Windy City Rollers get brutal with Whip It
As a five-year vet of the Windy City Rollers, Chicago's premier women's roller-derby league (ranked #2 nationally), I thought I'd drop in on Tuesday night's screening of roller-derby-themed flick Whip It, along with a few of my teammates, to get some perspective from the girls who live and skate the life.
The film is Drew Barrymore's directorial debut, as well as the first commercial film to center on the sport since its resurgence, which began in Austin in 2003. As all of us are fiercely devoted to fostering its continued growth and recognition as a professionally played, full-contact women's sport, I knew my teammates would embrace the exposure, but also be critical, and brutally honest, if it didn't do our institution justice.
The consensus of my teammates is that Barrymore got one thing right, at least: the element of camaraderie that is intrinsic to modern women's roller derby.
The rookie perspective:
Payne D. Spencer: "What they got right was the excitement of roller derby and how it makes you feel the first time you strap on skates. As a rookie, right now, waiting for the first time out on the track, it's very exciting to see how she's (Ellen Page's character) feeling. All of us have felt that at some point, and the reasoning behind putting on your skates is finding the one thing that feels right for you and going with it. I definitely think Page's character, when she started with her roller-derby career, was spot on."
Zombea Arthur: "Derby is more of a family. I think there are are less rivalries off the track."
Ruthenasia: "They got right the relationships that you build and how it translates back to your real life, if you wanna call it your real life. It becomes your real life, but there are skills and lessons you learn in derby that translate right back to everything else."
Donna Party: "I think they got the heart of it right. It's something we all sacrifice our "regular" lives to go and do. We all understand that it's a momentary thing and if we don't do it right now, we'll probably never do it."
While we all realize the limitations of a 111-minute Hollywood package, the one thing many of us wished was emphasized more was the grueling workouts the sport actually requires. Ellen Page's character Bliss finds an old pair of skates, rolls them out for a few days, tries out and makes the team in a relatively short amount of time. The reality is that nationally competitive teams like the Windy City Rollers demand far more time and training, upwards of three 2-hour practices per week, and often 4-5. Girls often have to wait months before getting on a publicly bouting team, while they learn how to fall safely, take hits, gain endurance, etc. There are no short roads to the top. It's all hard work.
What did Whip It leave out?
Ruthenasia: "Well, it was hard to say because it came from the perspective of a high-schooler. They hinted at people with real lives and real jobs like Maggie Mayhem with her child, and having to balance (derby, work, family) all out. But maybe some of that aspect was left out."
Malice With Chains: "They left out how competitive it can be and how it isn't always aggressively competitive, it's more mentally competitive, too."
Zoe Trocious: "A lot of young girls will be interested in checking out what roller derby really is. I hope they stick around when they realize that it is a very athletic and difficult sport. I hope that it brings in a lot more fans as well."
All in all, there were some endearing characters and skaters with whom we could all identify. I thought about if I had to choose any of the characters to draft to my team who it would be and why. I think I agree with my teammate Hoosier Mama who answered : "One or two? Because I'd take the two deaf girls (Manson sisters). They were strong, they did whatever they were shown to do, and they didn't think twice. They are gonna go out there and do what needs to be done." Spoken like a true team player.
In fact, since most of the filming took place in the Detroit area, many of the actresses' teammates were real rollergirls with whom we've skated, skated against in bouts, or know well from tournaments and games. So thumbs-up for authenticity there.
If we wanted to go absolutely derby-geek, we could all point out various scenes where completely illegal blocks were made or strategically pointless moves were executed for dramatic purposes. We were also all slightly disappointed to see the banked track used, rather than the more widely used flat track. Again, we know the banked track probably looks cooler on film and everyone delights in watching a girl go over a rail. As with any sports flick, much of the action was more of a highlight reel of all the prettiest moves rather than a reflection of how an actual jam might play out. But we can suspend disbelief knowing it's not supposed to be a documentary, but a story that entertains. And it does its job.
But for novices to the sport, the insider scoop is that Page's jump over a fallen girl, the one she offers to "teach" Iron Maven because it's so dazzling, is far less earth-shattering than it's made to be (in slow motion, nonetheless!). In our league, girls can do it with twice the vert, and learning the move is part of agility 101. Catch a Windy City bout and I guarantee you'll see bigger jumps four and five times in a night! But we'll give Bliss, or Babe Ruthless, a sisterly fist bump for a fine first crack on quads. Did we mention how competitive we are?
The film hits one note right: the tight-knit relationships that encourage women to embrace strength and toughness.
If you want to catch the real version, the Windy City Rollers will throw it all in your lap, (literally: you can sit trackside) on October 17 when the WCR All-Stars take on Portland's Rose City Rollers at UIC Pavilion. For tickets and information, visit windycityrollers.com
Have a pair of Barbie skates in your attic? Dust them off and give derby a shot. Windy City Rollers' tryouts are November 7. Email Windy City Rollers for more info.