Roller derby smashes its way into Korea
Inspired by a growing global movement that is rocking women's sport, Korea's first roller derby league is close to its first bout. Combining fierceness, femininity and a punk rock aesthetic, roller derby embraces hard-hitting action and plenty of saucy attitude for what could be the baddest brawl this side of the DMZ.
For people new to the game, it's the flashy costumes and flamboyant names (not to mention the prospect of a slugfest) that attract the most attention.
With names like Minnie Mo' Comin', Glamzilla and Fury Cat, and attitudes to match, Republic of Korea Derby’s skaters range in experience from veteran to novice, with some on skates for the first time.
The flashy names and violence are there for your entertainment, to be sure, but make no mistake: This is a serious sport that requires as much skill and athleticism as it does a flair for the dramatic. The message in the movement is that a woman can be strong and assertive without losing her feminine identity.
The Korean league was started by four women, including Jody O'Neill, who moved here in March from Detroit, where she was a founding member of the Detroit Derby Girls.
"It was real campy when it started," O'Neill said of derby's early days. "As time's gone on it's gotten more serious, and now it's really a sport. But the derby names, the rock and roll aspect have stayed. There's still a good sense of humor behind it."
When it started in the 1920s, roller derby was a coed endurance race, but things changed when it became clear that the collisions were the main draw. Then came the theatrics, the costumes and the derby names. At one point it was even like pro wrestling, with all the hijinks and fake plays that that sport entails. But in the 1970s the flame went out and it looked like roller derby was dead.
More than 30 years later, it resurfaced in Austin as a women's sport, run by and for women, with a decidedly grassroots appeal. Since then, more than 1,000 leagues have sprung up worldwide, including in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Japan. As a sign of just how far the sport has come, the first Roller Derby World Cup was held last month with 13 teams from around the world.
It looks like the sport is at the beginning of a meteoric rise.
It may be a while before the Korean league gets to an internationally competitive level, but these women hope to play the first bout in the coming months.
The league had its first practice last April and attracted 12 women before posting its first ad. It now had about 30 members from all over the country.
"It took my league about a year to get going," O'Neill said of the Detroit Derby Girls. "I think we're looking at about a year from the start to when we finally play here, too, and hopefully we can play by spring."
Given the transient nature of the expat community, the league will most likely be a rec league for now.
"We'll come up with some team names and then we'll have to divide the teams by skill levels because we'll always have girls coming in and out," O'Neill said.
On the track, the bouts are fast-paced, full-contact affairs. Two teams of five players, one jammer and four blockers, move counterclockwise around the track in a 2-minute jam. During that time, the jammer gets a point for each skater she passes as the blockers do their best to get in her way. Players can block each other by hitting above the hip — but there are penalties for using the elbows, hands or head.
As a founding member of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), which sets rules and rankings for its 130 member leagues worldwide, O'Neill is familiar with the rules because she helped devise them.
"We had two pages of rules when we were first starting, just the basics," she said. "A couple of leagues had a penalty wheel. The girls would spin it if they got a penalty and it was like spank alley where they had to skate in front of the audience and get hit.
"In Detroit we were like, if somebody hits me I'm gonna hit 'em back."
These days, the rules are very specific, dictating how far apart the pack can be spread out and where and how to deliver a hit.
Because WFTDA requires member leagues to own and operate a majority of the league's business, the Korean league hasn't yet joined the organization.
In the meantime, the skaters are working to raise money, build relationships within the community and spread the word. Before they play their first game, they'll need equipment and sponsorship. They'll also need referees, a role that can be played by either by men or women. And they're always on the lookout for new members.
The skaters practice every weekend, alternating between Seoul and Daegu.
Off the track, the group is a diverse one, with women coming from backgrounds in linguistics, social work and education. On the track, the names and personas they develop allow them to express another side of their personalities, whether it be toughness or tongue-in-cheek humor.
"One of the most fun parts of derby is thinking of a name, an alter ego," said Monique Dean, who skates as Minnie Mo' Comin' and holds a degree in social work. She skated at birthday parties as a kid but made the leap to roller derby after watching a documentary about the first league in Austin.
"From that point on I knew I wanted to do it but I didn't think I could," she said. "Then when I came to Korea and saw that a friend of mine had joined the league. I said, 'I'm definitely going to do it.' Why not?"
No stranger to risk, Dean came to Korea looking for something different.
"Sometimes it's worth taking a risk like that, just going and seeing what happens," she said. "It can be exhausting sometimes, but it's worth it."
Erica Neier, whose skate name is Glamzilla, joined in September. "When I came here, I was looking for something more to do and when I saw the posting on Facebook I was like, 'My time has come.'"
As a young woman, she was athletic but had never skated. "I was that girl who was always falling at the roller rink, so after seventh grade I never did it," she said.
These days, falling is a necessary survival skill.
By now, the derby injuries are almost as famous as the sport itself and many roller girls wear their injuries with pride.
"I once took a hit so hard that it threw me 10 feet backward and then I rolled another 10 feet into the opposite team's bench. I was literally flying through the air," said O'Neill, whose skate name is, appropriately, Crash. "Then I stood up and I was like, was that legal? And my teammates were like, yeah, it's legal. So I went back out and I was black and blue for a month."
In five years of playing roller derby, she said she'd broken her hand and her leg and torn the meniscus in her knee.
"But it's a fun sport to play. And all of my injuries have been during practice," she said. "There's kind of a joke with a lot of the skaters. You do all of these incredibly brutal things on the track and then you trip and fall going over a bump on the sidewalk and break your leg."
There haven't been any serious injuries in the Korean league.
At a practice in Seoul in November, Dean tumbled backward, hit her head and had to sit out for a few minutes. But she got right back up, which is what she'll have to do when the bouts start.
So how do you protect yourself?
"You've just got to take care of your body and do everything properly," Neier said. "We do a lot of competitive knee drills and falling drills and then falling becomes second nature."
Everyone wears helmets and knee and elbow padding, with some adding padded shorts and hip protectors to the kit.
"It has to be really heavy duty because we're literally taking each other out," O'Neill said.
The group ranges in age from 25-35, reflecting the demographics of the expat population in Korea, but roller derby isn’t limited to that particular age bracket.
"It's something anyone can do if they really want to; there's no limitations as far as age," Dean said.
Leagues in the U.S. have skaters in their late 30s and 40s, some who started with no experience.
"My league in Detroit has several people who are in their mid-40s cause they joined when they were almost 40," O'Neill said. "Summer's Evil from my league, she's like 43 or 44. She was almost 40 when she started."
The group's sole Korean national is Kim Yoo-rim, a.k.a. Fury Cat, who joined in August and said she got into it for the rigorous training that has consistently drawn women who don't fit in to traditional athletics or may not otherwise have been interested in sport. Since then, her connection to roller derby has evolved.
"I wasn't interested at first, but now it's the most important thing in my life," she said. "It gives my life balance."
As a new skater, she said she has had plenty of support from her teammates and doesn't feel rushed to learn new skills.
"Everyone encourages me," she said. "I really like it because it's truly a team sport."
In the future, the league would like to add more Korean nationals to its roster. It has already built a strong relationship with its practice rink in Daegu, where, "the rink owners love us," O'Neil said.
"I really hope that as we get things translated and get the word out there that we'll get more Korean members," she said. "I'd actually love to see our league taken over by Koreans or see Koreans start their own league. People have asked me what I would do if Koreans started their own league and excluded us, because that happens sometimes, and, well, that's fine.
"That means roller derby's here for good."
To join, volunteer or contribute to the league, visit rokderbyblog.tumblr.com or find them on Facebook at ROKD Republic of Korea Derby.