by Kate Russell
Thrills and spills, but keep your frills – this is roller derby for a new generation.
Sweeping through the country in a whirl of whips and wheels, roller derby is picking up pace in the UK. It’s fast, hard-hitting, and full of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it action – and more and more women are signing up to join the roller revolution.
Derby’s roots are in 1920s America, where it started life as a marathon skating race. A select group of men and women played professionally – they were well paid and pulled audiences of millions. In the ‘60s and early ‘70s, theatrics took over. Like wrestling, it became about choreographed fighting and over-the-top hits and falls. Audiences dwindled, interest faded, and it went into hibernation for nearly 30 years.
But in 2001, a group of women in Texas sparked the new generation of roller derby. They moved to a flat track meaning it could be played just about anywhere, and by 2005 there were over 50 roller derby leagues in the US. Since then, it has been unstoppable and now there are more than 1,400 leagues worldwide – more than 90 in the UK alone.
Leagues are self-funded and self-run “by the skaters, for the skaters”. So besides the hours spent training each week, and the hours keeping fit and holding down jobs, derby girls put in hard graft to keep things running.
Committees work together to make things happen – from fundraising to uniforms, from health and safety to training new members, known affectionately as ‘fresh meat’ – and the board make important decisions and run the league. But fairness and equality is the word so every member gets a vote on the things that affect them – it’s their league, after all.
Formed in 2007, Leeds Roller Dolls (LRD) is one of the oldest leagues in the country. Tracy Horrobin, who skates as Twink T, co-captain of LRD’s B team the Whip Its, has been a member almost since the start: “The first practice I went to was a group of 10 girls skating round in a sports hall with pads on. Everyone was pitching in with different things and everyone was at the same level of learning the sport.
“We did a lot of traveling to London to watch bouts, as that was the only place they were happening at the time.”
Each new league is built on the blood, sweat and pure passion of the women involved. Established skaters are more than happy to help baby leagues grow, and there is an incredible community spirit within and between leagues. If you play, you expect to get hit, so there are no hard feelings – and every bump and bruise makes you a better skater, eventually.
If you’ve seen the film Whip-It, you’re well on your way with the rules – two teams of women skate around a track scoring points when their ‘jammer’ skates past the other team. Skaters take down the opposition by hitting and smashing into each other full force, but the punching, kicking and headbutting of the movies is definitely not allowed – just like any sport, rules are rules. Bumps, bashes and bruises are the norm, and audience members who sit on the ‘danger line’ are prepared for wipe outs.
Although a lot has changed since the old days, roller derby is still known for its colourful quirks. Lots of skaters paint their faces and wear bright and sparkly ‘boutfits’, and picking your skate name is perhaps one of the most time-consuming unofficial elements of the fresh meat programme.
But recently, there has been a conscious move away from the roller derby of old, as Charisse Chapman, vice captain of LRD’s A team the Rebel Roses, explained: “When I first started, it was more about the look and huge hits which did nothing apart from cause pileups on track.
“Derby has changed from on track theatrics to being a recognised sport that people cross train to be fit enough for.
“I was more designed for the sport than the fishnets and red lipstick.”
Wakefield’s team Wakey Wheeled Cats have recently linked up with local rugby league team Wakefield Wildcats, which Lindsay Pantry, who skates as Linda LuMardy, says wouldn’t have been possible without their sport-focused image: “We have great support from our local newspaper and we want to be taken seriously by people. That’s not going to happen if you’re prancing around in tutus.”
A growing number of skaters are choosing to shake off their derby names, and Charisse is one of them. She explained: “I want to promote the sporting side of derby. I absolutely love hearing my real name when I’m stood on the jam line, so I know I did the right thing.”
So just how big a commitment is it? Twink laughed: “Ha! Derby seems to be my life outside of work,. I have to fit my non derby friends in around it. It takes a massive commitment – I’m not sure how people with partners cope!”
And Charisse agreed: “I believe serious derby girls spend the majority of their time playing derby, getting fit for derby or thinking about derby. It’s hard to maintain a job, social life and family life with how much time it takes up.
“I love that we all do the hard work to maintain our reputation and funds as a league. I love the laughs we have at training and how we pull together on game days.
“I love the sport – if I didn’t I wouldn’t give the majority of my life to it.”
If roller derby sounds like your thing, be brave and give it a go! Visit leedsrollerdolls.com for more information, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can’t have a bout without referees and non-skating officials (NSOs), so if you’re interested but a little bit pain-phobic, there’s a place for you too – and it’s a good way for guys to get involved.