Too brutal for the boys: roller derby comes to Britain

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The Independent Online

With "drop" and "dead" tattooed on each fist, a razor blade hanging from her neck, and jet black hair falling around her face, Jasmine Danks looks tough by anyone's standards. But when she dons a pair of roller boots, and transforms into her skate persona, Lady Frankenstein, she makes the daytime Ms Danks look like a shrinking violet.

This afternoon, she will step out as Lady Frankenstein to referee the UK's first roller derby event, an aggressive contact sport on four wheels, whose larger-than-life characters put WWF wrestling in the shade.

The American-born craze has swept across Britain in the last two years, with clubs springing up everywhere, from Glasgow to Birmingham, and even Bedford. Now the London Rollergirls are hosting the country's first official match of the sport, and the showcase is already close to being a sellout.

The rules of the game are simple: two "packs" of five girls skate around a track, each with one "jammer" who skates ahead, attempting to break a path through the opposing pack. Points are scored when the jammer manages to get through the opposing pack, who are allowed to block them using a series of violent barges.

Roller derby originally started out in America as a sport for both sexes in the 1930s, but its current resurgence has transformed it into a female-only sport, which is as much about the punk outfits as it is about the skating. And today it arrives at Tottenham Green Leisure Centre, featuring two teams from the London Rollergirls club.

Sitting in the Blood Brothers tattoo parlour where she works on London's grimy Holloway Road, Lady Frankenstein explains it was the image that attracted her at first. She said: "I hadn't skated since I was 12, and I wasn't any good, but I just thought it looked cool. All the women looked really tough."

Their image owes a lot to punk, with black and pink team colours, and a Sex Pistols-style club badge, complete with safety pin. Many of the girls sport fishnet tights beneath their hot pants, but Lady Frankenstein has learnt from bitter experience that this is not always a great idea. "I don't fancy the fishnet burn," she grimaces. "If you fall over wearing those the pattern is friction-burned all over your legs."

Despite the skimpy outfits, all the skaters wear full protective gear – helments, knee, elbow and wrist guards, and gum shields. Injuries are not uncommon in this hard-as-nails sport so any protection is welcome.

"You've gotta be prepared to get bruised," Lady Frankenstein laughs. "We've had a couple of broken ankles and some really spectacular faceplants."

To "faceplant" is to suffer a particularly ignominious fall. Perhaps the most gruesome of these so far was that by Anna Monoxide, an unfortunate former member of the London Rollergirls who injured her face badly after forgetting to put her hands out as she careered into a wall. There are unruly versions of the game in the US, where violent smack-downs and even fist fights are not uncommon. In the UK there is a strict set of rules to prevent too much elbowing, tripping or grabbing, but pile-ups and shouting matches still occur.

"I guess the closest sport is rugby," said Lady Frankenstein, whose job it is to enforce order.

One of the key legal moves to get your opponent out of the way is a " booty block". The shove, which Lady Frankenstein demonstrates with a flick of the hips, only compounds the sexy image of the game, whose physicality and skimpy outfits have attracted an army of male fans. Like wrestlers, each skater takes on a pseudonym which they play up to on the track. One tall blonde woman becomes Bambi Manslaughter, while the frightening-looking captain of Team Black is Correctional Felicity.

Ruth Morgan, with the unnerving name Rose Hypnol, said: "There's a whole range of women who skate with the club: lawyers, social workers and teachers. But while they may have a retiring day job, when they put their skates on they become their derby personas."

With more than 9,000 players registered internationally, and around 200 leagues worldwide, roller derby is rapidly becoming the next big thing. After this weekend, the UK can look forward to its own roller revolution, as London's punk skaters stage their biggest showdown yet.