The women are fast and fabulous, tutus and tattoos go together like bread and butter, and a lurid purple bruise is a badge of honour.
Welcome to roller derby.
Derby has taken off like a retro rocket since its rebirth in Texas in 2006. Every state in Australia now has at least one league. In just twelve months the number of roller girls registered worldwide has more than doubled from 16,000 to 37,000.
The sport began in the 1920s and 1930s as a roller skating race for both sexes. During the 1970s, it became a televised exhibition sport known, like wrestling, for its staged fights. That staging eventually resulted in a loss of viewers, and roller derby faded from sight.
Now that it’s back, derby is all-girl. And while it’s still full contact, the mock brawls are a thing of the past. From a sport controlled by promoters, it has evolved into one with a strong grassroots ethic, run by the skaters, for the skaters.
Adelaide Roller Derby (ADRD) is one of twenty-seven leagues Australia-wide, with three teams: the Salty Dolls, the Road Train Rollers and the Mile Die Club. A fourth will be announced in time for the 2010 season, which begins in March.
ADRD publicity officer, Sita Bacher, has been skating with the Road Train Rollers for two seasons and adores the roller-girl life.
‘It’s all about the culture,’ Sita says. ‘It might sound a bit corny, but it’s so much more than just people to exercise with. This is the best group of girls. Where else can you go and make eighty instant friends who’ll help with your work, help you do your tax and then go out dancing with you on a Saturday night?’
Modern derby has a pervasive air of indie cool, bringing together people from every walk of life. It also has a strong following in the rockabilly and gay communities.
‘You might think that you’re too tall, too short, too fat, but there’s a position in roller derby for every shape,’ Sita says. ‘It’s all about the experience that we’re offering to women, rather than something controlled by some sort of media or secondary interest.
‘I got “derby sickness” the first time I went to a match. There was great music and great outfits – and that was even before the skating started. Derby is a dream come true for a lot of girls because they can put on a costume and play a full contact sport.’
The costumes are part of the skaters’ on-track personas. While everyone has to wear a team uniform, customisation is the name of the game. Tutus, hot pants, leather, lace and lingerie are all common additions, and fishnet stockings are so popular that they have even spawned their own injury: rink rash.
‘When you get your first rink rash, you show everyone,’ Sita says.
‘It’s a fishnet-patterned bruise that you get from sliding across the track on your stockings. I know it’s a bit weird to be excited about bruises instead of feeling sorry for people, but the bruises are a badge of honour. We photograph them and publish the pictures. I don’t bruise much, though, which is a bit disappointing.’
Another big part of the roller-girl character is the skate name. Heavy on puns and loaded with kitsch and retro references, every name is unique and recorded on an international register.
In Adelaide, Barrelhouse Bessy, Kit Cat Krunch, Minx de la Rinx, Babycakes, Violent Crumble, Vaderella, Hell Grazer, Lady Cadaver, Gateway Girl, Boneshaker and Ltl Whipit all take to the track.
‘My skate name is Marshall Stacks,’ Sita explains. ‘I was about to get married when I started derby and I was a bit devo about losing my surname, which was Marshall. I doubt that most of the other roller girls would even know my real name. Even my kids call me Stacks sometimes.’
The rules of the game are fairly simple. Each team puts five skaters in the rink. There is a jammer, whose objective is to make her way to the front of the pack of skaters before the other team’s jammer. There are four blockers, who obstruct the other team’s jammer. This allows their own jammer to make their way through the pack. The first jammer to the front is dubbed the lead jammer and she scores points for her team every time she laps the pack.
But don’t think for a moment that derby is only about fishnets and fun. Roller girls train hard, working on their fitness and skating skills for six to eight hours a week.
A new crop of hopefuls joins the sisterhood every year, willing to take the hits and wear the bruises. October is ‘raw meat’ month, where the newbies learn skills including skating backwards, crossovers, balancing on one foot and the instant stop known as a snow plough.
After five weeks, they are tested. For those who make it through, the next step is ‘fresh meat’: learning special derby skills such as blocking and whips, a slingshot-like move that allows one skater to shoot another forward.
While men are well represented in the audiences and refereeing ranks, boys on skates are a hot topic.
‘The boys are saying, “Why can’t we play, too?”’ Sita says. ‘I can understand that. It’s quite controversial in the derby world, though. Some people think it should be kept as a women-only sport. As a skater, I’d love to have a co-ed league and try my skills against the guys.’
Sita’s two sons, aged two and four, will probably be hoping the same thing as they get older.
‘They have derby fever too – and I didn’t even brainwash them,’ she laughs. ‘I have to wrestle their skates off most nights. I even had to change the words to “The Wheels on the Bus” and “Old MacDonald” to turn them into derby songs. Now we have, “Old MacDonald had a derby track, ee-aye-ee-aye-oh. And on that track, he had a jammer… ”
‘I have to explain to them that they can’t be derby girls when they grow up – they’ll have to be derby boys.’
Visit www.rollerderbydownunder.com to find out more about roller derby in your state.