Breaks & Skates - the revolution of Roller Derby

Breaks & Skates - the revolution of Roller Derby

Jean Balchin suffered serious injury to bring you an up-close and personal view of Dunedinís roller derby scene

There I stood, gingerly extending my right foot as the wheels rolled across the ground. Clad head to toe in battered protective gear, I resembled a second-rate Stormtrooper, and like the infamous head-bumping guy from Episode IV, I was just as clumsy. I had always envisaged Roller Derby as a sexy, snazzy sport—with fishnet stockings, wacky names and rough on-track antics. Less than five minutes later, my feet flew out from under me and I fell to the floor with my arms outstretched, only to hear the crunch of my wrist breaking. Needless to say, I don’t think I have a career lined up as a derby girl.

Roller derby is becoming an unstoppable phenomenon, sweeping across the country in a wave of black lipstick, bruises, and brutal blocking techniques. Spurred on by third-wave feminism, roller derby is a contact sport that is run almost entirely by women —women skate, manage and organise the game. It challenges the male domination of sport and insists that women can be just as aggressive, competitive and entertaining as men. But what exactly is roller derby?

Flat Track Roller Derby appeared on the scene in 2001, and has flourished to encompass more than 1,200 leagues worldwide. A contact sport played by two teams of five women roller skating in a counterclockwise direction around a flat circular track, roller derby is fast paced and requires speed, strategy and athleticism. Its popularity is due in part to the ease of setting up a flat track; any surface from a basketball court to an aeroplane hangar can be used. Dunedin Derby (DD), formed in March 2010, currently boasts over 30 passionate skaters and has two bout teams; the Gallow Lasses and the Bonnie Brawlers.  In their own words, Dunedin Derby are “putting Dunedin on the map in this dynamic, athletic, all-inclusive, and entertaining women’s sport.” For a couple of years I’d been keen on joining a derby league, however various injuries had prevented me from doing so (I’m ridiculously prone to breaking bones). After my failed attempt at skating —one which landed me in the hospital —I turned to three of Dunedin Derby’s finest skaters to hear about their experiences with this sport.

Schadenfreude is  short, swift, and exceedingly good at weaving her way through the opposing pack. Her name means the malicious sense of glee one gets from someone else’s misfortune. True, aka “False Hope”, is a  19-year-old student sporting wicked eyeliner and red bobbed hair. True got into roller derby through a friend, although she concedes “it was always a sport I wanted to do —I was always a bit too rough for netball.” Bronwyn is a veteran of DD. A library assistant by day and kick-ass derby girl by night, Bronwyn’s name on the track is Sister Strychnine. Contrary to her name however, Sister is anything but poisonous – she’s a delight to talk to. About six years ago, Sister heard of a clandestine roller disco in a basement at an art gallery and decided to check it out. She slipped on a pair of skates, thinking “Man I haven’t done this for ages!” She laughs, “I promptly fell on my arse and bruised my tailbone.” Not to be deterred, Sister continued with the league practices at Ravensbourne Hall, and has been “hooked ever since.”

I decided to see an actual bout for myself. I rocked up to this event, proudly showing off my battle scars (a lurid rainbow cast) and took my place on the bleachers. The MC—an elegant woman in a sparkly silver top hat—hit off the evening with a quick explanation of the game’s rules. Each player on the track has her own distinct role. The bout is separated into two periods of 30 minutes and game play consists of a series of short matchups (jams) in which the teams try to block the opposing jammer while assisting their own jammer. The jammer scores points by pushing through the opposing team’s blockers and making a lap of the track. The blockers, as you may have guessed, block the opposing team’s jammer from getting through. One blocker may act as the ‘pivot’ – she is allowed to become a jammer during the course of play. I watched as a particularly determined jammer skated swiftly towards the pack, head down and gunning for their stomachs. Nek minnit, a stray elbow caught her on the chest, and she was sent flying off the track. Half the crowd cheered—the other half indignantly yelled out “Foul!” I learnt that certain types of blocks and other play are violations. The striped referee called a penalty, frantically waving his arms in the air, and one of the girls good-naturedly skated to the penalty box for half a minute. Soon they were off again, whizzing and pummelling each other around the track. I must admit – for a first-timer, the game can be quite confusing. However, I was thoroughly entertained and began to consider returning to roller derby once my arm had healed.

So which on-track role is best? “I love jamming,” True says, “it’s amazing to feel your body moving so fluidly.” Isn’t there something intimidating about facing off against four (often large) women, I ask? “No,” she says “I love the challenge!” Coming from a family of successful athletes, True has strong shoulders – she can “hit really hard and push people out of the way.” Her signature style is to “come in hot to the pack and just barrel in.” Go hard or go home, I guess. I’m secretly glad I won’t be facing her any time soon. Schadenfreude is also fond of jamming; I watched with awe as she pushed her way through the opposing team. In contrast, Sister currently prefers playing as the pivot. As Sister describes it, “the pivot will often also call the plays for the rest of their pack (blockers) to follow.  It’s a strategic position that you need awareness for, and it can be challenging. Challenges are good!”

“Training is really intense,” says True, almost squaring her shoulders at the thought of exercise, “there’s between 4 to 6 months of skating before you’re even allowed to play a game.” Sister elaborated with talk of push-ups, planks, and the dreaded word squatting. A high degree of fitness is required for roller derby, seeing that you “have to skate as fast and hard as you can, trying to push past other people.” Different positions require different skills and level of fitness though; “If you’re a blocker, it’s not as endurance-intense; you need to be strong and to be able to hold a squatting position for a long period of time.” Hearing this, I can understand Sister’s frustration at roller derby not being recognised as a sport, although “this could change.” Sister is undecided on whether Roller Derby should be an Olympic sport. “It’s a team sport and it’d give us more credibility. It’s another opportunity nationally for the game to grow.” But on the other hand, she worries that “our control would be taken away from us,” and admits “I don’t know if we’re ready or able or willing for it.” True is enthusiastic however – “that would be so great!” - and she’s confident that “there will always be that back alley, fringe kind of roller derby – that’s what it started as.”

My first introduction into the bruising, high-speed world of roller derby was through the film Whip It. This film tells the tale of Bliss (Ellen Page), a whip-smart 17 year old high schooler from a small town in Texas who stumbles upon roller derby while visiting Austin. I asked True and Schadenfreude whether they thought the film Whip It was a true portrayal of roller derby. Schadenfreude liked the camaraderie: “it shows the bond between the women and the importance of teamwork,” but I was disappointed to hear that “the off-track competition between out-of-town teams was completely wrong. No food fighting or bitchiness.” Sister was also quick to dispel this myth, “Definitely not. We’re like a family. We’re pretty normal – we don’t get into the game because we want to absolutely fuck someone up – we’d probably do boxing in that case.” Schadenfreude adds; “the other week, I got a bleeding nose from a player who off the track is one of the nicest women I’ve ever met. It was great!” After-parties are infamous for the hilarity and hijinks that often ensue. As Sister says, “there’s a tradition in derby that if you don’t win the game you try and ‘win’ the after party!”

Roller derby originated long ago in the banked-track roller skating marathons of the 1930s. Over the following decades, it evolved into a form of sports entertainment where the theatrical elements overshadowed the athleticism. Now in the 21st century, roller derby is a mix of playful theatricality and punchy athleticism. Most derby girls skate under pseudonyms, or ‘derby names’. These names may represent the skater’s alter ego, and are often a topic of controversy. I asked True what some of her favourite names were. “Lady McDeath,” she said decisively, “and Smother Theresa, I love that one.” I was rather taken with Schadenfreude’s name. As True says, “It’s the epitome of roller derby.” Sister is quick to point out that in DD, derby names are run by everyone in the league to prevent anything dirty or nasty or offensive. “We take it seriously, we don’t want disrepute in our league. A lot of people aren’t using derby names anymore. I think it’s great. These people are doing it because they want to be taken seriously.”

The allure of these satirical, funny and often sexual names was one of the main reasons I wanted to give roller derby a shot. I thought about what I’d call myself if I ever made it onto an actual team. Perhaps I’d be ‘Scarlet Harlot’, although I’d probably have to dye my hair a shade brighter and amp up my promiscuous tendencies for that. ‘Mistress Whippy’ was another favourite – the whip being an infamous move on the track. I couldn’t help but feel like I was perverting a symbol of childhood – the dear, musical Mr Whippy van – by introducing references to S&M. Finally, a friend suggested ‘Gin Slinger’, which I felt I could live up to, seeing as I like to swig gin and sling punches.  

Roller derby encompasses body positivity like no other sport. Regardless of whether you’re tall, short, skinny or fat, all bodies are powerful in roller derby. If you’re fat, you can swing with force; if you’re lanky, your long limbs can obstruct others; if you’re skinny and short, you’re off like a robber’s dog. There is also a wonderful energy to the game. As True says, “There are no ‘sorrys’ in roller derby. You do not apologise for a hit, as long as it’s not malicious or illegal…You can hit the shit out of someone and they’ll go flying, but afterwards they’ll be like: That was a great hit! You totally caught me off balance!”

Many women who get involved with roller derby are in their 30s and 40s and have children. Roller derby is a huge slap in the face to the mentality that a woman should feel ashamed and hateful towards her body if it doesn’t conform to society’s ideals of beauty. As Sister says, Roller derby is “a sport that really builds confidence. Instead of thinking of my body as being something other than functional, my body now exists to play roller derby.” In social and professional environments, many women are conditioned to see other women as competition, and are taught to act accordingly. Although the sport is certainly competitive, roller derby ultimately celebrates women’s abilities and strengths. Roller derby’s place in gender politics is also an intriguing issue. Men have always played a role in derby, although usually in a supportive manner, as officials or referees. However in recent years this has started to change; there are currently over 60 men’s leagues worldwide. In my opinion, as roller derby gains traction and increasingly accepts men into its leagues, it needs to preserve the existing gender politics. After all – and let’s be honest here (looking at you, Hugh) - men tend to rather unfairly dominate most other sports. 

Many leagues also have pride-themed bouts and skaters frequently join pride parades or events. Dunedin Derby is very welcoming of LGBT skaters. Schadenfreude tells me that there’s even an international LGBT league called the Vagine Regime. Described as a place where skaters can be “unapologetically queer”, Vagine Regime is certainly made up of some of the most kick-ass queer skaters around. To quote Alex Krosney, one of the key organisers, “sometimes, no matter how comfortable you feel about yourself or how awesome everyone in your life is about your sexuality, you need to know there are people to dress up like vaginas and run around on your behalf. These people are the Vagine Regime”. Brilliant. 

When I told my mother that I was going to try out roller derby, she was horrified. I’m sure she pictured me tattooed and pierced, skating around in fishnets and swinging punches at other burly women. Perhaps she was worried that I’d hurt myself again (her fears were grounded, it seems). But that’s the beauty of roller derby. It’s not just playfully theatrical – it’s brutal and physically demanding too. Check out Dunedin Derby – their games are fast paced, highly strategic, often physically dangerous, and above all, spell-binding. I finish my interviews by asking the women how roller derby impacts their lives. 

Schadenfreude loves how roller derby has pushed her outside her comfort zone “mentally, socially and physically … I can definitely handle more [. . .]It gives me a purpose to get up and go for a run, go to the gym, eat cleanly… it gives me something to work towards,” says True. “It’s a really cohesive force. It gives you confidence and really brings you out as a person.” Sister agrees: “I’m more confident and I’ve had many opportunities to do things I necessarily wouldn’t have done before. I’ve been pushed outside my comfort zone a lot and I’ve always come through.” I leave feeling impressed. These women skaters may be derby “girls”, but they are girls clad in helmets, pads and mouthguards, with a tremendous amount of force in their speeding skates and outstretched limbs.

The next DD home game is between the DED All Stars and the Gallow Lasses, held on the 18th of June at the Edgar Centre.
Get amongst! 

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This article first appeared in Issue 14, 2016.
Posted 11:28am Sunday 29th May 2016 by Jean Balchin.