Leisure: Talking Smack with London Rollergirls

Written by: Violet Myers

A contact sport on roller-skates? Images of 1975’s dystopian sci-fi ‘Rollerball’ come flooding back – there is definitely something about a pair of roller-skates that drives the mind towards the tackier parts of the 70’s.

The media has painted Roller Derby as a cool, underground scene brimming with wild feminist parties, brightly dyed hair and fishnets, with the odd bit of skating thrown in. It’s infamously rough, verging on violent, with plenty of that girl-on-girl aggression that the internet loves to feed on. 
I’d also heard a lot about the derby names each player assigns herself, usually a parody of some pop culture reference: Rusty Stiletto, Jabba the Slut and Anya Mum being some of my personal favourites.

Hearing of a North vs South London bout, soon to be happening in a school gym near you, I decided to visit the London Rollergirls to find out more about the sport and see if I could get some pre-game smack talk against their rival team.

The media’s painted Roller Derby as a cool, underground scene, brimming with wild feminist parties, brightly dyed hair and fishnets, with the odd bit of skating thrown in

To be honest I was excited, Derby sounded to me like a freaking circus or the setting for a Nivarna video. 
I even watched Drew Barrymore’s indie coming of age ‘Whip it’ in preparation, solidifying my expectations of a painfully cool, female bonding experience on wheels. Maybe we’d play beer pong or steal a rival team’s bus? It sounded right up my street: an alternative girl game with a Punk ethos – sure, it’s a sport: but it’s more about thinking of witty names and having a bit of campy fun, right?

Oh how wrong I was. I went expecting a gaggle of Courtney Loves with stories of split lips and fist fights, what I got was a group of dedicated athletes who train hard, take their sport very seriously and can’t get enough of North London’s transport system. Tess has been playing for four years, since she was 17. She hasn’t chosen a derby name, not feeling the need for it, “A lot of people adopt a different persona when they join Derby, I never felt the need to be someone else.”  What about the other theatrical elements of the sport? I ask hesitantly, sensing this kind of question comes up a lot…”there’s a misconception on how Derby is portrayed in the media, but it’s not so different from any other sport.” This opinion seems to be a common theme in my conversations with the players, had Drew Barrymore been lying to me?

Rachel, Derby name Pixie Cannibal, has also been skating for four years. She started in her home town back in New Zealand and took her name from a chocolate bar “There was a lot more of the theatrics when I first started – my home team used to paint skulls on our faces and come out all crazy, Derby’s come away from that now, which i’m pleased with.” There’s a certain amount of sensationalism that’s surrounded Derby. As well as nicknames, the players have been known to indulge in a pair of fishnets or two, wear costumes and embark on a pre-game ‘skate out’ – an audience hype building ritual that’s sort of a cross between old school WWF and Disney on Ice. But these practices seem to be on their way out “it’s more about doing well at the sport, we’ve done a few bouts now without the big skate out and it’s been better, it means we can focus on the game more.”

My hopes of becoming a world class Derby girl were waining, I had a few great names lined up; Enid Fighton, Emmeline Spankhurst, Kate Punch-her-in-the-bush, but it was beginning to look like I’d actually have to do some skating to hang with these girls and it sounded dangerous. “It’s a cross between speed skating and human bowling, you’re literally throwing one person into a pack of people, like a ball into skittles” Tess explains nonchalantly. She’s never suffered any serious injuries herself, putting it down to the martial arts like training the players receive in the correct way to fall.

Pixie shares a story of an accident that resulted in stitches on her chin and I witness a player get knocked down so hard, she leaves the session with an ice-pack and a limp. It’s rough and I think rugby on skates sounds about right. “It’s hard to sum up because it’s complicated, kind of like rugby meets chess, it’s very strategic” adds Lauren, aka ‘Thelma’, who took her Derby name from the iconic feminist hero in Thelma & Louise. She’s a tiny, softly spoken girl with a thick French accent. She comes across as shy and doesn’t match my preconceived notions of the Derby girl that I’d imagined.

Later, as I watch the players engage in some military style training circuits, Thelma flies across the floor faster than her namesake’s departure into the Grand Canyon. I watch as this tiny person transforms, tackling, racing…sweet jesus did she just jump on roller skates? “I’m quite small, so I’m more of a jammer. I’m not so good at blocking but i’m good at speed, I’m agile. But you can be tall or small, any body type will work for Derby” she explains.

It’s hard to sum up because it’s complicated, kind of like rugby meets chess, it’s very strategic

And I’m sure she’s right. There’s every kind of woman here; tall, short, willowy…the only type they don’t seem to have space for are the ones solely in it for the lols. During the two hour training session I see some incredible speed, expert blocking and some hard as nails determination. “I do consider myself an athlete, I train a lot, I give up three nights a week to be here, I focus a lot of energy on it” says Toni, Derby name Florence the Machine.

Toni’s been playing for five years, since being invited into it by her skating Mum. Other than her name she doesn’t engage with the more theatrical elements of the sport “the training is intense and it’s competitive, but for a long time it was considered an alternative sport, I don’t think that’s the case anymore. Those elements are what drew people to the game and it grew from there.” So Derby is a real sport, with real sacrifice and real injuries. It’s moving away from the campy aspects that once made it famous and focusing on being a serious athletic pursuit.

But did Drew get it totally wrong with ‘Whip it’? Was all the go-getting female camaraderie mere Hollywood fabrication? And were we seriously not going to play beer pong? “I fell in love with the values of the sport, I love the community” says Thelma proudly and it seems she’s not alone in her pride for the mutual respect enjoyed in the world of Derby “there is a great sense of community across the whole roller derby scene, not just within the regions” declares Florence “during the championships we saw two of the best teams in the country compete against each other, but they still hugged it out at the end. It’s really infectious and it makes you want to never leave.”

Derby is set apart from other sports, no matter how much the athletes (and that is definitely what they are) detest. But it’s not due to their theatrical past that they are trying so hard to shake. But because it’s one of the only sports that is more focused on the female team than the male. There are men’s leagues, which the female players throughly support and are involved in, but for once it’s the girl’s who are in the spotlight with the guys taking a backseat.

It’s also one of the most supportive and inclusive sports you will ever come across. Unlike a lot of sports, a player can start Derby late in life and still have the chance to become a recognisable skater. 
They’re also all genuinely nice, welcoming ladies, who daren’t say a bad word against their upcoming Southern rivals.

for once it’s the girl’s who are in the spotlight with the guys taking a backseat

Come on, why is North London better than the South? Do you have any warnings for your rivals? I press “er….not really, I guess North London has better transport than the South?” They all agree after much prodding “sorry our smack talk is terrible!”


Photographs: Mike Ashdown

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