get out their aggression. Women who by day are bankers, mothers, and office workers take to the rink by night, pummeling each other all while on wheels.
By Charlotte Mountford
can’t imagine Beth Bandimere pushing anyone on to a concrete floor at high speed – least of all enjoying it. She has a high, friendly voice and wears a pink ribbon in her hair. A mother of three, by day Beth works in a bank.
Yet three evenings a week she becomes “Fiona Grapple,” a feisty roller derby girl battling it out with her teammates in the Rocky Mountain Rollergirls league; she races round the track, stopping at nothing to win a ‘bout,’ the derby name for a game.
“If you didn’t already know I did derby, you would never guess!” she laughs, “You would never know I take great pleasure in knocking people down!”
Beth has played in roller derby leagues for six years now. Starting with the Denver Roller Dolls, she moved to the Rocky Mountain Rollergirls in 2009. Within each league there are teams who bout against each other, but if you are really good – like Beth – you also belong to the league’s all-star travel team which play at a national level. Team names include the Sugar Kill Gang, the 5280 Fight Club, and the Contenders, Beth’s own travel team.
With its origins in Depression-era America, roller derby now boasts over 400 leagues spanning 10 countries, having made a huge comeback since its demise in the 80’s. “I’m a hard hitter – that’s my specialty,” Beth says sweetly, “I’m primarily a blocker – one of the girls in the pack who ‘moves’ the other girls out of the way.”
“The first time I ever got out there and knocked a girl down I just thought this is fun!” But the sport has taken its toll. “My worst, and most painful, injury was when I separated my shoulders in a bout. I ‘greened out’ for a little bit and had to go to the emergency room.” Beth has had reconstructive surgery on both wrist ligaments just from lots of wear and tear and falling down, “so I have some cool scars,” she laughs.
Though she doesn’t look it, Beth is clearly tough as nails. “If my work friends from the bank come to watch me in derby I’d say, ‘just remember, what you see here doesn’t come back to the office!’ ”
This alter ego seems to be an important factor: Every woman has her own special skate name, usually a famous person with a twist. Beth’s own name is a spirited play on singer Fiona Apple, whilst other members on her team skate as “Audrey Rug Burn” and “Queen Elizabitch.”
In Whip It, the 2009 roller derby movie directed by Drew Barrymore and starring Ellen Page, a tiara-wearing Pageant queen (Page) finds her path in life – and her best friends – through skating derby. In an interview, Drew Barrymore described the sport as cropping up like wildfire around the U.S. “There’s a surge, a swell. It’s like a wonderful manifestation of this need to find your Alter ego and family, and to kick ass.”
Beth agrees: “roller derby liberates, it’s a chance to express yourself.… Oh, it’s wonderful,” she sighs.
And the deliberate violence? The biting and hair pulling? “A myth,” says Beth, “but it’s a perception people have. In the roller derby of the 70’s there was a lot of performance, huge dramatic falls. It’s not like this anymore.”
Today roller derby is a sport with a serious governing body: Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. “There are many, many rules about how you can and can’t hit, and they won’t stand for any deliberate fighting,” Beth insists.
“In all my years of skating I’ve seen maybe two fights. We want to be taken seriously as a sport, and feel with the athleticism of the derby there’s already enough excitement.”
It depends on the league: Some are more “out there” than others, such as the California-based B.A.D. Girls who are “a lot of fun,” says Beth, “they dress up in costume, but this doesn’t mean they’re not a serious team. It’s just they are more into the performance part of it.”
“So you’ve never skated in a tutu?” I ask. “Oh no, I have!” exclaims Beth, “but style has evolved in roller derby. When it started, tutus and fishnets were in vogue. Now we wear tights. … I have my little sparkly hot pants on over them so you’re not showing a whole lot of skin. To be honest exposed skin is pretty painful when you slide across the concrete track! But my tutu was more 2006,” she shrugs.
So it’s not all tattoos, pink hair and black eyes. Beth has only one tattoo, her “tramp stamp” which she acquired in the 90’s on the small of her back “just like everyone else,” but that’s as far as it goes.
Beth insists that whether you are a “tatted up girl with a shaved head, or a mom of three like me, there’s a place for you in roller derby.” The film Whip It portrays the sport accurately in the sense of sisterhood bonds developed between different ‘types’ and ages of women: some of Beth’s best friends are her derby girls.
Sport-wise however, Whip It falls short, showing bouts taking place on bank tracks – sloping tracks that are set up specifically for derby bouts – instead of the more commonly used flat track. Bank track is uncommon Beth reveals, simply because it’s expensive and difficult to set up – a logistical nightmare for the leagues, which are all skater owned, organized and run.
“In that sense doing roller derby is a big commitment, huge,” Beth warns. “A lot of girls think ‘Oh, this looks like fun,’ and join, not realizing that as well as skating with the league you have additional responsibilities. I work on the finance committee, we fundraise and I help organize the bouts – everyone’s expected to be there.”
On a typical day Beth gets up at 5 a.m., gets her kids to school, goes to work at the bank, comes home, and then gets her kids off to their various sports activities – so far fairly normal. But at 6 p.m. Fiona Grapple takes over; “typically derby starts at 6 p.m. I’ll usually skate until 9 p.m., come home and fall into bed!”
It’s a sacrifice, but she loves derby. “It’s not mainstream. You get to have the silly name; you can dress up a little bit. It’s an identity separate from what you are in normal life. It’s affirmative for women.”
Roller derby continues to grow, ever popular with women like Beth all over the world. “It’s great physical exercise, a release, and the only thing I have which is mine, all mine,” Fiona Grapple smiles.