Breaking free of the pack: why Roller Derby is taking over Melbourne

Roller Derby is one of Melbourne’s fastest-growing sports. It’s fast, brutal and exhilarating.

Over the weekend, the Victorian Roller Derby League (VRDL) showcased some of their stars in front of 300 people at Darebin Community Sports Centre, in a bout dubbed the “Great Gender Defender”. The VRDL All Stars, a women’s team ranked fifth in the world, took on the Victorian Vanguards, one of the teams in the Victorian Men’s Derby, and the All Stars took them to the sword, winning 239-69.

Roller Derby has been popular for years in America, but has only just spread its wings in Australia. After its birth in the 1930s in Chicago, it was reborn in Texas at the turn of the millennium by a group of women who just started playing, letting the rules evolve around them as they skated.

It arrived on the shores of Australia in 2007, when the VRDL was formed. Since then, the VRDL says it has developed “beyond our wildest dreams” in attracting hundreds of players, coaches and referees, as well as a cult following among its supporters.

For those that don’t know the sport, it involves two teams skating around a 15 metre long rink, with five on at a time. Play is divided into two 30-minute halves, and teams try to squeeze as many “jams” as they can into a half.

A jam is relatively simple in theory. A jam involves five players from each side on the rink. Four players from each side form “the pack”, while one from each team is dubbed the “jammer”, who has to force her way past the other team’s three “blockers” and a “pivot”—who is in charge of the blockers.

The aim of a jammer is to get through “the pack” of blockers and to skate around the rink until she is at the back of the pack again. She then has to force her way through, scoring a point for each member of the other team she passes.

That’s where the simplicity ends. The first jammer through the pack becomes “lead jammer”, and can call off the jam at any time by tapping her hips. Often jammers will get through the pack and call the jam off before the opposition jammer can score any points.

“The pack” is a mauling scrum on wheels in which people jump and push everywhere. There are six (yes, six) referees that try to control the fray—which makes British Bulldogs look like netball—picking up players for fouls from hitting to pushing in the back to going out of bounds.

Once a player gets a foul, they get sin-binned for 30 seconds before re-joining the scrimmage. So players have to deal with odd numbers, players returning at varying times, and to calls from referees at any time.

Gabby Love is an RMIT graduate with a Masters of Social Work, who heard about the sport from her mum.

“I loved roller skating as a kid, but as I got older it was harder and harder to find friends to do it with. It took me two years to build up the guts to try out,” she says. She is glad she did.

“I like the roller skating and I like the strong sense of community in the league.”

And while the sport is brutal, there is a true community around it. Most of the fans know each other, the players and the referees all know each other, and there is a huge amount of respect for everyone involved.

Gabby says skaters try to “spread their knowledge” freely.

The adopted names of the players are the essence of the fun. Names taken on by the players included Green Eggs and Slam, RickyRicky BangBang, Miss Chivas and Florence the Machine, with the Vanguards sporting a “Skate Pilgrim” taking on the world.

Jess Whitby was on the VRDL’s twitter feed (@VictorianDerby) during the bouts, and says the respect is culturally ingrained in the sport.

“We need more refs than any other sport,” she says.

“We’ve got the six in the middle, the timekeepers [for the sin bin], scorers and more. Whatever the ref says, goes”

Gabby also likes how roller derby gives her freedom. “I like how derby empowers me within my body,” she says.

Yesterday’s bout was an indication of that empowerment. When the men from the Vanguard walked in the door, they seemed like they were going to walk away with a win.

The men’s bulk—to the untrained eye—should have put the contest away, but it showed that Roller Derby is so much more than brawn. It is a sport of tactics, intelligence and, at times, elegance. Often, the women would jump, slip and spin through the Vanguard’s rugby-esque line.

It was truly wonderful to watch.

By Max Stainkamph

Image via Flickr

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