When you tell people you play roller derby, you tend to get the same responses. People say:
“Oh…like in the film, with Drew Barrymore?”
“Uh… I don’t know what that is.”
“Is it like rollerball?”
“So, like roller hockey?”
“Oh okay, so… roller blading?”
“But… how do you score points?”
“Is there a ball?”
And then – although nine times out of ten, you know they’re not really interested – you explain it to them. As briefly as possible:
It’s a contact sport played on an oval track, which can be laid out on any flat surface. We wear quad skates, and protective gear. The game is made up of two 30 minutes halves, which are divided into short periods of play called jams. For each jam, each team fields five players – four blockers and a jammer. The jammer wears a star on their helmet and is the point scorer. When the whistle blows, each jammer has to skate through the blockers – or pack – picking up points for each opposing blocker they legally pass. The blockers’ job is to stop the opposing jammer, while helping their jammer through; simultaneous defence and offence. If on defence, players tend to form ‘walls’ of two or three, where blockers work together to slow down, block and hit the jammers. If on offence, players will use contact to get the opposing blockers out of the way of their jammer. Although there is now men’s derby, it started as a women’s sport, and the fact that you still have roller derby and men’s roller derby is testament to that.
And then, if they haven’t drifted off, they say:
“Women hitting each other – sounds great!”
“Ooh, I’d never be able to do that.”
And, every now and then:
“Sounds amazing – how do I start?”
And that’s when we get to let our passion spill over and start to evangelise about this amazing community sport:
It’s a DIY, grassroots movement; originally it had the tagline by the skaters for the skaters, but we now say by the members for the members in recognition of the invaluable input from our non-skating officials and other non-skating members. Basically though, we’re entirely volunteer run. Auld Reekie Roller Girls (ARRG) has grown from a few women falling over in a church hall, back in 2008, to having over 120 members, six training sessions a week, and three travel teams, with their All Stars team finishing last season in the world’s top 60. We’re a limited company with a board of directors and a constitution that lays out our mission: to enable our members to be the best they can be. We have committees of volunteers who do all the work involved in running the roller derby machine: communications, fundraising, finances, training and progression, coaching, administration, hall booking, officiating, putting on games, and lots lots more. We do all this ourselves! Isn’t that amazing?!
But we don’t get to evangelise much. More often, we just get asked one of two questions. People squirm and pull faces and seem unsettled and say:
“But – isn’t it really violent?” [Violent, adj: using or involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.]
Well, no. It’s a contact sport. It’s full of aggression and power and athleticism and strategy, but not violence.
Or they ask:
“But… isn’t it dangerous?”
Well, no. No more so than any other sport, anyway. We’ve had our fair share of broken bones, torn ligaments, sprained joints, and we definitely bruise a lot; physically and mentally. But you could say that about football or rugby or skiing or ice hockey. We have rules and minimum standards designed around safety. We wear protective gear. We look after each other; we’re incredibly progressive and inclusive for a team sport.
By this point, they’ve usually stopped listening. Because, let’s be real – people only think it’s dangerous because it’s a women’s sport; it’s women doing the hitting, the falling, the aggression. They’re not interested in reasons why it’s not actually dangerous, what they’re really asking is: isn’t it dangerous for women? Or maybe, what they’re really asking is: aren’t you dangerous women?
What we’re describing is a group of fierce individuals, a group of people that brings together their different sizes, ages, genders, sexualities, nationalities, backgrounds, who celebrate friendship and community and power and strength. A group of people that dares to speak up, to take up space, to not care what others think of us.
And we see that worry in their eyes as we describe all of this, we see that glimmer of fear as their understanding of the world, and their power and entitlement and ownership of it all is somehow called into question by us. That unsettled feeling, the reason they have to ask those questions? That’s what’s going on there. We see it. They don’t always understand it, but they feel it. And make no mistake, we see it.
Because whatever words we use or however it manifests, we all know what it’s like to be marginalized by the cosh of heteronormative, patriarchal hegemony. And through roller derby we are all threatening to push back on that cosh, in many and different ways.
Roller derby has helped some of us to start to unlearn decades of insecurities about our size and shape and to learn how to use our bodies, how to embrace our power and strength. Some of us choose not to shave our legs or underarms. Some of us have lost weight, some of have gained weight, all of us get stronger. All of us have found a space where we can be our true selves without judgement, or that allows us to aim for that.
Roller derby is for some a way to battle anxiety and depression through physical activity and belonging.
Roller derby can be empowering in so many ways.
Some of us spent years trying to make ourselves smaller, and are now realising the power in taking up more space.
This sport brings together the jocks and the misfits and the brains and the princesses and we find friendships we would never have looked for.
Roller derby celebrates queerness. We wear rainbow laces and represent at Pride and are so used to feeling at home sometimes it is shocking to realise that homophobia exists outside of our bubble, and particularly in other sports.
As a member of the International Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, we were excited to adopt and follow the updated WFTDA gender statement: An individual who identifies as a trans woman, intersex woman, and/or gender expansive may skate with a WFTDA charter team if women’s flat track roller derby is the version and composition of roller derby with which they most closely identify.
As a league, we strive for inclusivity and accessibility. We work hard to create a safer space for everyone. We recognise that we’re not always doing everything right by everyone, and that we can do better. But we also recognise that we’re doing pretty damn well.
Some of us have found our confidence soaring in other areas of life, some of us have started to take control at work, at home, have stopped allowing ourselves to be interrupted or spoken over. We are learning to carry ourselves with pride.
And all of this? It’s unsettling for those people who are safely cocooned within the current status quo, to those who benefit from the constructs of hetero-patriarchal hegemony. Because all of this, this threatens that safety.
Together, we are visible. Together, we are strong and we are loud. Together, we’re helping each other to take control and demand our space.
This is what it means to be dangerous.
Exhibition: Revolution on Roller Skates, 21st–28th February Mon-Thurs 07.30-22.00, Fri-Sun 07.30-20.00: Meadowbank Stadium, London Rd, Edinburgh, EH7 6AE, part of the Audacious Women Festival
Feature photo credit by Kris Jaros, courtesy of the author.