Identity

The Rough 'n Tumble World of a Feminist Roller Derby Team, in Photos

What started as "wrestling on roller blades" changed after Riot Grrrls claimed the sport as their own. With knee pads and stage names, the Riot Rocketz from Leipzig, Germany are keeping a strong feminist tradition alive.

by Stefanie Witterauf; translated by Melina McCormack
Jul 31 2017, 9:19pm

All photos by Lorraine Hellwig

This article originally appeared on Broadly Germany.

Two players collide at full speed with a resounding bam. As one of them goes down, an audible gasp ripples through the audience. Fortunately, it's nothing serious. She gets up, the whistle blows, and the game continues. The players shove, block, and hip-check one another; because of the physicality of the sport, knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, helmets, and mouth guards are mandatory for all participants. In short, if you're worried about bruising, roller derby isn't for you.

The teams compete on a colorful, 27- by 12-meter circuit track. During the 30-minute game, referred to as "the bout," both teams have up to five players on the field for a two-minute jam. The five team members are comprised of one designated scoring player, known as the "jammer," and the remaining four team members are "blockers." While the jammers attempt to score, the blockers try to stop them by cutting them off or even body-checking them. At first glance, it sounds and looks complicated, but after the first few two-minute jams the rules of the game become second nature.

Roller derby was first played in Chicago in the 1930s and was created the sports journalist Leo A. Seltzer. The game's popularity increased in the 1970s, when it was advertised as a sort of wrestling on wheels, with elaborate costumes that included glitter and fishnet stockings, face paint, and bold stage names. In the 1990s, third-wave feminists claimed the sport as their own. Since then, there have been visual changes to the sport—less glitter and more high-quality matches. But the stage names—like Anne Headaway, Willie Vanilli, Hans-A-Blast, and Shrimpy Bling Bling, just to name a few) and the tight-knit, supportive female community are here to stay.

"Shrimpy Bling Bling" is Lisa Selbmann's roller derby name. Four years ago, the 23-year-old moved to Leipzig, Germany, to study medicine, and began playing for the Riot Rocketz. Her passion for the sport started with the movie Whip It, in which social outsider Bliss Cavendar, portrayed by Ellen Page, is sick and tired of her world of beauty pageants, and finally finds the companionship and support she'd always longed for after joining a roller derby team.

Women prepare for their game.

It took a year before Selbmann played in her first bout. During that time, she learned how to move on skates. Since then—just like her cinematic role model, Bliss—she's become stronger, faster, and more confident. Even her body image has changed: "When you're younger, you often have issues with the way you see your body. Now I see mine as less of an object that has to reflect the 'ideal,' but rather, I see and understand its capabilities," she says. "If my hips get wider, I actually feel great about it—it means I'm better able to body check people."

The sport isn't only about fitness and power, but also fun and acceptance. Women all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds come together to play. In roller derby, there's no room for discrimination.

"[We] welcome everyone here and don't tolerate any form of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, anti-semitism, or any other ideology of inequality," the Riot Rocketz's website states. In 2016, the team joined Roter Stern Leipzig, a sports club based in Leipzig's Connewitz district, which is infamous for its riots, both left-wing and extremely right-wing. Everyone participates in the demonstrations, especially in events like "Girls Day" and "Christopher Street Day," Germany's equivalent to Pride. For the Riot Rocketz, this public activism is just as fundamental to the sport as practice itself.

Roller derby means much more than just blading around an oval track. It's a community of feminists; a safe space for women and individuals who identify outside of the binary gender norm. What binds these players together is the passionate belief that no one should be forced to bend to societal expectations; in keeping with idea, everyone approaches competition with a strong sense of solidarity and sportsmanship. If someone gets injured, both teams gather around that player to shield them from the audience's curious gaze. Moreover, if a woman is even slightly uncomfortable with the presence of a man on the field, he's no longer allowed to play.

While the sport is only beginning to take root in Germany, the roller derby community already has an established international network. Whenever Selbmann goes on vacation, she brings her blades with her. Recently, she played with an Israeli team in Tel Aviv. Last year, she spent a semester abroad in Barcelona, Spain, and couch-surfed in the homes of other derby players before she found her own place. "All I have to do is reach out to other teams, and I immediately have a built-in network of friends—some of the coolest women in the world."


Tagged:
feminism
Germany
Sports
Broadly
Roller derby
Broadly Feminism