SHOUTING from the sidelines in the middle of the game a player screams “hit her in the sternum!” as the track becomes a mess of skaters smashing into each other, shouting strategy and falling over.
It is difficult not to be a bit shocked at the violence of roller derby.
Although as a contact sport it could hardly be considered more aggressive than national pastimes like Aussie Rules or rugby, roller derby has cultivated a playfully savage aesthetic that sets it apart.
Before they embark on the sport’s mandated and rigorous training regimen, new recruits are referred to as “fresh meat”.
And glancing down the list of internationally-registered player alter egos or “derby names”, monikers like Bandsaw Betty and Jack N Kill are far from the most extreme.
“For me, this is the first place I’ve ever been where I think it was not only acceptable but encouraged to be aggressive as a woman,” said Sarah Bella, aka Bella Dubious from the Northside Rollers, a roller derby league based in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.
“You find a lot of women come to roller derby and they apologise a lot. So they’re hitting people and they’re like, ‘Oh sorry, sorry,’ and we kind of smack that out of them pretty quickly. You don’t apologise.”
The aggressive elements of roller derby culture might seem at odds with a sport that’s gained a reputation for being community-focused and queer-friendly, but Bella argued it was about creating a space where women can celebrate what are often seen as cultural taboos.
“This is a feminist sport, I think. It gives you an outlet to be someone when society’s told us to be polite and nice. We don’t have to be polite or nice here, we’re not polite or nice. We’re aggressive and I love that,” she said.
While it’s definitely aggressive the sport itself is far from simple, with a baroque and constantly refined rule-set defining the complex ins and outs of play.
At its most basic, the sport involves two teams of five skaters simultaneously skating anticlockwise around a track. Points are scored by each team’s “jammer”, who tries to pass the four other members of the opposing team (the “blockers”) and scoring a point for each blocker passed.
So while the jammers try to break through the pack to score, the blockers make room for their own jammer while preventing the opposing jammer from getting through.
On top of that very basic description of play sits a dense web of rules and regulations updated frequently by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association in the US.
Although the sport has its origins in the 1930s, the modern form of the game came out of a revival in the early-2000s in Austin, Texas. When WFTDA published a track design and rules on its website in 2006 leagues began to spring up all over the world, coming to Australia in 2007.
“Brisbane had the first roller derby league,” Bella said.
“Sun State Roller Girls up there is the first league in Australia, and I think they started by watching stuff on YouTube from the States and taught themselves how to do it.
“Melbourne got it not long after that. Victorian Roller Derby League is the second league in Australia and they just started cropping up not long after that. People networked and talked and shared ideas and just started playing each other.”
That grassroots, community-level aspect of the sport is still a huge part of roller derby, with leagues in Australia usually existing as small, self-contained organisations with “home” teams for less-formal bouts within the league and “travel” teams to compete against other leagues.
Sharing knowledge and information is central to how the leagues operate, not only in terms of collaborating to organise major events and tournaments, but also in providing a supportive environment to develop players’ skills.
Tania Beckett, aka Tino TurnHer, is one of Northside Rollers’ rising stars, rocketing from fresh meat to captaining the B travel team in her rookie year last year. She said fostering skills and new talent was always at the forefront of their minds.
Bella and Beckett both speculated this focus on fostering a community around the sport and developing skills and players in a supportive environment might explain the appeal of roller derby to queer women. The queer appeal is recognised in roller derby leagues around the world, with a dedicated queer roller derby organisation called the Vagine Regime.
“When you get into roller derby it’s something that takes up a lot of your time and is, dare I say it, a little bit culty… You’re surrounded by a lot of really powerful, kick-ass women who are running the entire show and playing the game,” Bella said.
“It’s a really powerful space for women I think, and it doesn’t surprise me that it attracts a lot of women who love women.”
Beckett agreed, acknowledging Northside Rollers’ reputation as one of the queerest roller derby leagues in Victoria.
“I guess maybe it’s a safe place for some people to come to who may not be out in the world and may not be comfortable with that, but they can come here and be themselves and create their own person that’s who they want to be, and have the support to do that,” she said.
Northside Rollers’ reputation as a queer-friendly league has been bolstered by their players’ involvement in Battle on the Bent Track, a queer roller derby tournament now in its third year and happening as part of Midsumma.
Bella is one of the tournament’s founders, and will compete this year on the Victorian side as “Pat Gash”, taking the opportunity to be a little more cheeky than she would in Northside Rollers competitions, going up against teams from Queensland, NSW/ACT, WA/SA and New Zealand.
While the Victorian team hopes to take out the title in the state-based tournament for the third year running, as a New Zealand native Beckett will be playing on the New Zealand team, who are competing for the first time.
“When I lived in New Zealand I was very much coming to terms with myself. I always thought New Zealand was queer-friendly but I think I was wrong,” she said, hoping this might be a way to help reconcile being queer with being proudly from New Zealand.
“I grew up there, and News Zealand’s come a long way. We’ve got gay marriage and everything like that, and I just thought well, the girls are coming over here and they need players, and it would be a really lovely way to, in my way, support my country.”
Battle on the Bent Track is happening over two days in Midsumma, on January 31 and February 1. To find out more and to book tickets to the finals, visit www.midsumma.org.au.