The Long and Surprising History of Roller Derby

Jerry Seltzer sold the rights to the International Roller Derby League to Roller Games, a rival league based in Los Angeles. They lasted a few years longer than he had, even staging a bout at Madison Square Garden between the Tokyo Bombers, Japan’s first professional roller derby team, and the Chiefs that drew 14,251 fans in February 1974. But by 1975, Roller Games too had gone belly up.

And so it seemed roller derby had gone the way of walkathons and dance marathons. There were a few attempts to bring it back in the 1980s and ’90s — in increasingly exaggerated, W.W.E.-esque forms — none of which went anywhere. But then, in 2001, a group of women in Austin, Tex., resurfaced the sport, combining the traditional structure with a decidedly feminist bent.

“There are very few spaces in the world where women, transgender and gender-nonconforming folks get to use their bodies freely and unapologetically,” Molly Stenzel, the president of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, or W.F.T.D.A., the sport’s main governing body, said in an email. (Ms. Stenzel is better known to her fellow skaters as Master Blaster.)

In addition to full-contact aggression and women’s empowerment, roller derby today is known for the skaters’ creative, often pun-laden names — a tradition started by the founders, who were inspired by Austin’s drag scene.

“People take these names, and they’re kind of goofy, but it also frees you up,” said Margot Atwell, a.k.a. Em Dash. “It’s not an alter-ego: It’s a way to be more yourself than you can always be in your normal life.”

While the banked tracks and orchestrated violence of roller derby’s earlier iterations may be gone, the spirit of the sport remains the same, Ms. Atwell said. And Jerry Seltzer, who died on July 1, was “an incredible advocate of the modern sport,” despite the ways it evolved from his creation.

Now in the throes of its third renaissance, roller derby is making yet another comeback. Since 2004, the W.F.T.D.A. has grown to include 463 member leagues in 33 countries. There are now roller derby leagues on every continent except Antarctica.


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