Funky names, catchy outfits, some serious athleticism and some pretty wild fans have made Roller Derby
an epically popular sport. There’s bumps, there’s bruises, and it may very well beat out Nascar for the fiercest competition you’ll see on wheels. Best of all, the sport is female dominated. That’s right. Roller Derby is a veritable celebration of speed, strength, health and fitness and its leagues are attracting thousands of new players every year from all walks of life. In fact, the sport now has leagues in most major cities and millions of fans around the world.
We sought out Toronto Roller Derby athlete Jan Dawson and asked her a few questions about her life, her passion and the sport.
What’s your handle (roller derby name) and why did you choose it?
Downright Dirty Dawson is my home team name. I skate under it for the Death Track Dolls. I skate as Dawson on my travel team, the Bay Street Bruisers. There’s a movement for skaters to use their last name as a way of helping to “legitimize” the sport. I’m a hybrid because I have conflicting views about this. Derby’s kitschy rebirth was ironic, paying homage to our grandmothers and mothers who played the first generation of derby. Tributes such as campy names and sexy garb have always been revered in the community, but we were quick to realize that it created noise when fans outside the tent didn’t get the ironic symbolism and focused on that instead of the SPORT.
Why did you start roller derby?
In 2008 I was attending my final semester at McGill for my MLIS and a few of us from my cohort went to check out this thing called roller derby. Both my partner and I walked through the doors and our lives were changed forever. I didn’t know anything about it, but I wanted to do it. He didn’t know anything about it, but he wanted to study it and write about it. I found a pair of retro skates from craigslist from a groovy old lady in Montreal and the iconic Beater Pantease trained me and a small group of others in the Montreal beginner Smash Squad. That Fall, I graduated and moved to Toronto to find a job in libraryland and I found my dream job and transferred to Toronto Roller Derby’s Fresh Meat program before being drafted to the Dolls.
What is the biggest challenge of the sport?
My biggest personal challenge was learning to play a contact sport while learning to skate from scratch. Many skaters have speed skating or hockey skating backgrounds. More and more we are seeing transfer skaters with years of experience under their belt. The self-taught skaters like me are challenged to keep up skill level and athleticism but it's a great challenge and part of the developmental drive of the sport.
The biggest challenge for derby leagues is the DIY model. Like all leagues, ToRD is also skater run. This means every possible capacity from strategic planning to committee work to finances to event planning and execution. It is all for the skater by the skater. Many of us have full-time jobs and our league work is another full-time job that we pay dues to do. Many of us will struggle with our work/life/family/derby balance.
What is the best thing about roller derby?
THAT FEELING when everything else in life disappears. Hitting that track is something unexplainable. You just want to do it over and over and get better and better, learning jam by jam.
How has roller derby changed your life?
Without a doubt, derby has changed my life in myriad ways. It definitely threw my work/life balance out of whack and I've had to readjust to make room for it alongside work and professional development energies. Just the other day I had to choose a conference over my beloved Bruisers family as they travelled to Bloomington Indiana to beat Bleeding Heartland.
I've learned lessons in leadership, confidence, sisterhood, human behaviour, management, strategy, sport, athleticism, training, work ethic, and online/in-person discourse.
I think above all it has given my partner and I an unexpected community of close friends, some of whom have become our extended family.