Let the Good Times Roll
Montreal Roller Derby Kicks Off 2017 Season
Regretta Garbanzo, the roller derby alter ego of AC Riznar, just finished the first game of Round Robin, Montreal Roller Derby’s first event of the 2017 season. This also happens to be the first game they’ve ever played as part of a home team.
Standing off to the sidelines, they’re radiating that post-game glow. “It’s that instinct that grows in your guts while you’re playing, that says, ‘I have to survive, I have to get out of here without any injuries—and make a little mess, if I can,’” says the new blocker.
Riznar played on the rookie team before getting picked to play for Les Filles du Roi.
“It was fun, scary and terrifying,” they said about the jam. “The home teams are all very good—it’s a level that I’ve never played [before].”
Round Robin kicked off the season at Le Taz on Saturday night. It was the first match of many to come this spring and summer, with three home teams competing for the evening’s victory—Les Filles du Roi, Les Contrabanditas and La Racaille.
In a derby match, called a “jam,” two teams take to the track. With five players from each team on the track at a time, they skate counterclockwise with the goal of scoring points. Points are scored by “jammers,” who can be distinguished by the removable helmet caps they wear that have large, yellow stars on either side. The jammer stacks up points by managing to skate past the other team’s blockers. Each player from the opposing team that the jammer manages to overlap counts as one point.
Derby has a long history as an alternative sport. It was born as a contemporary contact sport in the 1930s, but was revived and remodeled independently by women in the early 2000s. Its DIY aesthetic draws from punk and rock-n-roll scenes. Underneath all that safety gear, you’ll often see torn shorts layered playfully over striped socks or printed leggings—outfits that really scream, “don’t fuck with me.”
For Riznar, the intersection between their punk scene origins and the game’s energy are what made them curious about the sport in the first place.
“The survival instinct that you find in some of the rock scenes translates [to derby]. The energy and the looks are badass, and I can relate to that,” they said.
Roller derby organization is not unlike that of most grassroots movements. Local leagues are shaped by local players, coaches and the community surrounding them.
Paula Youwakim, known on the track as Falafel la Gazelle, is in her fourth season with Montreal Roller Derby. Once a player for Les Filles du Roi, she now finds herself behind the bench as a coach for her old rivals—Les Contrabanditas.
“It’s a women’s sport that’s managed by the players. There’s no big money involved,” explains Youwakim. “The people doing this really love what they’re doing.”
In Montreal, there’s a women’s adult league, a juniors league for kids, and a men’s league, explained Youwakim. “It’s open to everyone. All of the leagues work together, and help each other to see the sport grow.”
Derby attracts a variety of different people, who all want to play for different reasons.
“There are women on that track who are fifty years old,” says Riznar, adding that they play because derby empowers them.
“I see the space outside—the streets, public space—as something political,” said Riznar, explaining that derby allows them to reclaim the spaces they occupy. “Roller derby is taking back your space; taking back sports and being powerful on skates.”
There’s also a social factor in most women’s sports, Youwakim explains, that implies that players need to prove themselves on the basis of gender.
“What’s really special about derby is that it started as a women’s sport,” says Youakim, so that need to validate yourself isn’t really there.
Despite being dubbed as a “women’s sport,” most derby leagues strive to be inclusive.
“It’s a female [sport] but it’s also a really inclusive, non-binary and trans sport,” says Riznar, emphasizing the importance that it continues to be organized and lead by those people.
There are hundreds of people amassed on the edges of the track, gazing in awe at the sheer intensity of the jam.
“I just saw a woman get elbowed in the face, holy shit!” exclaimed one guy who sat next to me. Anyone who sat on our side of the track was probably thinking the same, too.
Many people wonder about the physically aggressive quality of roller derby. After all, it is a contact sport. But unlike games of the past, derby today is a lot more regulated than one might think.
“It’s not the aggressive derby that used to happen where people were getting punched for show,” explained Artsy Choke, who plays for La Racaille, a self-proclaimed team made up of “shit-disturbing street punks on wheels.”
Artsy Choke said that nowadays derby focuses on athleticism, rather than showmanship. “It’s the same spirit though,” she added.
While this was the first match of the year, training for derby is an ongoing process. Artsy Choke’s relationship with the sport has been one of constant evolution, from the moment that she “fell in love” with it, to figuring out how it could fit into her life.
“I used to always think about [derby]. Now, I have a healthier relationship with it. It takes up a lot of space, because in a way, you have to dedicate your life to it.”
The physicality of the sport is as complex as the social and emotional aspects of it, too.
“It’s an asymmetrical sport,” said Artsy Choke, illustrating how one leg becomes stronger, while the other gains flexibility. “It’s funny, but people know if we’re skaters because when we lay down, one foot kinda goes like this,” she says, tilting one foot to the side.
The Montreal Roller Derby community is vast, comprising of five teams, plus the men’s and junior’s.
“It’s a very loving community,” explained Artsy Choke. “When you’re out of school or just working, it can be hard to make friends—so it’s a huge family.
For those curious about the empowering sport, Montreal Roller Derby offers an open-practice night every Monday at Le Taz, where aspiring derby players can come, lace up some rental skates, and work with coaches.
“Don’t give a shit!” Riznar exclaimed. “If you want to feel good about yourself and play with a team, come give it a try. It’s worth it […] It may be the funniest and most amazing sport I have ever played.”