Field Notes: Toronto Roller Derby Plays By the Rules
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Field Notes: Toronto Roller Derby Plays By the Rules

Now in its tenth year, the Toronto Roller Derby continues to do things its way.

With under two minutes left on the clock, the Gore-Gore Rollergirls are bruising the Death Track Dolls by a score of 165 to 130 at Saturday evening’s Toronto Roller Derby double-header.

Sporting a leopard bodysuit, the Gore-Gore’s standard uniform, a nimble roller-skater darts right, then left. She skirts a mass of defenders in faux-blood-spattered uniforms and bolts for a stretch of open track, her pink-streaked pigtails poking out from under a spotted helmet.

All evening, seven roller-skating officials in zebra stripes oversee plays like this, blowing their whistles and gesturing with their arms. In the esoteric sign language of organized sport, they dish out penalties and indicate who’s leading the pack, making sense of the montage of crashing bodies that is Toronto Roller Derby.

“We’ve got a lot of rock ‘n’ rollers and punks that come out, you know. They still have that image of roller derby as being that really grungy, grassroots thing,” Meg Fenway, Toronto Roller Derby’s spokesperson, tells me before the first of two games Saturday.

While that’s still very much a part of Toronto Roller Derby, or ToRD, in its tenth season, the league has come to court a broader following.

“We [also] have a number of people associated with a number of other sports associations that come out, and they get really into it because the game has really changed a lot,” says Fenway, who also plays as “Vag Lightning” for the Chicks Ahoy! team. “It’s a lot more athletic.”

On Saturday, the competitors pirouette, sidestep, and body-check while skating laps on an oval track lined with hot-pink tape. It’s like ice dancing meets rugby, with all the requisite verve and kitsch of a sports that rose to prominence on ’80s cable TV.

Now a regimented and competitive league, ToRD’s origins can be traced to an open call for “hot ladies who wanted to play roller derby,” recalls co-founder Mia Culprit. “I made the cut and was able to play for the hot ladies, and then we transformed into what we are today,” she remembers as attendees pass by.

“It’s run by women, for women,” Culprit explains, noting “our league is inclusive of women and folks that are non-binary agender who have an affiliation to women’s spaces.”

Today, players with names like “Beaver Mansbridge” and “R2 Smack U” whiz past the bleachers inside the Bunker, a mid-century one-time military warehouse at Downsview Park, and an upgrade from the public roller rink Culprit found her footing in.

Four home teams are duking it out this year, and the league has expanded to include a farm-team system—a “Fresh Meat” training program for beginners, and an all-star roster that tours North America.

ToRD is also part of an international federation, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, and its official rulebook has thickened to around 90 pages, daunting even for the referees. “This is my fifth season and I’m still learning,” one admits.

Specifics aside—and there are many—the game’s objective is simple: score as many points as possible.

That’s where the jammer comes in. Each team rotates five-skater lines of four blockers and a jammer. The jammer is the only point-scorer, and she’ll do this by lapping the opposing team as they try to stop her.

A point is awarded for every rival player each jammer laps during a two-minute “jam.” Teams are simultaneously playing offence and defence for two 30-minute periods.

“I have no idea what just happened,” remarked an onlooker following a play that elicited cheers from many of the 200 fans filling the bleachers.

Neither did I.

But there’s a good chance at least one of the seven officials did.