Roller Derby Duchesses: An inclusive sisterhood on the rise

Roller Derby Duchesses: An inclusive sisterhood on the rise

LiQM_Mar2017_CoverThis article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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Roller Derby Duchesses: An inclusive sisterhood on the rise

By Danielle Burns

Never skated before? You can learn. Not an athlete? Never mind. Have body image issues? Every body type is valued. You’re transgender and identify as female? You’re one of the girls here. Any woman is welcome to join Roller Derby Québec (RDQ) and be part of a unique, expanding sport.

The sport of roller derby (RD) is unique in that it was originally for women, although men also play. In RDQ, men are welcome, but in supportive roles like referees, coaches, and non-skating officials. RDQ players are a diverse group of women, “most of whom would identify as feminists,” says Andrée-Anne Gagnon, alias Mitsou Bitchy, coach of one of RDQ’s three competitive teams, Les Duchesses. The two other “home teams” are Les Casse-Gueules and Le Rouge et Gore. Despite different skill levels, the three teams often practice and play against each other.

Gagnon started playing in 2010, just after the founding of the Québec City league. To her, the name is an empowered reappropriation of the concept of the Carnaval duchess. “[The team] wanted a modern version [of the Carnaval duchess idea], where we could be strong and smart, without having to be pretty.”

Many RDQ players admit they are not your typical jock; some are even playing a sport for the first time. Player Édith Veilleux, alias Butler Q, helped found the RDQ in 2010, although she had never played any team sports. She had seen a roller derby match in Montréal and found it exciting, yet scary. She remembers that she “wasn’t fit,” but with encouragement from other players, she laced up her skates and has never regretted it. “That’s my sport!” she says. She adds, “It’s a cool bunch of crazy people. And if you need something, like to move house, you have people you can count on to help.”

Roller derby can be rough at times. “There is contact, but I’m not scared anymore,” says Veilleux. No one, she says, is trying to injure players intentionally, “since we all have to go to work on Monday.” Players are not allowed to trip, elbow, make head hits, grab or use forearms. Only the shoulders, hips and rear can be used to block. Veilleux says perseverance is important, since there is much to learn. “Skating helps,” she says, but isn’t a prerequisite. Many of the competitors hadn’t skated before or since they were children. “All the skills can be developed,” assures Veilleux.

RD has been around for almost a century, first appearing, somewhat underground, in the 1920s in the United States and undergoing periods of expansion and decline. The sport experienced a revival in the 90s and began to boom in the 21st century. The sport has changed over the years, from theatrical entertainment to today’s emphasis on athleticism. The foundation of an international governing body, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), in 2004, has brought credibility and unified rules to the sport.

RD is a serious sport, complete with strategies, rules, equipment and officials. The RDQ teams want little to do with the phoney fighting and misogynist atmosphere in some leagues that saw players being spanked by audience members in the “sin bin” (penalty box). Some teams, particularly in the U.S., embrace sideshow elements like staged fighting, but these teams are not part of the WFTDA. Players on recognized teams, like those in the RDQ, are more interested in the aerobic workout, the training, the liberating fun of a contact sport and the social aspect of being with like-minded women. With no balls or pucks, the game is basically a full- contact race on quad skates. The rules can be confusing, so Gagnon recommends watching some games to better understand. In a few words, two teams of five members skate in the same direction around a track. Game play consists of a series of short matchups (“jams”) in which both teams designate a “jammer,” who scores points by lapping the other team’s players. Her teammates try to help her while blocking the other team’s jammer.

Although the skaters take their sport seriously, the game encourages a sense of humour. Players take on an alias, like an alter ego. Some RDQ aliases include DivaCop, So-Viet, Tankgirl, Tampack, Brassknuckx, Beat’on the Quads, Bébé Jésus, Minnie Small and Féline Dion. Even jersey numbers can carry puns: 100% Aggressive, I8U, H0 la-la, 911, 99 km/per hour or 9 lives, for example. One Duchess brags they are the “best after-party team in the Northeast.” After a match, says Gagnon, “We’re all going to go for a beer, we are going to talk derby, we’re going to have fun and we’re all friends.”

The uniforms are another unique part of RD culture. The Duchesses have jerseys in the colour of the Québec flag, with a fleur-de-lis. Their logo is a raven-haired duchess with a visible cut on her cheek, wearing a crown. A miniature, beat-up Bonhomme Carnaval with a rope around his neck dangles from her hand. The jerseys may match, but accessories can vary greatly. Any style goes: sexy, tacky, tough, sporty or just weird. Jammer Estelle Lacourse, alias “Fifi Vat’ Bêcher,” says early RD fashion was rockabilly punk, and fishnet stockings have come in and out of fashion. “It’s a very feminist sport. We are these badass women who just don’t care, hitting each other and being rough and feminine. Now it has transformed to be ‘queer-friendly’ and open… people can have all sorts of bodies and it’s always valuable.” In a four-part documentary called Derby Girls, Montréal player Hayley Carman, alias Hurricane Hayles, comments self-deprecatingly about her body type, while acknowledging its advantages for “booty blocking.”

“I have a big bum,” she says, laughing. It helps; it gets in the way!” This is the type of self-assured pride that the sport seeks to foster in women: appreciation of the strength and advantages of all kinds of builds.

Gagnon describes the sport as a “forward-thinking sport where women are at the centre” and no one is left out. She explains that the WFTDA used to have a rule that transgender players had to be on hormone replacement therapy for six months before competing, until some players complained they didn’t want to be investigated, or necessarily even take hormones. Now the rule has changed so that anyone who does not identify as male can lace up and play. “We don’t have any place for racism or sexism or transphobia here,” asserts Gagnon.

The diverse Duchesses roster includes two nurses, including Gagnon, a carpenter, a mechanic, a hairdresser, a pharmacy student, a graphic design student, a CEGEP teacher and several government employees. “We don’t want to create participation barriers for anyone,” says Gagnon. “There is still tons of work to do, especially in welcoming more people of colour, because [the sport] is mostly still very white. But we’re working towards that.”

The sport is gaining speed worldwide, with the WFTDA representing tens of thousands of athletes and officials in many leagues in North and South America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Asia. Gagnon says there are even teams in Egypt, where one might not expect a female empowerment sport. ESPN has broadcast the international final in recent years. In a recent mini-documentary called What the World Can Learn from Roller Derby, the Huffington Post called RD a sport to be reckoned with. The Duchesses have yet to reach the highest echelons of the sport; after only one year in the WFTDA, they are currently ranked 101st in the world. “There is a lot of competition, 320 teams to be exact,” says Gagnon. “This year the plan is to make it to the top 60 and hopefully make the division playoffs.”

If all Duchesses have the same determination as Susan Plissey, alias “Bounty,” the team might just be able to attain their goal. Plissey, from Aroostook, Maine, drives three hours twice a week to practice and play with the RDQ, who play at a higher level than the team she founded in Maine. Despite not speaking much French, Plissey understands, especially since roller derby terms are in English and matches are often played against anglophone teams. A bilingual person stays close to interpret when needed. “I want to be on a team that is the best in the world!” Plissey says. The Duchesses are aiming to rule that world.

The RDQ hosts recruitment and training camps every August. The league website tells potential players to just bring a mouth guard and their courage; equipment is available onsite. Referees and volunteers are in demand all year round. The minimum number of skating referees is three per bout, but the full roster is usually seven, plus around 11 non-skating officials. Gagnon says volunteers are also needed for security, commentating and selling tickets, food and beer. “It’s a great way to get to know the sport better and be part of the community,” says Gagnon.

The RDQ travel team plays from January to June with local qualifying matches starting in May in Québec City and running through August.

For more information about the RDQ, visit

Roller Derby Basic Terms

JAMMER: Each team has a jammer, who wears a star on her helmet and is the only one who can score points. Jammers score a point every time they pass an opponent legally. Jammers sprint around the track, trying to lap the pack.

INITIAL PASS: The Jammers start behind the pack and must make an initial lap before they can start scoring points on the next lap.

LEAD JAMMER: The first Jammer out of the pack becomes the lead jammer and can end the jam at any time.

JAM: A maximum two-minute increment of time when jammers can score points.

BLOCKERS: There are four blockers on each team, who play both defence and offence. They try to help their jammer move through the pack while blocking the opposing team’s jammer from getting through. They make up what is called the pack.

PIVOT: A pivot is a blocker who sets the pace for the pack and wears a stripe on her helmet. She is the only blocker who can accept a star pass from a jammer, thus switching roles.

BOUT: Is a game or match consisting of two 30-minute halves with multiple jams played in each.

PANTY: A stretchy helmet cover used to designate the jammer (with a star) or a pivot (with a stripe).



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