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Ottawa Roller Derby. Photos: Krista Rawlinson

Jumping into the world of derby: Ottawa Roller Derby’s fall season features includes a crash course for beginners and a roller disco party

By Gloria Song on September 3, 2019

Ottawa Roller Derby has wrapped up its busy summer bout season with a number of home and away games. This has included hosting low-contact, full contact recreational, and full contact travel games, as well as an in-house no-contact scrimmage for skaters at the no-contact practice level. Even though bout season has mostly ended, the league still has exciting plans for the fall, including an old-fashioned roller disco fundraiser and a crash course as a chance for beginners interested in learning to roller skate for roller derby.

Photo: Krista Rawlinson

For those that may be less familiar with this sport, roller derby is a full contact game done on quad roller skates (not to be confused with roller dancing or roller blading), where, in a nutshell, two teams make their way around an oval track, while one designated point-scorer for each team (called a Jammer) scores a point for each member of the opposing team that they successfully pass. Made famous by players such as Gwen “Skinny Minnie” Miller in the 1970s, roller derby goes back several decades as one of the very few sports where women were actually encouraged to engage in full contact and knock each other off the track.

Roller derby goes back several decades as one of the very few sports where women were actually encouraged to engage in full contact and knock each other off the track.

Nowadays, roller derby has less of the showy entertainment focus of World Wrestling Entertainment or the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, in favour of flat track roller derby as a serious athletic sport. However, that doesn’t mean a few of the more flamboyant traditions haven’t lingered in some forms, like players wearing bright-coloured knee socks or fishnet stockings, or adopting roller derby names full of puns and pop culture references. Leagues like Ottawa Roller Derby have also now modernized to open up their practices and games to all genders.

As a result of its quirky history, roller derby tends to attract a variety of unconventional athletes. “I’m super nerdy and quiet and introverted off the track,” explains Jessie V, who by day is a high school English teacher. “As an adult, I know how important it is to be physically active in some capacity. I chose roller derby because it’s unusual: it’s not something people grow up playing or even knowing, so it seemed like a friendlier entry point as an uncoordinated adult compared to other things.”

Photo: Krista Rawlinson

Indeed, roller derby tends to be a good fit for some folks looking for something different in their fitness activities. “I’ve done competitive sports before, but never felt completely in my place,” says Chantal Mills, also a high school teacher as well as the owner/head trainer of a dog training school. “My height for example, was a disadvantage for my rowing team. However, I am not too old, too short or too heavy to become valued member of a roller derby team.”

The inclusive and welcoming nature of the roller derby (despite the full contact) is often a compelling factor in attracting new recruits.

The inclusive and welcoming nature of the roller derby (despite the full contact) is often a compelling factor in attracting new recruits. “[It’s] where all of us beautiful misfits congregate,” says roller derby player London Flog, a pansexual immigrant from the United Kingdom and a federal public servant by day. “We all look out for each other, [and] we have each other’s back both on and off the track… The team knowingly or not sees its members through good and bad times. Money problems, divorce, issues with family…w e all leave our baggage on the side of the track and skating clears our minds and the game gives us focus.” Fellow leaguemate Sophie Matte agrees with this sentiment. “[You’re] welcomed as you are, regardless of your weight, height, gender identify, sexual orientation, athletic level or cultural background.”

Jessie V recounts the thrill of playing her first low-contact bout this summer. “I was so worried about letting my team down. What if I’m not good enough? What if I make the wrong play? What if I just fall down all over the track? But everyone was very excited for me and reassuring: even the opposing team! I remember getting ready to jam for the first time, being totally freaked, and just turning to my opposing Jammer and excitedly yelling, ‘THIS IS MY FIRST BOUT EVER!’ and her responding with a resounding, ‘No way! Congrats!’ and giving me a high-five.”

I myself am a member of the Ottawa Roller Derby league and I took the introductory crash course about a year ago. Back then, I was into solo activities like lifting weights and kayaking, but was looking for the right team sport for me as an opportunity to meet new people. I was drawn to roller derby’s punk do-it-yourself feminist ethos in the way it encouraged women to be bold and assertive, physically. As I progressed through the curriculum and got to meet other players, I was also inspired by how a full contact sport where people constantly jostle each other could somehow serve as such a safe space. In world where so many women and folx have an uncomfortable relationship with their bodies, roller derby develops you to feel comfortable – with accepting your body, caring for it, falling or getting knocked over and getting back up again, and also using your body to literally create space for yourself on the track.

I was drawn to roller derby’s punk do-it-yourself feminist ethos in the way it encouraged women to be bold and assertive, physically… I was also inspired by how a full contact sport where people constantly jostle each other could somehow serve as such a safe space. 

Ottawa Roller Derby’s crash course is the first step in the sometimes daunting process of going from learning how to skate to being able to play a fast-paced full contact sport on those roller skates. Coach Bethany, also known by her roller derby name RapunzHell explains the process of training. “We break that journey down into more manageable pieces. This way, each individual is able to advance at their own pace. Figuring out how to stand in skates, and stop and fall in skates, leads to confidence in skates. Then you add in skating near others and making contact with them. By the time skaters are learning full contact strategies, they’ve spent so much time learning in their skates that they no longer have to think about them.”

“The Crash Course offers a very welcoming and low intensity atmosphere to try something new… We progress through the basic skating, stopping, and falling skills used I roller derby, at a slow pace with lots of individual attention. It’s done in a group setting, but with lots of personal space, so no worries about collisions. And even if there are stumbles, everyone wears appropriate safety gear that’s checked by the coaches, as safety is one of our top priorities.”

There is also an opportunity to try out roller skates before deciding whether to sign up for the crash course, at the family-friendly “Back to Ol’ Skool” Roller Disco that Ottawa Roller Derby will run on Saturday, September 7. It’s being held at the Sens Rink in Canterbury Park, a unique venue that is both outdoors and covered, and skates will be available for rent. “There are a few reasons we host roller discos,” says coach Vanessa Johnson. “1) It’s a fun event for the public; 2) It’s a fundraiser for the league (which helps us pay rent for our practice spaces); and 3) It’s a great intro to quad skating for people who may be interested but aren’t ready to commit to the full crash course.”

Members of the Ottawa Roller Derby league also look forward to the opportunity to dance on skates at the roller disco. “I grew up going to Disco Wheels and roller skating to disco music,” says Chantal. “The Roller Disco evokes a bit of nostalgia.”

“I found that roller disco was an original way to spend an evening with friends while spending energy, with catchy music,” says Sophie.

“If you’re interested, don’t be afraid to come out and give skating a try, even if you’ve never had skates on before,” says Vanessa. “Also, even though nobody wore helmets or safety gear at discos back in the day, it doesn’t mean you can’t now. Safety is cool, kids!”


Ottawa Roller Derby’s “Back to Ol’ Skool” Roller Disco will be on Saturday, September 7, 2019, from 7-10pm at the Sens Rink in Canterbury Park (2185 Arch Street). Ottawa Roller Derby’s Crash Course will start on Sunday, October 20, 2019, from 9-10am and will run until December. See the website for more details on registering.