Flat Track Heritage Part Two: Nothampton’s Playworld Exhibit and the Derbyverse

Written by Kevin Dennison

Wow! Though it was not my intention at all, what began as a interview to promote a new roller derby exhibit in Northampton, England, has evolved into a kind of preliminary exploration of how roller derby overlaps with other cultures and interests. Sure, it’s not a super complex concept but it is quite fascinating to think about all of the countless ways that people, places and things connect; especially in a sport like roller derby where pop culture, internet memes, punk rock, tattoo art, social movements, comic books, body modification and Star Wars, to name just a few things, run rampant.

While reading more on Playworld and contemplating the e-mail exchange I had with Catherine Hemelryk, aka Rebel Rebel of the London Rockin’ Rollers, I suddenly remembered a term that I have not heard or used in quite some time now: ‘derbyverse’. Was it really just simple wordplay used by the derby community in reference to itself as a unique entity, or, does it suggest something more? I was about to find out.

Don’t forget to check out Flat Track Heritage Part One  for more on the National Museum of Roller Derby in Glasgow Women’s Library and its founder, Ellie Harrison!


The Basics of Playworld

Playworld is a new exhibit, housed by NN Contemporary Art in Northampton, England until September 21, that will undoubtedly build upon the success of the National Museum of Roller Derby (NMRD) over the coming months. Catherine Hemelryk, aka Rebel Rebel, Artistic Director at NN and a skater with London Rockin’ Rollers, hopes that leagues across the UK will take notice of the event and see the immense value their continued support of and contributions to NMRD going forward. “I want the show to promote the NMRD to roller derby leagues and to prompt them to contribute items to the museum,” she explained. “To really demonstrate that we are all making history and to encourage and facilitate the growth of the museum so future generations can see what we did.”

The items selected from NMRD’s collection were chosen by representatives from Northampton’s two local teams, the Vendetta Vixens and Shoetown Slayers, to highlight UK derby milestones such as the first appearance of women’s derby, the first appearance of Men’s derby, as well as important tournaments such as the Heartland Series and WFTDA’s upcoming first official European competition. Ever since Hemelryk first learned of Ellie Harrison, founder of the NMRD, she has watched her progress and hoped to collaborate with her. However, it wasn’t until this year that the best opportunity arose. “I have long been aware of Ellie Harrison’s work and have always kept an eye out for an opportunity to work with her and so when I saw that she was founding the NMRD I was delighted! I knew I wanted to work with it but the timing and context had to be right,” said Hemelryk who shares Harrison’s passion for women’s history as well. “The sport is evolving rapidly and growing, seemingly, exponentially and so [now] is a great moment to look at artifacts from its recent history.”

Items on loan from the NMRD were thoughtfully selected by representatives from the Vendetta Vixens and Shoetown Slayers.

Items on loan from the NMRD were thoughtfully selected by representatives from the Vendetta Vixens and Shoetown Slayers.

To compliment the main NMRD exhibit, Playworld will also offer several other derby centric features such as a meet and greet with the Shoetown Slayers on August 9th, a meet and greet with the Vendetta Vixens on August 16th, a film showing of Whip It! on August 27th, a “Roller Derby Life Drawing” art event on September 6th and 13th and, finally, on September 20th the NMRD will be looking for new donations from leagues in Northampton and the surrounding area before everything goes back home to the Glasgow Women’s Library. It’s certainly a lot to take in for any derby fan!

However, Hemelryk hopes that derby folk won’t just stick to the NMRD display. Other aspects of the exhibit include Phillip Marsden’s tattoo drawings inspired by the computer games of his youth, Jamie Shovlin’s film in his new series about the Anstey Swifts, a footie league of under-16s, and SeeNN, a Youth Arts Collective actively making board and role-playing games throughout the exhibition. There is a lot going on and Hemelryk would simply love to see people stepping out of their comfort zones and areas of interest to experience everything Playworld has to offer. “It is a joyful show and whether or not people play sport or games I hope they will celebrate the creativity and passion of others. I hope people will feel inspired to become active if they aren’t already and to dust off old football boots and get involved or to create an alter-ego with SeeNN and play out an imagined adventure.”

This is particularly important as the central idea behind Playworld toys with the concepts of parallel worlds and multiple dimensions. The event suggests that these same concepts exist in society itself through the many subcultures and communities that have arisen over time. Furthermore, no matter how independent or exclusive these subcultures and communities may seem they actually overlap with each other in more ways than you may think. “These realms are not mutually exclusive from the rest of the world as they both reflect and subvert aspects of it and their subcultures bleed out back into the rest of the world.” This happens a great deal in roller derby as well and while tattoo art, football and role-playing games (RPGs) may at first seems unrelated, they too reflect and subvert one another. One such example can be seen in the imagination, creativity and self-expression displayed by people who play RPGs and roller derby athletes in regards to the development of alter-ego. In both cases, participants exhibit similar behaviors in how they may create a new persona and name to use while interacting with their community. Where one person may utilize an RPG’s character creator feature to generate a hardened warrior in their image for use in exploring an online community’s digital world, likewise, an individual joining the sport of roller derby may create a derby girl alter ego; complete with a showy boutfit, a unique name and an exclusive on track personality as they navigate the derby community.

Another overlap, which is certainly more apparent, can be seen through the connection of Phillip Marsden’s tattoos and derby culture. Go to most any bout, tournament or event and you’re bound to see many inked women and men, some with a variety of body modifications as well. These examples only scratch the surface in terms of parallels between the exhibits focal points so, if you plan to check out Playworld, make sure you take some friends along for other perspectives on discovering additional correlations!


Our Derbyverse in the Multiverse

One of the things I found most intriguing about Playworld is how my research into it and discussions with Catherine Hemelryk legitimately got me thinking not only about my perspective of how I personally fit into the derby community but also about how roller derby fits into society as a whole; complete with it’s numerous subcultures, ideologies, institutions, industries and technologies. At the very base, personal level, there’s me, Kevin Dennison, aka Kevlar:


Directly framing me is this blog, Derby Frontier, and beyond that is my provincial derby community of Saskatchewan, the greater Canadian derby community, the North American roller derby community and the international roller derby community, all of which operate as their own unique “worlds” while also overlapping with or outright encompassing one another.

The Derbyverse

Simple enough, but when I began to consider how Playworld ties tattoos, football and RPG games to roller derby I suddenly found myself thinking about how many thousands of other things tie into the game as well. Television, literature, film, comic books, art, music, fashion and other sports are just a few things that have absolutely influenced and inspired derby; just as derby has influenced and inspired them. Take one of my all-time personal favorite overlap examples, the Quentin Tarantino inspired Kill Jills and Glenmore Reservoir Dogs of Chinook City Roller Derby in Alberta, Canada. Or what about the Star Wars inspired Rebel Alliance in Melbourne, Australia? And let’s not forget Harley Quinn playing roller derby in her new monthly series from DC Comics. Too cool!

Derbyverse Multiverses Picture

If that weren’t already a lot to consider, broader notions come into play as well the more you expand this concept of interlocking “worlds” and systems. Popular culture, social media, news media, social movements/activism, it’s all there in one form and another both on and off the flat track.

Overlapping Overlaps of the Multiverse Derbyverse

The scope is as expansive as you can imagine! While the NMRD shows us the importance of recording roller derby’s history, Playworld shows us how roller derby interacts with the rest of the world and how the world interacts with roller derby. It really is a beautiful thing!

Coming up in Part Three will be a discussion with Ellie Harrison herself about the experience of curating the NMRD, the processes involved with that venture, and pointers on how derby communities of all sizes, be it a single league or an entire region, can work toward keeping record of their own history.


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