Roller Derby: Sport or Theatre? Aesthetics vs Athleticism

Posted on February 16, 2011 by


One of the things that I love about roller derby is that it’s a fusion of sport and art. Not the kind of high-brow fusion that you find in figure skating or gymnastics (although I do love those sports too) but a more gritty, alternative version. Most definitions of roller derby include the term “punk aesthetic”. The influences on roller derby are broader than that though and you’ll find outfits on the players (and spectators) inspired by burlesque, gay culture, and music cultures including heavy rock through to rockabilly.

In those high-brow art/sport fusions, the outfits really only serve to accentuate the sport. Hair is usually in a bun, a leotard the usual clothing. In roller derby, half the fun is checking out the outfits. But does this detract from the sport? Some leagues think so and have made deliberate moves to identify themselves as ‘serious’ about the sport by adopting a uniform or at least rejecting the more extreme outfits, such as tutus and fishnets. Mother State Roller Derby league in the US has even rejected players having derby names in a bid to be taken seriously and have derby recognised as a “real sport”.

I read a lot of blogs on roller derby. In fact, I have a Google alert set up that sends me a notification each day with the top ten search results for blogs that mentioned roller derby in the previous 24 hours! Nearly everyone who writes as a spectator comments on the outfits. Some even go so far as to say that without the outfits they wouldn’t be interested in going.

So is that proof that roller derby should stop messing around and start trying to be a real sport? I tend not to think so. There’s a broad spectrum of what can constitute a sport. And each should attract its own type of spectators. I don’t watch “real” sports on tv. I’ve never been at an AFL match. Roller derby brings athleticism to a demographic that would otherwise not be engaged with sport. I don’t care if people who are accustomed to watching AFL or tennis are bedazzled by the costumes and think that’s all there is to it. When I watch a bout, I see the tactics and strategy. I watch the calls from the referees and understand the scoreboard.

Roller derby is still in its infancy – it really only arrived in Australia in 2007. It’s popularity is exploding and it’s doing so without having to fit the mould of what a “real sport” is. I think that as long as derby can keep the balance between spectacle and sport it will cleave out its own niche in the sporting world and, in time, bouts will be held in stadiums with actual seats for spectators. We may even see televised bouts.

What do you think? Is the theatrical side of roller derby holding it back as a sport? Is there something to be gained from dropping derby names and adopting identical, practical uniforms?

Posted in: LimboLand