Rock ‘n roller derby

Posted by Ruth Brown on January 25th, 2011

photo by CorCor Beware

Just like you, I knew absolutely nothing about roller derby until I saw that Ellen Page film.

I left the film all, “Woo! I wanna go watch roller derby!” Then I found out the Melbourne league played all the way out in Reservoir, and suddenly I was less interested.

It should probably come as no surprise to anyone that roller derby is a popular sport in Portland. It’s a female contact sport, it’s got a punk ethos, dressing up, showing off, and you don’t have to be athletic and skinny to compete.

It seems roller derby in its current incarnation has “only” been around for seven years in Portland. The city now has four local teams, and the city “all star” team is ranked fifth in the country.

So when I saw the 2011 season was kicking off, I quickly snaffled some tickets, dragging The Boy along on the promise that the girls might look like Ellen Page.

photo by Joe Rollerfan

The game was held in the Portland Memorial Coliseum, which is also home to the local ice hockey team, cheerleading championships and something called the Rock and Worship Roadshow. Still, it has a capacity of about 13,000. That’s a pretty big arena for a fairly niche sport that has only existed in the city for under a decade. Good on ‘em.

The Portland Trailblazers were playing at the next door Rose Garden Arena (capacity ≈ 20,500), but we pushed through the fat men in red jerseys and followed the stream of punks and bike geeks and dykes until we found where we were meant to be.

Inside, over 4000 men, women and children—yes, loads of young girls, which is awesome—were cheering on ladies in torn stockings, spandex and makeup, with names like Domesticated Violence, Tits n Assphault and Scratcher in the Eye. If there’s one thing I love more than female contact sports, it’s a cheesy pun.

Things started a bit slow, but I guess they had a bit of ring rust (rink rust?) to brush off. We used the time to figure out the rules, which are, to put it incredibly simply: the teams skate around the track; one player from each team tries to pass all the members of the other team; they use physical violence to stop her. Splendid.

photo by Kat Cole

Once the matches warmed up, it got rough, fast, tactical, competitive and exciting. Even The Boy was enjoying himself. “Can you skate? You should do this!” he kept saying. By the end of it, we were cheering and clapping for “our” teams (i.e. whichever team was sitting in front of us). I would have to say it was, hands down, the most enjoyable sporting event I have ever been to that didn’t involve people getting kicked in the head.

When we got home, The Boy immediately booked tickets to the next match, and I looked up roller derby training.

The main roller rink in Portland is in Oaks Amusement Park, a crusty old-school amusement park in the SE that has been there for over a hundred years. On Saturday afternoons, they host beginner derby training. The rink a good 4.6 miles (7.4k) ride from my place, but it was an unseasonably nice winter’s day, with blue skies and sun, and biking the Springwater Corridor is quite lovely in good conditions, so I rode down anyway.

I hadn’t strapped on a pair of skates in well over a decade. As a young kid, I was quite the avid roller skater, and my sister and I would spend many holidays at Eltham Roller City — a big shed in Melbourne’s NE suburbs with orange shag-carpet walls and a DJ playing Guns n Roses cassettes, which was also used for Blue Light Discos (holy shit, Blue Lights still exist and kids are still doing the Nutbush. This has made my day). I graduated to roller blades when they came into vogue. I think they were cheapies from K-Mart, but at about 7 years old, I thought they were wicked cool and tossed out my daggy old skates. Then I got to high school and discovered that several of my classmates were sponsored competition bladers who could do all the tricks and jumps and go really fast, and I was too embarrassed to blade any more. So I switched to a skateboard, which I never tried to become good at, but carried around to look “cool” (apparently my definition of “cool” at 14 involved multiple items of Mossimo clothing — Stussy if I was lucky — and trying to impress pot-head skater boys).

So it had been awhile. But I used to be a gun roller skate at age 5, so how hard could it be?

Yes, this is me, age 7, carving up the driveway. Massive props to my mum and dad for sending me this photo (and for learning to use the scanner)

The Oaks Park rink was very much as I remember Eltham Roller City to be. Similar vintage, similar packs of screaming kids, similar soundtrack. The man at the entrance looked me up and down and said, “You’re here for derby. Go to that counter.” I’m not sure if it was the mohawk or the leather jacket that gave me away.

I handed over my $7 and got kitted out with knee, elbow and wrist pads, and some clunky old skates. I immediately fell over. I stumbled into the rink and started slowly working my way around. I had no recollection of it being so difficult. But after a few laps, I started to get the hang of it again. Yeah, I was not too bad. I was skating past people and feeling pretty confident and thought I looked pretty shit hot. I’m fit, I’m flexible, I’m fast, I’m not afraid of falling or getting hurt. I had this in the bag.

photo by Christmas w/a K

Then the class started.

I couldn’t get any of the stops right. I couldn’t knee slide. I couldn’t skate backwards. I was slow. I couldn’t do cross-overs. I looked stupid. The effortless skating you see on the derby track ain’t so effortless after all.

But, after a while, I started to get it OK. I learned to turn backwards. I learned to knee-slide. I got faster.

I still can’t stop.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself, though. My mum was giving me shit the other day for not having a good Beginner’s Mind. She’s correct: I hate stuff I’m not good at straight away and get frustrated easily. But I wasn’t alone. There was at least 20 other chicks and a few dudes there, mostly falling over each other and looking silly. It was funny and chilled out and there was no pressure or competitiveness. The camaraderie was great, and several of the actual derby players were there helping us out. It’s a bit of a pain to get to, but I’ll be back whenever I can.

I think it would be easy to lump roller derby in with inane hipster sports like dodgeball or hide and seek, or dismiss it as a fad. I’ve heard a few sniffy “Pfft, that’s so 2006″ attitudes around town. It’s true, there’s a lot of silliness and theatrics, and the current revival may be in its honeymoon period. But trust me: it’s a serious sport played by serious athletes. It clearly takes a lot of skill, training, strategy and hard work (if you don’t believe me, check this out). It’s also probably the only serious contact sport where the vast majority of the participants are female (and no, jelly wrestling is not a serious sport). That’s huge. You should have seen how many young girls walked out of that first bout with big grins on their faces. I have taught many women of all ages to kick and punch things over the years, and the lack of confidence so many have in their own strength and ability is really sad.

I don’t think any of the girls who were there that night will ever have that problem.

photo by nocklebeast

  • Rjeffkins

    i go back further in melbourne when at the old barn in west melb had male and female roller derby and televised on channel 9 on sundays with huge ratings

  • EasternDave

    Having met some of the Rose City Roller skaters, I can vouch that along with athleticism, these lovely ladies have confidence… somewhere between a lot of confidence and overbearing, but they never stated it, you just felt it. They ALL knew that they could do whatever they wanted to do. I salute them all and enjoy the roller derby competition each time I go.