Pump Up The Jam: Roller Derby Is On The Rise
Bacardi Bruiser. Suffer Kate. Phar Slap. Feral Streep. Ella Good. Crystal Beth. Peggy Spew. Apollonia Thunderpussy. Bitchy n Scratchy. Tail-Her Swift.
These are not riot grrrl punk band names, they’re monikers slapped on the back of roller skaters whizzing around Hordern Pavilion on a Saturday night. Competing for parking spots with footy fans are a two thousand-odd crowd of derby devotees, who've come to see a sport that couldn’t be more different.
There’s a DJ out the front playing nineties pop punk, and as you enter the arena the likes of Blondie and the Pretenders, Cyndi Lauper and Janis Joplin welcome you.
It’s the season opener for the Sydney Roller Derby League, kicking off with a bout between the Beauty School Knockouts and the Screaming Assault Sirens, followed by the D’Viants and Team Unicorn.
But the spectacle starts before the games begin: the players - clad in everything from t-shirts and hot pants to baby-doll dresses along with helmets, elbow and kneepads, - kick off the night with a dance routine. The Sirens wave red flags, pom poms and bomb-shaped beach balls; the Knockouts hold aloft a life-size, pink-frosted cardboard cutout of Oprah as their mascot/spirit animal. Team Unicorn, all gold hotpants and rainbow-striped knee-high socks, prance through a medley including Kesha’s ‘Tik Tok’ bastardised so you wake up feeling like a unicorn.
The infectious, fun-and-feisty soundtrack doesn't stop as the bout begins with a dozen girls racing brazenly around a track marked out on the concrete floor, blocking and charging and yelling instructions to each other, a two metre buffer zone the only thing separating them from an eager audience sitting on their bottoms like keen schoolkids, screaming and waving banners as the lead jammer whizzes past, crying out when there’s a hard hit or a chaotic fall.
One way, or another, I’m gonna getcha. I’ve got a brand new pair of rollerskates. Hit me with your best shot. T-K-O!
This is roller derby – a sport that has come a long way, baby.
Initially invented as a competitive contact version of “skating marathons” in the 1940s, the sport was reincarnated in its stereotypical heyday of the 1970s, when it was dominated by speedy men and televised around the world.
Since then there have been lulls and revivals, but right now it’s growing – the thousands of players in hundreds of leagues throughout Australia attest to that. The biggest difference these days? The majority of players in the Jamming Line waiting to race around the track – the Jammers, determined to push through the pack and lap the other team, and the Blockers hell-bent on stopping them – are female. The elements of fun, attitude and athleticism lend the sport’s image a burning hue of feminism.
But more than that, or perhaps helping to maintain it, is that unlike many popular sports, the teams are owned and run by the skaters themselves in a rock solid community that, in Sydney, goes by the motto “By the skaters, for the skaters”.
“There is a really big spirit within the roller derby community, here in Australia and internationally, in that it’s very embracing of women and of individuals,” says Stacey Biff (derby name: Miss Biff), who has been involved in the sport for the past eight years. When she started, there were just three leagues in Australia, compared to the hundreds around today.
“I think that’s one of the really exciting and appealing things about the sport. That’s certainly what’s kept me around for so long – it’s just this amazingly diverse community of people completely focused on building a dynamic and interactive, community-based sporting organisation, where we get to wear tutus if we want as well, which is fantastic,” she says. “So I definitely think there’s a real empowerment there for women.
“But feminism isn’t just about women. I think a lot of our key supporters are the lovely men who have been there since the early days, reffing and helping to organise the league and supporting their ladies on the track as well. And now we get to do vice versa, because we’ve got Merby.”
Yep, Merby is men’s derby, which is growing alongside the women’s league. At tonight’s game, however, the girls are bringing the heat and the guys are blowing the whistle – themselves with nicknames like Ya Mum, Toad Rage, Max Manic and Warwick Copper.
Everyone is there not just to compete, but to help run the sport, a do-it-yourself style that characterises this revival and sets it apart from other sports.
“Within roller derby, we have a thing where when you become a derby girl, it’s not just about what you can do on the track, it’s what you do for your league off the track as well – so you’ll have a role within one of our committees; you might be involved with sponsorship packages, delivering training or organising our finances.
“You’ve got to deliver both on and off the track, and that’s how I think the sport is growing – really in line with what the players want.”
Many derby players are just as tenacious off the track as they are on it. “I think a lot of roller derby people are quite outspoken – you get a lot of alpha females and alpha males getting involved and wanting to really impact on the sport and be right in there,” Miss Biff continues, “which works really amazingly because that’s what you need to grow in a do-it-yourself sport – you need to have people that will just get in there and do it.”
The physicality of the sport attracts “tough”, “athletic” women too, according to Great Bolz O’ Fire. She is well versed in another element the derby community embraces ahead of its time: queer identity.
Roller derby, she says, has “come along in a day where most other sports started in the dark ages…if you look at what’s going on in the NFL in America, they’re trying to encourage people to come out just so that football players become more tolerant of the gays that are there."
As a fairly new sport in its current incarnation, she says,“[derby] is blooming in a day where people are a lot more tolerant and accepting. People are a lot more welcoming of gays in the community and we’re all trying to fight for equality – it’s at the forefront of what’s going on.”
She started the Vagine Regime, a support network where “girls get together, they feel supported, so they come into a sport and they don’t feel like they have to come out, which you do in every other sport.”
She experienced this attitude firsthand, having come into the sport as bisexual and finding the confidence there to explore her feelings. She now identifies as “happily gay”.
“We sort of hope to see other sports in the future get to the place that roller derby is at, where being gay is actually welcomed, accepted and celebrated,” she says. “It’s the only sport I can think of where being gay is celebrated.”
We’re chatting just five minutes after Bolz O’ Fire has finished tearing around the track, helping the D’Viants to a valiantly close loss of 99-96 against the Unicorns. A stream of derby girls pass by, short of breath and high on adrenalin, into the change rooms exchanging words of congratulations.
“You were amazing! Shoving those girls round – you were awesome.”
“Thanks for playing with us! The ‘Corns were being massive brats, it was awesome. It was awesome.”
That’s the verdict then.