The new feature-length documentary “Hell on Wheels” shows that roller derby isn’t just a sport — it’s a revolution.
“Hell on Wheels” recounts how a group of women in Austin, Texas, rolled with an off-the-cuff idea and turned a historical piece of campy entertainment into a vital sport and lifestyle for themselves and thousands of women across the country.
When I’m not writing about arts and entertainment, I’m The Beirut Bombshell, pivot, blocker and jammer for the Hellions of Troy Roller Derby League.
Recently, I watched “Hell on Wheels” with some of my derby sisters. We could relate to those euphoric moments encapsulated in chaotic practices, tense meetings and triumphant bouts. We also saw in the skaters from Texas derby girls we knew in the Capital Region. We saw those joys and struggles of starting a league that we knew so well. We could pick out the natural leaders, the stars, the peacemakers, the revolutionaries within the revolutionaries.
Like those Austin women who spend their days as massage therapists or mothers, my derby sisters include a nurse who specializes in the booty block and a college art professor with a penchant for hard hits.
Like now, those Austin women swarmed to roller derby for the thrill of the sport, the rush of speeding around the track, whipping their jammer past the opposition and slamming the other team into each other to create maximum pileup. They created the model that most derby girls live by now: organizations by women for women who are audacious, adventurous and tenacious. Roller derby — in all its third-wave, DIY feminist fishnetted glory — is perfect for women who never quite fit in.
Just seven years after those Austin derby girls skated their first bout, roller derby has whipped its way into every corner of the country, with nearly 400 leagues at current count and more popping up each week. In addition to “Hell On Wheels,” modern roller derby was the subject of a 2006 A&E reality show and is the premise of the upcoming feature film “Whip It,” Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut.
For the uninitiated, roller derby is played on an oval track while wearing speed skates. There are two teams of five on the track. Each team has a jammer, who scores a point for each opposing player she passes. As the jammers race around the track, the blockers maneuver their jammer through while simultaneously trying to stop the other jammer. Each jam lasts up to two minutes; bouts are an hour long.
In “Hell on Wheels,” we see those first crucial moments, when those would-be rollergirls in Austin struggled to figure out how to organize teams, what kind of business structure to use, even how to play the game.
“We thought there were two jammers per team and for a while we were playing like that, with four jammers on the track,” said April “La Muerta” Rizenthanler, who is featured in the movie as one of the original team captains and is now the manager of the TXRD Lonestar’s Putas del Fuego team. “Someone finally went to the University of Texas archives to find us some footage. And we got a book.”
The film also documents how the Austin skaters eventually split over philosophical and business differences. That split led to the creation of two leagues.
Banked vs. flat
The TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls (depicted in the 2006 reality show “Rollergirls”) uses a banked track, has four teams and plays the handful of other banked-track leagues around the country.
The Texas Rollergirls started the flat track movement, created the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association and are now joined by nearly 400 leagues around the world.
In the Capital Region, I’m a founding member of the Hellions of Troy, after splitting off from the Albany All Stars over similar differences. Many of the All Stars wanted to get a banked track and play with fewer rules. The Hellions are a part of the larger roller derby community and hope to eventually become a part of WFTDA.
That doesn’t mean the sport isn’t rough. Unlike the 1970s, there isn’t any fighting (and in those days it was staged, anyway). Instead, there are whips, hard checks and back directional blocking. (Ever try hitting someone who’s behind you with your shoulder or hip while racing away from them? Not easy.)
Derby, for better or worse, is a way of life. In fact, I spend most of my time with women who have names like Detrimental Diva, Shockratease and Sonic Euthanizer. The only people who call me by my birth name are my co-workers, sources and family.
“It’s phenomenal how invested people get so quickly with this sport,” said Lane “Strawberry” Greer, a former member of the Texas Rollergirls who is featured prominently in “Hell on Wheels,” when reached by phone.
By the time I started playing in 2007, some aspects of organizing a league had gotten a little easier. There are now multiple skate companies that offer roller girl packages, complete with skates, wheels, safety pads and a helmet. Skaters all over the country have started message boards to discuss topics ranging from drills and strategy to business structures and fundraisers.
But even with all that information out there, leagues still have to find what works best for them. Do they want to follow the rules of the WFTDA and strive for membership, or do they want to play a more violent game? Do they want all members to be equal owners? Do they want a board of directors or a president?
Those periods of struggle, of figuring out exactly what roller derby and having a derby organization means, are part of what make being a derby girl special. We’re pioneers, writing and rewriting the history of the fastest growing sport of the 21st century.
“We were going through permutations of chaos and enlightenment,” said Rizenthanler, “which is the whole meta story of roller derby anyway.”