Published in Rock Candy Magazine April 2012
"It’s the sport where tough as nuts chicks race around on skates, banging into each other on a circuit that would leave many guys quaking in their steel toed boots. Cat Cholera, aka Perth girl Anna Hartley explains what makes a derby girl tick."
When someone asks me about the sport I play, live and breathe, I begin to discretely scan my surroundings, assessing close-by objects and flat surfaces. After one minute, I've usually been asked “Do you use sticks?” (No) “Is there a ball?” (No), “so... its like a race?” (Not exactly). This is when I clear a surface and begin to assemble salt shakers, espresso cups, wine glasses or whatever else I can get my hands on, into an approximation of the oval track we skate on, positioning the 'players' as I begin to explain. I've done this many, many times and now I'm almost as good at it in French, my shaky second language, as I am English.
To be fair, it is a pretty strange sport. Around the time I am explaining the way we use our hips, shoulders and booty to block and hit each other, the eyes of whoever I'm speaking to light up. “So its pretty violent?” they say excitedly, imagining a free-for-all, thinking of James Caan in Rollerball, or the televised banked-track derby from the 70's.
Its true that the spirit and punk attitude is the same, but the modern game we play is a highly regulated, amateur sport that is taken very seriously by players and fans alike. There is no elbowing in the face or pulling hair, but don't let that disappoint you, it is fast and aggressive and it very, very exciting to watch.
I am currently living and playing in Paris, with the Paris Roller Girls, founded in February 2010. Since I arrived last July, I've had the great fortune to travel all over Europe and play on the All-Stars team against Belgians, Swedes, Danes, Germans and Scots, to name but a few. Although only in its second year of bouting, PRG is proving itself to be a serious contender on the European stage, taking on older leagues and Viking races with a certain pouty insouciance.
As any visitor to Paris will be able to tell you, the French really, really like skating. Find yourself out the front of the Louvre or the esplanade of Les Invalides on a clear evening and you will see dozens of skaters slaloming, jumping, playing roller hockey, freestyling and aggressive skating. After two years, we roller derby girls get less puzzled looks and more excited ones, as girls and guys alike approach us wanting to know more about the sport that began as a whisper and is now a loud underground buzz.
When I packed up my life in Perth and moved to Europe, I had one large bag on my back and a smaller, heavier one with all my skating gear. I was lucky enough to have caught the skating virus a year and a half earlier, and wise enough to know that it was incurable.
Australia was one of the first countries to get derby-fever after America, starting with Victoria and quickly spreading like rink-rash across the country. Perth Roller Derby was founded in 2008, and in the last 18 months their travel team has played against numerous interstate leagues and represented at The Great Southern Slam, a huge Australian-wide roller derby competition held in Adelaide.
I often get asked how Australian roller derby rates against Paris and the rest of Europe and I'm very proud to point to the results of the first ever Roller Derby World Cup held in Toronto in December 2011, in which Australia ranked 4th, behind the US, Canada and England, out of 16 countries.
I guess Australians are a tall, athletic bunch in general and when you combine that with a large dollop of 'have a red-hot crack at it', from a country that produced Mad Max and Cathy Freeman, you get formidable opponents.
One of the many beautiful things about roller derby is that there is no 'ideal' body type or age. Small and skinny? Perfect as a zippy jammer. Big booty? Your best weapon as a blocker. Tall and muscular? You'll make rock-solid walls. Young players might have more endurance and agility, but older players tend to be better at strategy, and women who have raised broods of children often make great Pivot's, being natural communicators and multi-taskers.
Without a doubt, many first-time-spectators are drawn by the girls. Players skate under an alias: provocative, subversive, punky. Think Amelia Scareheart, Paincake, Malice Springs, Lara Von Rapt. Many of us are tattooed and pierced, and wear short shorts and fishnets to skate in. But anyone who arrives at a roller derby bout expecting the saucy girl-on-girl action is very quickly set to rights. Would you take on a girl who can probably bench press your body weight, launches opponents into the crowd with her hips and can run you down on eight wheels? While the rules are strict and the players skilled, injuries do happen. In the last 2+ years I've had concussion, a pulled groin and uncountable bruises and scrapes, and seen players downed with broken legs and arms.
We players joke amongst ourselves that “roller derby stole my life and gave me a better one”. We also joke about the community being like The Family, except harder to leave. I can truly appreciate how valuable this can be: when I first arrived in Paris I had cleverly forgotten to book accommodation... in the middle of summer. All it took was one quick Facebook message to the league and I had a couch within 10 minutes. Since then, I have been made utterly welcome by the members of my new team, even those with whom I couldn't speak for months, before my French got past “Salut... comment ca va?”.
This kind of treatment is not isolated: wherever we travel, we are welcomed with open arms and cold beer. Despite the aggressive nature of the sport, the most competitive thing I've ever seen between teams off-track was a human pyramid building competition between my girls and the London Rockin' Roller Girlsat the after-party in June. (5 tiers: we won).
There is no doubt that Derby is growing, and growing fast. Every player comes to derby for different reasons, but they stay for the same reason: because they love to play the coolest sport in the world. The 2012 Olympic Games reignited the debate as to whether roller derby shouldbecome an Olympic sport, and if continues to grow like it has... well, I think we could show the synchronised swimmers a thing or two.
Roller Derby: How to do it:
Women's Flat Track Roller Derby is a contact sport played on quad roller skates. Players wear helmets, padding and mouthguards and skate around an oval track. Each team is composed of four 'Blockers' , (including one 'Pivot' ) and one 'Jammer'.
The Blockers help their point-scoring Jammer pass as many members of the opposing team Blockers as possible. Each Blocker legally passed marks one point. Play is divided into two 30 minute periods, which is further divided into 'jams' which can run for a maximum of 2 minutes, with 30 seconds between each jam to re-set the play. Penalties can be Major or Minor, and include back-blocking, skating out of bounds, cutting the track and illegal use of elbows.
Knowing your Pivot from your Booty:
Bout: the name of the contest
Scrimmage: an informal bout
Jammer: the point scorer. Wears a star on her helmet panty
Blocker: four of each team in the pack
Pivot: the on-track captain. Wears a helmet panty with a stripe on it
Helmet Panty: a helmet cover that denotes a players position
Booty: a well-formed booty is a mighty asset to any player
Suicide Zone: the sit-at-your-own-risk area next to the track just out of the curve, where players are most likely to go flying
Rink Rash: an abrasion, usually on the upper thigh, from sliding in fishnet stockings
Fresh Meat: rookie players, who have not yet passed their minimum skills testing
WFTDA: Women's Flat Track Derby Association, the international governing body