Monday, November 26, 2007

banked track roller derby: spectacle of suffering and moral beauty

i know this doesn't hold much water coming from the mouthpiece for L.A. Derby Dolls public relations, but i think it's fair to say that our league's debut at the Doll Factory on november 17th was a smash hit (pun acknowledged). the place was packed, and the energy so kinetic, there were moments i worried the Factory might explode - an untimely end to another promising beginning.

that is some gross hyperbole, but still: L.A. city council president, Eric Garcetti, blew the first whistle of the game, and apparently had such a great time at our little event, he felt compelled to blog about it afterward (or, at the very least, to persuade one of his underlings to do as much). now that's gotta count for something, right?

post-bout honorable mentions appeared in L.A. City Zine, whose Louis Elfman called our game, "the best event in L.A....ever," and whose photographer, Emberly Modine, now wants to join our ranks. we got a write-up in losanjealous that was later picked up by the defamer.

a nice quote from that last piece:

"The Dolls’ infrastructure keeps the event well enough in check, but there’s nowhere near the antiseptic organization one experiences at a major sporting event. The DIY vibe leaves for just enough disorder that you feel like a really cool riot could break out at any moment."

and the writer's conclusion:

"[i'm]...hard-pressed to think of an event that offers so much bang for the buck. In addition to the main roller derby event, there are punk bands, vendors selling crazy crap, and a general atmosphere of Dionysian good-timery. Unless you lack a pulse, or a soul, or both, you will love the shit out of this crazy spectacle."

if you want some pictures to go with the words, check out my flickr photo set (which documents the Doll Factory's pre-bout caterpillar-into-butterfly-like transformation, and includes a few pilfered game photos).

a couple of bones for the click-averse:


there have been a few key moments in the relatively brief history of the LADD where we believed ourselves on the brink of SoCal domination. then the same thing happened, twice: we became homeless, and in both cases, it was a huge setback. let me tell you folks - lugging a 100 x 60 foot banked track around LA is no cakewalk, and this burden takes its toll on skater morale. finding a place to practice and play, a little stability in our collective lives, has been the LADD's cross to bear. but now that we finally have city council on our side, and a venue that can accommodate so many of our fans, Good Things are already starting to happen.

some interesting things were written by DF, the cryptically named losanjealous blogger. he calls roller derby a "crazy spectacle," which resonated with me, as the sport vs. spectacle issue is something that's been on my mind these days. as a skater, i know i want to be taken seriously as an athlete, and the LADD has worked hard to distance itself from WWF-style old school derby. the game we play has no predetermined outcome. it is unscripted and legitimately competitive. what separates the LADD from most of our new school, all-girl derby contemporaries, however, is our banked track (the same thing that precludes us from membership in the omnipresent WFTDA).

as a banked track league, there are only so many teams we can bout against. we have a banked track sister league in san diego, and we've faced-off against the reality tv-immortalized texas lonestar rollergirls a couple of times. but within the LADD proper there are only three teams (we hope to add a fourth sooner than later). i used to worry: will the fans get bored?

i no longer worry, and i'm starting to see why such fears were unfounded. DF makes a point here:

"I am reminded of FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s observation that women’s soccer would be more popular if it was sexed up a bit. He was widely derided as a misogynist and fool, but maybe he was onto something. The reason that the Derby Dolls are infinitely more entertaining than the WNBA or the Women’s World Cup is that they bring theater as well as skill, and part of that theater is sex appeal. There’s this widespread belief that you can’t be both a hot bitch and a bitchin athlete, but as the Dolls amply illustrate, that is horseshit."

the LADD wants other leagues to go banked, and we want to add more teams to our own league, but the process is slow. in the interim, we occupy the DMZ between sport and spectacle. i was thinking about this stuff the other night, and i revisited a couple things i had read previously: roland barthes' essay, "The World of Wrestling," and an article that stephen burt wrote on the "semi-cultlike world of women's basketball" for the believer a few years back.

barthes regards professional wrestling in america as a "sort of mythological fight between good and evil." when i first read this essay in college, i had no interest in wrestling, or any spectacles of that ilk, and i openly hated All Things Sporty. i still had a soft spot for roller skating, however (beloved pastime of my youth!), but never dreamed that roller derby would receive a punk rock makeover, and come back in such an accessible incarnation.

the barthes essay has echoes of roller derby throughout, and there is certainly a Good vs. Evil component to the game we play. as a rule, our fans hate whichever team wins the most. as the undefeated 2006 season champs, that honor currently goes to my own team, the fight crew. it doesn't help much that our uniforms are a blazing, communist red. the tide could be changing though. fight crew had a few losses in 07, and the sirens acquired superstar jammer, mila minute. no one is sure what to expect from the 2007 championship game, scheduled for december 8th.

(similarly, in the believer article, burt mentions the collective hatred among wnba fans for the L.A. Sparks, who are widely regarded as "arrogant thugs," unintentionally echoing barthes ideas on good v. evil in the spectacle. but really, isn't this sentiment applicable to any "straight" sport? don't superfans always regard their team's opponent as Evil?).

on the outcome of a wrestling match, barthes wrote,"wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises, erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result. thus the function of the wrestler is not to win; it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him."

i'm not sure how many derby dolls would agree with this statement, but it holds some truth for me. winning the championship title in a three-team league strikes me as a little - oh, i don't know - meaningless? what i really care about is being a phenomenal skater: the best and fastest i can be. and i want the same thing for my teammates. i want us to skate as a unit, a formidable machine, a steamroller! but whether we actually win or lose? eh. winning is preferable, i suppose, but what matters more - to me anyway - is playing a good game.

who won the game on the 17th? it was the sirens, and by a considerable margin, but i can't recall the exact score.

when i look back on the league's early games at the Dollhouse (version 1.0 - the chinatown pillow factory with a 350-person capacity), i am amazed at how far we've come. and i'm not just talking about the size and scale of our events, or the fact that we no longer inhale manure while we skate, or, post-practice, dislodge errant feathers from our ears (did i mention the Dollhouse v 1.0 was a feather pillow factory?). i'm talking about skill level, and how with every game and every practice we become better and stronger skaters. this is something i believe has converted so many spectators into die-hard fans, and has kept them committed despite the lack of teams in the league, and our ongoing struggle to secure a permanent venue. our fans have grown with us, and they're invested in our fate. seeing how much better we are each time out is the payoff.

there was a fantastic moment during the november 17th bout when mila minute, a former figure skater and fan favorite, oft compared to ziggy stardust on wheels, was finishing her point-scoring lap. she had passed all of the opposing blockers, racking up four points, but she kept going, determined to score on the other jammer, who had just broken away from the pack. it took only seconds for mila, with her graceful figure skater's stride, to overtake the other jammer. instead of simply putting her hands on her hips to call off the jam, mila did a 180. beneath LADD's iconic disco skate, the two jammers faced each other, rolling quietly. the blockers receded into the darkness as mila taunted her opponent. and then she did what all of us were waiting for: she tossed her head back and placed her hands on her hips. the jam was over. the crowd - myself included - went ballistic.

barthes wrote: "wrestling presents man's suffering with all the amplification of tragic masks."

i think i'm making a point, kinda sorta, which is: the real moral drama happening in the mucked-up sport/spectacle that is banked track roller derby in los angeles is ongoing, and it's not always played out on the track. it's LADD vs. the Man. just to watch us bout is a triumph: Good Girls on Roller Skates defeating an evil, faceless bureaucracy. it helps that we're nice, we're accessible, and we skate in sexy outfits. we love our fans. we talk with them after our games, at bars, in the grocery store, and on the internet.

a similar sentiment is expressed by stephen burt, author of the previously mentioned believer article. of his devotion to the wnba's minnesota lynx, burt wrote:

"i give [them] my money and time because i like watching them play basketball. we who cherish the [the wnba] enjoy nifty play-making; approachable teams; the fact that the players are women and not girls; and an obsessive, welcoming, nerdy, chatty, national subculture, free of the yahoos, and the boys' club-feel, that men's team sports can bring."

totally. to illustrate:

the fight crew poses with our own devoted superfan, little kenny.

barthes closed "the world of wrestling" with this:

"when the hero or the villain of the drama, the man who was a few minutes earlier possessed by a moral rage, magnified into a sort of metaphysical sign, leaves the wrestling hall, impassive, anonymous, carrying a small suitcase and arm-in-arm with his wife, no one can doubt that wrestling holds the power of transmutation that is common to the Spectacle and to Religious Worship. In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible."

barthes also claimed that wrestling is the only sport that gave such an externalized image of torture. too bad he didn't live to see the L.A. Derby Dolls skate.

1 comment:

Just Zoot said...

Thanks for this thoughtful blog and a very good summary of what it was like to be at the bout on the 17th. I had forgotten that Barthes had written an article on Pro Wrestling, I need to go find and read that. I've been thinking a lot lately about these issues, the idea of the event being in between a sporting event and a spectacle, both watching Derby Doll games, and when attending Lucha Vavoom (Mexican Lucha Libre, among other things). I've been reading recently Brian Sutton-Smith's "The Ambiguity of Play", which talks about all the different reasons and justifications for why people play. This is Play in a large sense, covering pretty much anything which isn't "work", including art, cultural events, etc. My take on events like the Derby Doll games is that they are a kind of large public play, in which everyone, including the audience, plays a role. The idea of the event being a morality play certainly reinforces this, and the spectacle can become almost a kind of ritual. One of the really interesting things about Lucha Libre is that there is a very explicit morality play of good vs. evil being portrayed, with the "Technicos" (the good guys), wrestling the "Rudos" (the bad guys). What can be really interesting is that the audience doesn't always cheer for the good guys, will often make there own decision on which side to support based on the popularity of the individual wrestlers and will not always be rooting for the guys.

Anyways, thanks again, and congrats on your win tonight! I have a feeling it's going to be quite the rematch between Fight Crew and the Sirens next week.

Just Zoot