It has been described as "a series of muggings on skates" and is the fastest-growing women's sport in the UK. Now three home-nation teams are about to compete in the inaugural roller derby World Cup in Toronto next weekend.
Roller derby is perhaps best known from Drew Barrymore's 2009 film Whip It, but its origins go back to the 1930s roller-skating marathons on banked tracks. Damon Runyon is one of those credited with developing roller derby as a team sport, played under the aegis of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), which is based in the United States. They oversee the game internationally, which consists of 1,100 leagues (clubs) worldwide. There are now 72 in the UK – up from just two in 2006 – and more are joining each year.
The matches, or bouts, are fast, furious and noisy, with DJs and a party atmosphere, and the modern sport's punk and counterculture origins – many players are from a jam skating or street hockey background – are reflected in witty team names and players' often near-the-knuckle pseudonyms. There are leagues called Harbour Grudges and Ultraviolent Femmes, and WFTDA-registered players include Clitty Clitty Bang Bang, Mistress Malicious and Kamikaze Kitten.
Leagues in the UK are already attracting crowds of several hundred to their bouts. The entertainment factor is important, and it's a contact sport that is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Sprains and bruises are common as players jostle for position, but the sport's speed and physicality are a draw for fans and players alike.
Tamara Edmead (aka Flamin Aggro) of London Rollergirls, a firefighter, says the only black eye she has ever had – "My mum wasn't best pleased" – was gained on the track.
"I like the physical challenge," she adds, "but reading the game is where it's at for me. Roller derby is way more demanding mentally than my day job, where there are procedures we follow for our and others' safety. But on the track you are constantly trying to outwit your opponents and it's trying to get that 'derby brain' that makes it so compelling.".
London Rollergirls are providing 14 of the 20-strong England squad at the World Cup, where Scotland and Ireland are also competing in the 13-nation tournament. Team England's captain Stefanie Mainey, also a London Rollergirl, says part of roller derby's attraction is that it has created its own aesthetic. "With no disrespect to those playing other contact sports like rugby," she says, "they are playing a female version of a man's sport.
"This is a sport which has largely been developed by women and it's one where you see all shapes and sizes. If you are big and strong you may be better as a blocker, but if you're speedier on skates then you may make a good jammer."
The 33-year-old Mainey is a picture editor; like many roller derby players a professional in a high-pressure day job – teachers, nurses and lawyers abound in the sport. "I think that's part of the appeal to those in demanding jobs, or ones where they have to rein in their emotions; it's a very physical sport that requires a certain level of aggression to be played well. I think that's quite empowering for women."
Amy Ruffell (aka Raw Heidi), who is also a member of Team England, describes roller derby as her ideal sport. "I'm a physical person," the 29-year-old television producer says, "but not what you would call sporty in the normal sense – I wouldn't want to play rugby, for instance. The adrenalin rush on the track is hard to describe but in a jam you really go for it and it requires both physical fitness and mental concentration."
What about the mêlées, which often look quite brutal? "Well, there are very strict rules about where you can make contact and with what part of your body, but yeah, when you get hit in the sternum and knocked to the floor, it can hurt," Ruffell says. "But then you think, 'Great block' and get on with it."
Plenty of men are involved in the WFTDA as bout officials – as Jim Anthony (aka Wheelspin Shady), a referee, says with a laugh: "Partners and boyfriends get involved as officials because otherwise we'd be sitting on the sidelines as derby widows." His girlfriend Dee Miller (aka Cherry Fury), who used to play for Edinburgh's Auld Reekie, will herself be officiating at the World Cup.
She, like all the UK players and officials, will be paying her own way to the Toronto tournament. "It's a DIY sport," Ruffell says, "and we don't have a lot of sponsorship, so the cost of Team England competing [around £20,000] will only be partly covered by fundraising and sales of merchandise at bouts. But we love it and wouldn't miss it for anything."
How it's played
Two teams of five (rotating from a squad of 14) skate at high speed around a track. Each team has a "jammer", who scores points by lapping the opposing team.
The rest of the team, called "blockers", try to obstruct the opposing jammer while protecting their own, smashing into them with their shoulders, hips or backsides.
A game, or "bout", has two 30-minute periods in which each fast and furious play, a "jam", can last up to two minutes with 30 seconds between each jam.
Points are given for how many of the opposing team the jammer passes, and penalties are dished out for infringements such as blocking an opponent above shoulder-height.
Equipment consists of four-wheel skates, helmet, mouthguard, wrist supports, elbow pads and kneepads.
Veronica LeeReuse content