Saturday, February 27, 2010

Whip It vs. Reality

I'm finally feeling better and was able to go to derby practice this morning. Since I write about Roller Derby a lot you may be asking this question - How well does the movie Whip It capture the sport of modern roller derby? The answer: Pretty well! While there are a handful of Hollywoodisms -- for example, a coordinated everyone-stop-dead-and-throw-an-elbow is not a viable tactic in today's derby -- on the whole, the action is represented fairly accurately. Perhaps more importantly, the film does a pretty good job of demonstrating how meaningful the derby community can be for its members. Modern roller derby provides a unique opportunity for the thousands of people who've become involved as skaters, referees, stats, and support crew to live without labels and do something bold.
So many little details ring true: derby names, comparing giant bruises, the terror/excitement of tryouts, the newfound family of the derby team, the mild lunacy of the after party, the not-about-winning/actually-no-it's-about-winning progression, the toll derby can exact on existing friendships, the newfound confidence, Bliss's "I... am in LOVE with this" moment -- all are completely familiar to modern derby participants. If there's anything not quite on the mark about the film, it's the age of the protagonist. While the camaraderie of the derby community often spurs its members along the journey of self-discovery experienced by 17-year-old Bliss in Whip It, the real-life protagonists are most often women in their 20s, 30s, and even 40s.
One other key difference: with a handful of local exceptions, physical fights are essentially extinct in modern roller derby. Today's audiences are just too savvy to be taken in by an old-school scuffle, wherein hits to delicate areas are carefully avoided. Fake fights are obvious, but real fights are dangerous -- and don't win bouts. If you've seen a roller derby bout, or watched videos of modern roller derby online, you may have been surprised to see the sport played on a flat floor surface, rather than the traditional banked track of classic roller derby. While a handful of local leagues use banked tracks (as portrayed in the film Whip It), over 98% of the 400+ leagues playing modern roller derby around the world skate on flat surfaces.
The viability of roller derby without a banked track was discovered almost by accident, during the reinvention of the sport in Austin in 2001-2003. To raise funds and stir interest, the first skaters organized exhibition bouts in a skating rink, with an oval track taped out onto the floor. Much to everyone's surprise, they discovered that roller derby actually works just fine on a flat track. While the speeds are lower, the hard hits remain, and the lack of an outer rail means a solid hip check to the outside can send a skater sliding all the way to the edge of the audience. Not even basketball provides quite this level of audience proximity to a spectator sport. Despite the challenges, a few modern leagues have made a go of it on banked tracks, including the L.A. Derby Dolls, Red Dirt Rebellion in Oklahoma City, and the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls in Austin.

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