E-Ville Roller Derby
Next game Saturday, April 12 at 6 p.m.
The Edmonton Sportsdome (10104 32 Ave.)
Tickets $10 at brownpapertickets.com
Walking into the Edmonton Sportsdome once a month on Saturdays, you will find a massive concrete space, full of people of all ages being dodged by athletic women in helmets and roller skates. After finding a seat alongside more than 100 spectators sipping a local beer the announcers have coaxed you into buying, the game begins. Announcers call out the team rosters, going down the list from ABBA Cadaver to ZZ Topless. The game that begins is a great demonstration of balance, strength and full-contact female intensity. Women attempt to dodge or crash into each other, constantly lapping a circle, all while keeping impressive control on four wheels. The sport is flat-track roller derby, and you’ll be hooked by the end of the first jam.
The sport has been gaining popularity over the last few years, largely thanks to 2009‘s Whip It, the film chronicling a pageant girl (Ellen Page) who joins a derby league, triggering her inspiring coming-of-age story.
However, local E-Ville derby players Quinlyn Hawkswell and Jennifer Wanke, better known as Bloody Cooper and Wonky Kong on the derby circuit, scoff at the film’s portrayal of the sport.
“One of E-Ville’s slogans is we promote the spectacle but we play the sport. Whip It is not a sport, it’s a spectacle. The new incarnation of flat track derby, it’s a sport, with rules, regulations and nothing is staged,” Wonky Kong, a University Of Alberta employee, says.
“There’s no elbows to the face. They don’t get away with that stuff (in real games),” Bloody Cooper, a second year U of A education student, adds. “(But) it’s accurate in the way that it’s a bunch of different women coming together. Other than that, Whip It isn’t very accurate.”
In the game of roller derby, two teams play against each other in hour-long matches. Each team has five players on the track at one time, with one player being the jammer. The jammer tries to pass all the other players and lap around the track, and gains points by passing other players within a two and a half minute “jam.” The rest of the team on the track try to block the other jammer and help theirs get through.
E-Ville is one of two roller derby leagues in Edmonton, having split from Oil City Derby Girls in 2007. An all-women’s league, they consist of 40 women ranging in age from 18 to 47 playing on three different house teams, plus a travel team. The travel team, who travel to play derby in other cities, is made of players pulled from all the teams in the league. If you’re of the male persuasion and looking for a team — Oil City Derby Girls has both men’s and co-ed teams. Alternatively, if you’re looking to get involved with E-Ville and not play, you can volunteer as a referee or refreshment vendor.
Because Whip It is the first exposure many have to derby, it’s easy to think the sport is a female fight club featuring mini-skirts and fishnets. But Wonky Kong says fights rarely happen, as there are many rules against intentional, aggressive hits to protect players.
“We have a strong code of conduct, it’s the one thing we don’t tolerate at all. It would deteriorate the sport.”
Roller derby is obviously full contact, so injuries are to be expected as with any contact game. But the violent perception of the sport is something the players are trying to change. Injuries pull players from benches, so minimizing long-term recurring injuries is key. Knowledge about how to take and make safe hits in games is crucial, as this reduces avoidable injuries.
“Concussions take a lot of girls out of derby. We do as much concussion awareness as possible because even minor concussions people don’t realize, they don’t treat them,” Wonky Kong says.
The E-Ville league has a training process to ease in new players and help them learn the rules of the game before they get drafted to one of the house teams. The “Fresh Meat” program teaches new recruits how to skate and how to hit, and when they pass a set of requirements, they become “Raw Zombies,” moving to a probationary period where they practice with the teams and hone their skills. It’s an experience of learning-by-doing, notes new player and third year U of A arts student Arianna Biasini (Lana del Rage). Older players take on leadership roles to help new players adjust.
“In practice scrimmage, they try to split us up with the veterans so it’s not unbalanced,” she says. “I have yet to have an experience where it’s like, ‘Oh, we don’t want them on our team because they’re new and aren’t as good as us yet.’ ”
Because all of the 40 women in the league practice together, the Raw Zombies interact with all the players and improve while becoming part of the league’s team environment.
“It’s really welcoming and really encouraging. They’re really nice and if you’re not sure about something they’re happy to help you out and provide really positive feedback,” Lana del Rage says.
The camaraderie and positive energy circulates through E-Ville, cementing the welcoming atmosphere for new players. An interesting aspect of derby is that there’s no “suggested body type,” as is sometimes the case in other sports. Because of the different positions, all body types are valued and useful, as someone very small makes a good jammer, and a bigger person makes a more effective blocker. The regard for all women in the sport intensifies friendships and urges players to help each other improve and refine their skills.
Derby also welcomes women from all walks of life, giving more depth to the house team personas. The Berzerkhers are vikings, Las Pistolitas are cholas and the Slice Girls are glam rockers. While the atmospheres of the teams change from year to year as players come and go, every one brings something to the team that adds a layer of personality.
“Some people join for the social element. Some people join because they hate the gym,” Wonky Kong says. “Some people are aggressive, some people are more calm — the interesting thing that I love is that everyone joins for a different reason.”
What started as a spectacle of women in short skirts hitting each other has transformed into much more. Roller derby is constantly evolving, both with rules and how the players interact with the game. Bloody Cooper relishes in the empowerment that’s being revealed, as the layers of fishnets and spectacle are being pulled back and the game becomes a true sport.
“We’re moving away from the theatrics and the tiny shorts and trying to make it sexy,” she says. “Like no, we’re trying to be athletes.”
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