Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Rollers on, elbows out

I recently went to see Ireland's first women's roller derby team during one of their hair-raising training sessions and reported on it for the Irish Independent. They might look sexy but, they say, roller derby is not about titillation for a male audience; it's feminism on wheels and, more importantly, a valid sport.
See what you think (Pic by Martin Maher).

The rollerskate revival is uniting the sisterhood. Susan Daly on the sport that's sexy and tough.

A group of kids has just finished a sports session at a Dublin inner city community centre but they are reluctant to go home. They jostle for space on the staircase that overlooks the central gymnasium, peering through the glass for a glimpse of what is about to be unleashed below.

At exactly 7.30pm, the source of their excitement reveals itself. The door to the gym flies back and a line of women stream in on retro four-wheel rollerskates. They whizz around the polished wooden floor in tiny tartan skirts, hot pants and fishnet tights, their bulky knee and wrist pads giving them the air of a tribe of battle-ready warriors.

These are the Dublin Roller Girls, Ireland's first -- and so far, only -- rollerskate derby team. Banish all thoughts of roller discos. Roller derby originated in the US in the 1930s as a sort of skate marathon, and gained huge followings in the 1940s and '50s, but had fallen out of fashion by the 1970s. In its current state -- since it was revived in Austin, Texas in 2001 -- roller derby is a tough amateur sport.

There are now more than 400 leagues around the world. Although the Dublin Roller Girls (DRG) have only been training together since October of last year, they might soon be part of an all-Ireland league. A group is currently setting up in Belfast, with women in Galway, Cork, Tipperary and Limerick expressing interest in following in their tracks.

It's hard to describe the game, other than to say it will look like hell on wheels to those of a sensitive nature. Irish audiences will have a better grasp of it when the new Drew Barrymore-directed film Whip It! hits cinemas today.

The movie stars Juno's Ellen Page as a young Texan called Bliss, whose mom wants her to be a beauty pageant queen. But Bliss wants to break out of her small-town existence -- she finds her escape in the "skirts, skates and scrapes" sorority of roller derby in nearby Austin.

Self-expression is a huge part of the attraction to roller derby. All roller girls pick a personalised name. These nicknames, along with the punk-rock-cute outfits, help them climb into their on-track alter-egos.

So when she laces up her skates, Eilise, a wine importer employee, suddenly becomes Alice En'Rage. Teacher Christine is transformed into Scarlet Macabre. Grad students Dee and Sarah become Lil' Edee and Lady Axe-A-Lot; a Belladonna Blitzin' (psychology student Vivienne) and a Sue Killfester (aka facilities manager Eimear) shout to each other across the hall.

"There is a huge mixture of girls playing this," says Liz Clonan -- sorry -- Agent Provocative. "In the leagues internationally, you have some really crazy girls and you have some really girly girls and that all fits into their alter-egos.

"The names are just a bit of playfulness but they're also a bit provocative. I like to freak people out a bit on the track." Liz, by day, is a legal secretary.

The skirts might be short and the fishnet tights give track burn, but there is a sense the owner wears the outfit rather than the other way round. The tights are often accessorised by punked-up legwarmers; one helmet bears a 'Bite Me' sticker; another has a pair of handprints painted on the backside of her shorts. The effect is sexy-tough.

"They are hot girls and there is a derby style," says retail manager Ruth Hirsch (aka Feline Rowdy), one of the founders of the DRG, "but it's not about that. It's a sport.

"But it can get us attention and that's good because if you're saying, 'Oh, grassroots sport, all girls', some people will think that sounds a bit lame.

"The thing I love about derby is you literally have the tattooed punk girl with the piercings who has never been on a team, the girl who ducked out of PE in school. Then you have the girl who loved sport, playing side by side."

If this sounds like a reinvention of sisterhood, it might well be. On the night I visit, the DRG is hosting two Texan Roller Girl stars, Heather Villalobos (formerly Crasher) and Bloody Mary, aka Julianna Gonzales, executive director of the governing Women's Flat Track Derby Association. These are huge stars but, as goes with the spirit of the sport, when they met the Dublin girls at a boot camp in London they offered to drop in to their home town.

Tonight, Mary is gliding around the "starstruck" Dublin girls, offering tips and advice; Heather is showcasing some of her signature blocking moves.

Heather rejects the stereotype of foxy catfighting that might attract, say, a hopeful male spectator. "I have had experience of women who don't get along with other women and then find themselves in the middle of 16 other women running a business and they have to learn how to get along," she says, "That just has to be a good thing for women."

It is a no-man zone on track but there is room for men to help out in the backroom. Kitty Cadaver -- children's book buyer Christine O'Connor -- has gotten her fiancé Christopher Goggins (Coach Puppetmaster, to you) on board as coach alongside Alan Flaherty.

But essentially, sisters are doing it for themselves. "I do think there is more of a bond in derby because you eat, sleep, drink it," says Ruth. "It's not just a kickaround on a Saturday afternoon. I love the mix of girls and that the age group is so wide (the girls range from 21 to 30 but girls over 18 are welcome on 'freshmeat Sundays')."

The derby is self-funding -- through typically inventive ways like a metal music and cake sale evening -- and democratic.

Some of this camaraderie is reflected in Whip It!, which, naturally, the DRG has already seen a preview of. "But every one of our girls and other roller girls we've spoken to have had real goosebumps at the bit in the film where Bliss goes, 'You don't get it -- I am in LOVE with this'. It sounds corny -- but you just fall for it."

They might love roller derby, but even the Dublin Roller Girls will admit that love can hurt -- a lot.

The basic set-up of roller derby is that two teams of five skate in formation around an oval track. Each team has one jammer whose job it is to outskate the four 'blockers' on the opposite team, and vice versa.

How they do this is subject to a number of rules but it's fair to say that heavy elbow action, jostling and body blocking are par for the course.

"My mother doesn't want to know about it," says Liz Clonan, "She just asks, 'Are you going rollerblading?' and I say, 'Yeah, I am'. You learn to fall properly, but you know, this is all at speed, so yes, you'll get a couple of bruises, but it's like your war wounds and you wear them proudly."


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