When Derby was DERBY (Blog Reboot)

When Derby was DERBY (Blog Reboot)

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On January 29, 2012 I published this article. It’s funny that the argument is still going. Not only the old school versus new school skaters but the idea that the rules of new school are broken. The argument that if it “ain’t fast it ain’t derby”. Yes the Puget Sound v Your Mom game was an awesome one at MRDA Champs last weekend. However, the more staccato, stronger-yet-sometimes-slow Southern Discomfort against Bridgetown Menace was no less exciting. Anything italicized, ps, is different from the original article, I didn’t want to re-write this. It was popular for a reason the first time around. The photos have also been updated.

So with that I bring you my next reboot:

Old School vs. New School. Strategy vs. Smash ‘n’ Grab. Jammer Line vs. Pivot Line. Booty Block vs. Big Hits. Rules vs. Free Form. Beer & Camaraderie vs. Cross Training & Team Commitment. Sharp, Strong, Stops vs. Fast, Fluid, Sweeping. 

These are the dichotomies that have bubbled to the surface of the sub-culture of derby. A generation gap has arisen between the vets of “the good ol’ days” and the skaters of the modern culture.

Since the new revolution of roller derby started (back in 2001), the landscape of the sport has shifted considerably. When it was first gaining momentum, skaters and leagues were looking to the tradition of 1970’s over-the-top antics for inspiration. They had to learn how to play the sport from the only people that had played the sport.

The result was a show of big hits, cages as penalty boxes, personas and spectacle. Game play was spotty during the early years. Leagues were figuring out through trial and error what worked, what did not; what was dangerous and what was just fun. The game was unrefined. Those who were drawn to roller derby wanted to together with friends, to hit things and drink beer. It was not about refining strategy and being at your healthiest. The ultimate goal of roller derby was to have fun, skate really fast and hard, and maybe, be a little bit of show.

WFTDA Derby looked a little different in 2010.
WFTDA Derby looked a little different in 2010.

When leagues started (the boom of flat track roller derby really started at the end of 2005), girls who are now legendary did not know how to skate. Everyone was new. Other than the speed, jam or artistic skaters that joined the ranks, few girls were adept at the art and skill of roller skating. Forget putting a sport on top of that! This is what made the game unrefined for a while. Everyone was still learning their balance and stability on eight wheels, so being agile and clean on a grand scale was near impossible.

Times, they are a-changing.

It is common now for leagues to have skaters with six years of experience on wheels. From just that one element, the game has changed. Girls who are now coming into the game must train more seriously in order to compete with the vets who have simply been wheels for years. At a boot camp by the Gotham Girls, Suzy Hotrod stated to skaters: “Yea I can do a lot [on skates]. I’ve been doing it for seven years. If you put up with this sport for that long, you’ll be just as good.”

Suzy Hotrod is a modern legend of derby because of the hard work and dedication she has given to the sport on and off skates. Photo by David Dyte.
Suzy Hotrod is a modern legend of derby because of the hard work and dedication she has given to the sport on and off skates. Photo by David Dyte

Most skaters do not want to wait seven years, and they realize that if they cross-train, improve their diet and treat their body like a professional athlete, they will accelerate exponentially. There has been a health revolution! More leagues are partnering with gyms and personal trainers. More skaters are paying attention to their nutrition and workout routine off the track, because they realize it will have a direct impact on their performance during game play.

Lifting. Yes. It's a thing I do to get better at derby. Deadlifts are awesome for all the things.
Lifting. Yes. It’s a thing I do to get better at derby. Deadlifts are awesome for all the things.

Support groups and workout routines focused on derby have emerged. The Roller Derby Workout Challenge ran for three years. The Derbalife Big 5 Challenge has operated several times; both are challenges designed to teach and motivate. Derbalife is skater-centered nutrition that includes skater-to-skater coaching. Learn about Derbalife.

Winning is fun, and the way to win in 2012 (and even more now in 2014!!) is to be strong of body and of mind.

Speaking of ‘mind’, game play and strategy have changed dramatically in the last three years (five years!). Since the inception of W.F.T.D.A., skaters and refs have taken note about what works on the track and what are health hazards. While the rule set that has evolved over the years can be confusing to the untrained reader, it is so because it has developed organically. If an established rule continually gets challenged, interpreted differently at different bouts, or has shown itself to not protect the skaters, it has been changed. One of the best features of the W.F.T.D.A. set up: voting member leagues have been able to shape the sport itself over the years. Modern Note: And for the M.R.D.A. the ability to look through the rules and make any further clarifications or adjustments as their organization feels is needed.

Now, we get to the crux of it. Because skaters have shaped the sport over the years, skaters have been able to control how they want the game to be played. The best leagues are able to look at the rules and understand the implicit meaning behind the rules. Most leagues look at a rule set and understand what it says. The winning leagues are the ones that understand what the rules DO NOT say. From what the rules do not say, a league can exploit the loopholes and skate circles around leagues that do not understand the implicit meanings.

Definition of stop blocks and direction of game play and all rules are determined by the member leagues. Rolling Stone R may appear to be breaking a rule while blocking Captain Obvious, but not according to rule definition. Photo by Danny Ngan Photography 2014
Definition of stop blocks and direction of game play and all rules are determined by the member leagues. It has shaped the game to be what we see now (Rolling Stone R backwards blocking Captain Obvious during the MRDA Championships, a move we did not see [often if at all] pre-2012). Photo by Danny Ngan Photography 2014
So, this causes a bigger need to pay attention to detail. In order to compete, every league must understand the new loopholes and strategies being used by the leagues around them. It means watching bout reels. It means watching other bouts. It means extra strategy sessions. It means extra hard training at practice. Those skaters who do more outside of practice to understand the game and new skills and tactics will be the ones most successful in scrimmage, and therefore in bouts.

Five years ago, girls could walk into a league and party. They could practice twice a week, play dirty and laugh about it later because they would still make the all star team. They would still win games. They would still be super stars. No more is it the case. Drinking teams with a derby problem do not exist in the modern world of roller derby: it is an ‘adapt or die’ sport.

What does dedication look like? There's a reason these 3 teams have gotten medals at champs in 2013 AND 2014. Photo by Danny Ngan Photography
What does dedication look like? There’s a reason these 3 teams have gotten medals at champs in 2013 AND 2014. Photo by Danny Ngan Photography

Skaters who do not care about their craft simply do not skate on high level all star teams, and even the smallest leagues are becoming highly competitive. Leagues that do not care about their strategy do not win. When you do not win, you do not have fans. You lose skaters to more serious leagues, your sponsors drop off. You perish.

So are “the good ol’ days” of derby gone? Maybe, but the motto of “Skate hard, turn left” endures. There are still bruises to show off, rink rash to brag about and beers to buy after a hard fought bout. Rivalries still happen, and what happens on the track still stays on the track.

Mass Maelstrom and New York Shock Exchange are known for their rivalry on the east coast. As two of the oldest men's teams they have seen the changes of derby - and they still play just as hard and fast as ever. (Bill Coulter dances around Chris Szabo in the first round of the MRDA Championships 2014). Photo by Danny Ngan Photography
Mass Maelstrom and New York Shock Exchange are known for their rivalry on the east coast. As two of the oldest men’s teams they have seen the changes of derby – and they still play just as hard and fast as ever. (Bill Coulter dances around Chris Szabo in the first round of the MRDA Championships 2014). Photo by Danny Ngan Photography

The game may feel different than it did in 2006, and the training may be far more intense, but it does not make any of it less awesome. Whether beers and brawlin’ or hydration and smarts, roller derby is a uniquely intense sport. The vets should be proud of the foundation and history they created. The current generation should be just as proud of how they have cultivated their craft and shaped modern roller derby.

Now … who wants to hit open skate?

Thank you Harrisburg Area Roller Derby, David Dyte and Danny Ngan Photography for use of the photos in this blog!

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