Sport, often, is a clean-cut, disappointingly attitude-free undertaking, but not tonight. Roller derby’s skating queens are ice-cool, heavily made-up skating juggernauts, powering round a track in a speedy, fishnets-and-tattoos blur. When AU arrives in the Valley Leisure Centre tonight the place is already rammed with punk-ethos, blasting Stiff Little Finger’s ‘Alternative Ulster’ on a loop as if to welcome us, and chock full with manic skaters wearing their knickers on the outside. Perfectly lit pitches and one-track lives this is not.
The Belfast roller derby league formed 18 months ago, after the skater calling herself Hannahbolic Steroids took the advice of friends in Birmingham, and took on the burden of formation herself. A quick mail to a few friends had a first practice session in place, and training, featuring regular ‘fresh meat’, has been growing ever since. Tonight, there are 28 skaters who’ve reached a level necessary to compete publically. Like many more recent teams, the Belfast girls grew in numbers as Barrymore’s film ‘Whip It’ gained popularity. The film sees the actress playing an indie-alternative small-town Texan girl escaping the world of pageants to find her own identity in an extremely (and unrealistically) aggressive form of rollerderby carnage. ‘Sigourney Cleaver’ – whose off track costume includes a large (fake) blooded knife – is one Barrymore-inspired recruit, joining “only a couple of days” after seeing the movie. Others, like J-Mag were recruited through an undercurrent of word of mouth and the flyering of Belfast’s more alternative corners.
The basic principles of Roller derby are fairly simple, though the heavier technicalities extend to a half-inch-thick rule book. Each team fields five players, eight of whom (four from each team) circle the track as ‘blockers’, led by the strategy-calling pivot. Behind them, and starting just a touch later, the speedy ‘jammers’ – one from each team – power towards the pack, and attempt to skip, twist and bash their way through to the front. The blockers job is a dual one: they’re responsible for both blocking the opposition jammer, and helping their own to pass through the rolling bodies unscathed. For each opposition blocker that the jammer passes after their first run through, or for lapping the opposition jammer, they pick up a point. Each ‘jam’ lasts two minutes (though it can be ended early by the lead jammer), while a ‘bout’ – or contest – has a one hour limit, but crams in as many jams as possible. In practice, the jammers are slightly more important than the blockers (both of whom rotate from a 14-girl team), though a good blocker can prevent a jammer from cashing in at all, and so also be worth a whole lot of points. Explaining the blocker’s strategy, J-Mag argues “the concentration is mainly on the other team’s jammer. Helping your own jammer is secondary.”
It might sound complex, but Hannahbolic enthusiastically touts the skill requirement as “none” – none of the girls come from skating backgrounds – yet the training can be intense. Cleaver explains: “everyone comes at it from different levels. You’ll have some people who are really quite athletic when they join, but there are people who’ve never done a team sports in their lives. We’ll teach people everything they need to know”. On the other hand, the physical demands are not to be sniffed at, with training becoming increasingly intensive: “It’s very physical”, Hannah explains, “We train three times a week, and it was four times over the summer. You need to be working out on the days you’re not skating, too, so that training sessions are just for the skill element. It’s a struggle, and we wouldn’t make anyone do more than they’re comfortable with, but we’re a competitive league, so if people want to get first picks they need to put in the work.” As for the physical side of the bouts themselves, Hannahbolic explains “There are several members of our team, and other teams as well, that could put you on the floor pretty easily, but Roller Derby’s moved on from that. It’s more beneficial to get in someone’s lap and feel where they’re going to go, and block them. There are big hits, but it’s more tactical than just slamming people”. Physical, yes, but roller derby’s also accessible for newcomers, particularly now. The sport’s so new to Northern Ireland that none of the girls have more than 18 months experience, yet an All-Ireland team recently went out to represent the country in ‘Blood and Thunder’, the American-based Roller Derby World Cup, and things are a little further on in Dublin and Cork. The members of the Belfast team are either ineligible or not quite experienced enough to make the side this time around.
As an amateur sport with a DIY ethos – “There’s a real community spirit, we’ve been places and stayed with other teams, and we’ll offer the same if they come here.” – derby has a fierce identity, not least in its dress code. “The make-up and costumes help me compartmentalise the nerves”, Hannah argues, while Cleaver sees it as “a bit like playing superheroes. That’s why you see all the pants on the outside.”
It all looks great on track. Tonight’s bout is an ‘intra-league’ contest, consisting entirely of members of Belfast’s own team, but no less intense for it. A crowd of around 250 watch the girls shoulder-charge, skip around each other and fly past in a blur of intimidating make-up over the course of two halves, a punk, rock and metal soundtrack offering appropriate backing music. The most striking thing is perhaps the speed of the jammers, who, once they escape the bustling pack, invariably fly around the circuit in seconds to line up another run through. As Belfast Roller derby play ‘flat track’ (i.e. not banked) roller derby, the trips and falls tend to end in slides out towards the crowd, while points scoring varies wildly between bouts, with particularly speedy skaters like ‘Puscifer’ racking up the scores lap after lap, while intelligent blocking leaves others stranded in dense packs.
While the opening jams feel a little like the girls testing the water, the full tactical range of the game really starts to come out towards the end of the opening half. With the league, divided into black and white team colours for tonight, they demonstrate the full physical and tactical intensity of the sport in a night that offers a triumphant example of a concept that’s new to almost all of us. Just the level of sin bins, and the new tactical options that are opened up by the intelligent “no harm, no foul” refereeing is a must-see, offering extreme ‘power jam’ options.
The long-term aim, as Cleaver tells it, is “basically to grow. It would be great to get an all-Ireland tournament. In the short term, we just want to get to the point where we can play a lot of other teams.” There are a growing number of options, with the sport quickly taking off across numerous continents. The London RollerGirls for example, has already reached a level that allows them to compete in the American championship. With a number of breathtakingly fast jammers and physical, swift blockers, Belfast’s first public outing looks very much like a first step onto a global scene.
As published in AU Magazine Issue 79, pp 8-9.