Eyes forward. Check. Shoulders back. Check. Bum down with tailbone tucked under. Um, kinda. Thighs parallel to the floor? You gotta be kidding me. I’m supposed to be in “derby stance”, the position in which you spend most of your time when you are playing this all-girl, full contact team sport. I’m too distracted by the possibility of breaking my nose to pay attention to the shouts of “Lower! Lower!” coming from the coaches, but staying low is one of the most important parts of roller derby. You get more power from your strides, you can bob and weave through your opponents more easily and, as one aptly named league member, Bonnie Crash, tells me cheerfully: “When you fall – which you will – you’re closer to the floor.” Gulp.
Fresh meat, baby
Roller derby is enjoying a worldwide revival – last year it made the big time in the Drew Barrymore directed movie Whip It. In 2007 leagues started springing up in Australia, now there are more than 30 in existence and that number is growing fast. Despite the fact that I’ve never managed to “make pain my friend” as my Taekwondo instructor once suggested, I had wanted to try roller derby forever. When South Sea Roller Derby (SSRD) on the Melbourne south-east coast started up, I was on it. The night I found out about the most recent Fresh Meat Boot Camp (“fresh meat” being the affectionate nickname given to rookies), I raced around my house like a kid on Christmas morning until my husband grabbed me and said, “You have got to calm down.” I still haven’t.
Roller derby is based on formation roller-skating around an oval track, and is probably best known for its pin-up girl image, the outrageous alter egos of the players and the fashion (fishnets, tutus, tattoos and hot pants abound). But don’t be fooled by the cute outfits – derby demands a killer level of physical fitness (imagine skating in a squat position for hours at a time) and commitment. Leagues are run by the skaters so everyone pitches in, and training and bouting swallow large chunks of time. Injuries also happen on a regular basis.
Each player must also have thorough knowledge of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association’s 43-page rule book. It’s about as exciting as studying a tractor manual, but not optional. Still, it’s worth it for initiation into the coolest all-female sport in existence.
SPEAK ROLLER DERBY
BOUT One roller derby game or match which lasts 60 minutes and is divided into two 30-minute periods.
BLOCKER A skater whose job is to stop or block the other team’s jammer from passing while also enabling her own team’s jammer to score.
JAMMER The skater on the track who can score points. The jammer is identifiable by the star on her helmet.
FISHNET BURN A form of “rink rash” that occurs when a skater is wearing fishnets and the resulting burn has the distinct criss-cross pattern on the skin.
PACK The mass of blockers from both teams skating around the track together. Each jammer’s goal is to get through or around the pack.
Blockin’ & jammin’
It’s been 20 years since I’ve rollerskated, but from the very first boot camp session I’m in love with the sport. Sure, I have to use my hands to lift my legs into the car for a week afterwards, but it’s a small price to pay. For the first time in my life, I feel a peace with my body and a confidence in its abilities. Every time I attend a training session, the coaches teach us a new skill. Immediately the voice in my head says, “You can’t do that. You’ll kill yourself!” But I ignore it and give it a go. The high that comes from trying, and (usually) accomplishing things that scare me to death is like a confidence injection straight to the heart. After 14 years of ballet where it was all about what I wasn’t – skinny, petite, graceful – the size and strength of my thighs is suddenly an asset as they rocket me around the track. OK, maybe I’m not rocketing yet, but it sure feels that way.
A derby game runs for 60 minutes, with each half divided into two-minute jams. During each jam, a maximum of four blockers and one jammer from each team are on the track.
Australian derby is flat track, which means the track is a flat oval on a rink, basketball court, netball court or sometimes outside. One whistle starts the pack (the blockers) rolling, and another whistle starts the jammers, who try to push, weave, hop or skate through the blockers. The second time through the blockers they start scoring points – one for every opposing team member they legally pass. The blockers use their bodies to get in the jammer’s way or they can use legal parts on their body (shoulders to mid-thigh, but no elbows, forearms and hands) to hit allowed contact zones (shoulders to mid-thigh, excluding the back and bum) on the other skater.
Derby attracts a diverse group of women: big, small, short, tall, fast, not-so-fast (me). The average age is 30-something. Some come from professional backgrounds and may, by day, be your manager or CEO. The one thing they all have in common is their passion for this sport.
It takes nine to 12 months of training before you are ready to bout, during which time you train hard, eat well, skate until you can hardly walk, and watch as much derby as you can, both in person (if possible) and online (try YouTube). I’m in my third month of official training and am already nervous and excited about my imminent first bout. But before my debut there is one more big step. My derby name.
A skater’s name and alter ego are a really big deal. It is a character you step into on the track, and sometimes in everyday life when you need to harden up. All names must be registered on the Master Roster (twoevils.org/rollergirls) and no duplicates are allowed. I’m keeping mine secret until it’s officially registered so it doesn’t get stolen. But I can tell you this... it’s sassy, funny and fierce, just like the women of this revolutionary sport.
SO YOU WANT TO BE A DERBY GIRL?
CLICK ON YOUR SKATES
“The most important thing you can do is grab a pair of quad skates and start skating as much as possible – head to the local rink as much as you can,” says Harmin’ Miranda, SSRD’s Fresh Meat coordinator. Start with a learn-to-skate session if necessary. At home, do some squats. Do some more squats. Then do some more. Get the idea?
JOIN AN ESTABLISHED LEAGUE
Go to rollerderbydownunder.com to find your local league’s next intake session; you’ll need to pre-register first, you can’t just rock up. Check your upcoming schedule before you commit – some compare derby to a part-time job.
NO LEAGUE NEARBY?
To start your own league, make connections with coaches and Fresh Meat coordinators near your area. Interleague assistance is the very essence of what derby is all about – everything is by the skaters, for the skaters. Other leagues should be stoked to give you a leg-up.
Find out more about I Support Women in Sport