Commentary

WARNING: This Could Be Your New Obsession

You may have heard of Roller Derby; women on skates with a touch of violence? It’s back with a vengeance, but not as violent as it used to be. It’s a contact sport played on four wheeled skates around a skate track, and is the fastest growing women’s sport at the moment. It has been for a while, with players from all walks of life getting their skates on and hitting the track.

Visually, a lot of people may associate it with tattooed girls in short skirts and fishnets beating each other up. Style is all part of the fun. Bruises become beautiful badges of honour. Fishnets, knee high socks and short-shorts or skirts are standard derby attire. And no, just because the girl is wearing fishnets and a short, short skirt, it doesn’t mean she’s up for it! Then there is the all important derby name of course which is a play on words such as Iron Maiden, Carmen Forya and Mince Meat Molly.

Roller Derby has its stereotypes including that (a) all players are gay, and (b) they’re all heavily tattooed, pierced and aggressive all the time. But in truth training sessions see women and men of varying backgrounds and sexual orientations building their derby skills. Some are tattooed and pierced, some are not; it has no affect on their skating skills. Mums, lawyers, photographers, office workers, engineers, photographers, teachers…the only requirement is that players be over 18. It is a contact sport after all. “The vast majority of skaters are clean cut, upstanding citizens and certainly I have never come across a more open-minded, intelligent group of women in my life.” says Morgan, the Media Officer for Perth Roller Derby. In fact the Derby community is amazingly supportive and hospitable. Players have been known to pack their skates when they travel and be welcomed to training sessions with a league on the other side of the world. As a sport, Roller Derby first popped up during the Depression, and was televised in the 1940s & 50s. It was huge in the 1960s and 70s in Australia, with sell-out crowds of over 5000 spectators a common occurrence, but then faded away. In 2000 the Texas Roller Girls re-invigorated the sport with a fresh approach of feminism and third-wave punk aesthetics, focusing on a grass-roots volunteer run approach. It’s been spreading like wildfire ever since. On each team you have a pivot, three blockers and one jammer. The jammers start from a little further back than the pack of pivots and blockers, and from there they have to get past the blockers from the other team and lap them. For every opposing player that a team’s jammer laps and passes, they get a point for their team. As tradition – dictates, most points win.

Western Australia has five leagues in action: Perth Roller Derby League (PRD), Western Australia Roller Derby (WARD), Bunbury Roller Derby (BRD), Margaret River Roller Derby (MRRD) and Gold City Rollers (GCR). PRD was the first, establishing itself in 2008 with about 60 players, all over 18. In 2009 WARD set down roots, followed by Bunbury, Margaret River and the more recently formed Gold City in Kalgoorlie. Like all Roller Derby leagues, they take a grass-roots approach and are run with an ethos of “for the skaters by the skaters”. Passionate volunteers put in an enormous amount of work behind the scenes to keep their league up and running. New players are called Fresh Meat, a term you might have run across if you caught the 2009 movie, Whip It. This year PRD has seen about 70 players sign up for their annual Fresh Meat regiment, while WARD has a lot of Fresh Meat turn up casually.

Bouts are enormously popular with players and crowds. This year a Bloody Valentines bout was held in Kalgoorlie. It sold out all 800 tickets. Apparently organizers had to turn people away at from the door. Thundra Storm from the Derby Dames says each league usually only holds about three games per year, but there is interest in stepping this up. The bouting teams from Perth Roller Derby are the Bloody Sundaes and the Mistresses of Mayhem and bouting for WA Roller Derby are the Electric Screams and Sonic Doom.

Both League’s have strict skills levels that Fresh Meat must pass before they’re allowed to pass. PRD’s are coded by number, WARD’s by colour. It’s all about keeping players safe. It can be a rough game; at best you collect some wicked bruises, at worst you may injure yourself seriously enough to prevent you from ever skating again. The bare essentials of safety that every player must wear at every training session or bout are helmets, mouth guard, and 3 sets of padding. No safety gear means you’re not allowed on the track. No exceptions. As PRD’s Fresh Meat Coordinator, Huh-Knee Badger points out “It’s something that becomes very obvious rather quickly to every start up league that wants to grow. If you keep losing skaters to injury because they don’t want to wear safety gear, not only will you force your insurance premiums up, but you can’t grow as a league because everyone’s broken!”

If you want to get involved…

Perth Roller Derby trains an intake of Fresh Meat beginning in January at the Morley Rollerdome, and requires each player to pass four skill level tests before they begin bouting. 2011 is their first year with this tiered training approach. Their next intake of Fresh Meat will be in January 2012. Check http://www.perthrollerderby. com.au for details.

Just up the road from Murdoch, at Rolloways in O’Connor, the Fremantle Derby Dames trains every Wednesday and Sunday night, with an equal emphasis on safety but a more casual approach to attendance. Check http://warollerderby.com.au/ for details.

Derby on Film…
  • Hell On Wheels (2007) The true story about all-girl roller derby, Texas style.
  • Roller Derby Dolls (2008) Another doco, this time about the rise of Derby in Brisbane that was aired on ABC1.
  • Whip It (2009) Comedy-drama from Drew Barrymore, starring Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page.

Originally Published in issue 2, 2011

Words – Liz Aisbett

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