That’s How They Roll: Girls Like It Rough and Ready With Old-New Sport

Roller Derby makes its debut thanks in part to 2009 American film “Whip It”

By Claire Voon

A whistle blows, its shrill cry echoing across the arena. Ten roller-skating figures glide swiftly around the perimeter of the court, calling out words of motivation.

While ice hockey remains one of the most popular sports in the Czech Republic, with the national team ranking as one of the top in the world, a craze incorporating hockey’s speed and agility is gaining momentum in the nation’s capital — roller derby.

Exclusively a female sport, roller derby consists of two teams of five girls, who race continuously around a flat, oval track. A jammer from each squad, marked by a star on her helmet, begins positioned behind the rest of the girls, the blockers. When the round kicks off and the teams start skating, the jammers attempt to speed past the pack of blockers, who, in turn, try to prevent the opposing jammer from skating through. Once a jammer successfully pushes through her opponents, she tries to pass the pack for a second time, earning a point for each blocker she overtakes.  After two 30-minute periods, points are tallied and a winner is declared.

Prague Wandering Spring 2013 Issue Number 2 Roller Derby

Alma Benosava, a member of Prague City Roller Derby, is ready for practice.
Photo by Claire Voon

In Gymnazium Litomericka, an unmarked, white school building close to Prague’s Strízkov metro station, a group of young women huddle in the middle of the multi-purpose court. Donning colorful helmets, kneepads, elbow pads and roller skates with mismatched laces, they chatter amongst themselves for a brief moment before dispersing to practice skating laps, their wheels clacking on the wooden floor.

These are members of the Prague City Roller Derby, the first roller derby league established in the Czech Republic by 30-year-old Trutnov native

Misa Rygrova and her friends. Inspired by the 2009 American film Whip It, in which a teenage girl discovers her love of roller derby after joining a team in Austin, Texas, Rygrova yearned to form a team in her homeland. Her interest peaked after a trip to the United States, during which she witnessed roller derby culture in San Francisco and New York City. With her mind set on forming a Czech team, she started researching the sport and eventually stumbled upon three other Czech girls with similar interests in an online forum.

“Most of the girls have seen the movie,” Rygrova said. “We instantly fell in love with the sport, but we couldn’t find anything in Prague. So we met over beers and decided to start Prague City Roller Derby.”

The initial team of seven girls memorized an online English rulebook, ordered skates from a store in Berlin, and scoured Prague for a skating location, facing numerous rejections from gym owners who did not want their floors ruined by wheels. Even after securing a practice spot, most of the girls had no experience skating on a court. A few had previously skated on ice or on roads, but with lack of a proper coach, most had to harness their skills from YouTube videos and a step-by-step approach.

This “do-it-yourself” ethic embodies the intrinsic principles of roller derby — specifically, its feminist, punk overtones. A contact sport, roller derby bulldozes any idea of women as meek and weak, instead championing females as fierce, self-assertive rink warriors who unflinchingly jostle and knock each other down on the tracks in order to skate by opponents. Although the Czech girls don yoga pants and T-shirts during practice sessions, for games, they uphold the roller derby tradition of dressing up in a manner reflecting the sport’s radical, rock ‘n’ roll ethos. Faces smeared with war paint, the players pull on shorts over ripped tights, hitch-up knee or thigh-high socks and slip-on turquoise jerseys that reveal arm and back tattoos.

“Most of the girls have seen the movie,” Riegrová said. “We instantly fell in love with the sport, but we couldn’t find anything in Prague. So we met over beers and decided to start Prague City Roller Derby.”

To visitors, Prague may seem like a reserved city with side streets outside the center that turn silent past 10 p.m. and denizens that keep to themselves. But beneath the fairytale architecture, quaint cobblestone streets and red-roof speckled backdrop lurks a counterculture that flourished in the 1960s and remains rich even today. Stemming from communist resistance, the movement spawned nonconformists who experimented with art rock, wrote daring literary pieces and became increasingly in tune with  the anti-establishment elements of Western culture, from John Lennon to Frank Zappa.

Prague Wandering Spring 2013 Issue Number 2 Roller Derby

Prague City Roller Derby’s gear consists of a helmet, pads and skates.
Photo by Claire Voon

Racing around the court in their edgy, unconventional outfits, christened with derby names like “Whiskey Ginger” and “Bodyczech,”the Prague City Roller Derby girls evoke a counterculture spirit with every stride.

One year from the league’s inception, the team has grown to include 12 consistent members, mostly 18 to 22 years old. Despite a shaky start, the girls can now skate well enough to play competitively. Five weeks ago, they had their first bout against the Dresden Pioneers, which drew, to the team’s surprise, roughly 300 spectators. Even though the Czech team lost by a slim margin (172 to 188 points), they still viewed the game as a victory due to unprecedented positive feedback.

“The crowd’s reaction was awesome, absolutely awesome,” Rygrova said. “People didn’t know much about this sport. Some knew nothing. But they were cheering and they really like the sport. Many people asked if it was really our first bout because they said we were really good.”

Although Prague City Roller Derby has not yet found a sponsor, the large turnout has encouraged the team to further spread word of their underground sport and to start planning fund-raising parties. Many Czechs appear to appreciate and support this novel venture despite its rough and rowdy nature, remaining open to this example of alternative culture.

The team faces its next bout in Hamburg on May 11 against the Hamburg Harbor Girls and is expecting to have a local bout in October with a team from Portugal.
“In between [games] we would like to get more fresh meat, recruit more girls and start with the new ones too,” Riegrová said. “We need more players so we can play more games.”

Prague City Roller Derby accepts new players twice a year. Potential recruits must be at least 18-years-old and have to supply their own gear. For more information on recruitment and upcoming events, visit http://www.roller-derby.cz/ or https://www.facebook.com/PragueCityRD.”

Prague City Roller Derby accepts new players twice a year. Potential recruits must be at least 18-years-old and have to supply their own gear. For more information, visit http://www.roller-derby.cz/

Claire Voon is in the NYU class of 2015, majoring in Journalism and Anthropology.  Her hometown is Bethesda, Maryland.

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Categories: News, Spring 2013 Issue Number 2

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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