There is glitter and there is grease paint. Whistles, stripes, booty shorts and more than a few broken bones. Shimmering tutus are smeared with caked fake blood like some sort of gruesome fairy massacre. This is Roller Derby.
And it is Bout Day.
At the door you will meet the roller girls who are not playing. They are always giddy, chatty and genuinely excited to share the sport they love. You will shuffle through to the courts and scope out a prime viewing position. There are chairs surrounding the oval track, but for the hardened fans there is the ‘Suicide Line’, the outermost track where fans scooch up on blankets to immerse themselves in the action. Spectators don their team’s colours and children have home-made signs adorned in glued pasta. Party music pumps from the speakers and the scent of something delicious wafts over from the simmering crockpot at the stalls. The skaters and refs start to roll counter-clockwise on the track and the low hum of chatter is cut through by a booming MC. In his finest sartorial splendour, he announces that the skate outs are about to begin.
Through its eighty-year history, roller derby has gone through several pendulum swings from the theatrical rehearsed performances, to pure athleticism, Today, in Adelaide, and in Murder City Roller Girls, the skaters and refs are committed to the fitness, speed and skill of the sport. Still, there will always be a place for theatrics and the skate outs is where the players get to let their derby alter egos live. The friendly rivalry between the teams is obvious, they exchange mock tokens of impending doom to the other team. It is silly, and funny and the crowd laughs along with them.
Once the skaters return to their team areas, the Tyrannosaurus Refs (or TRefs for short) are called out and hurriedly take their place. The TRefs are not known for their fanfare and despite their ability to project a penalty call across the track, and their ferocious namesake, they are actually quite shy of the limelight. There are striped refs on skates inside and outside of the track and NSOs in green, who manage the game.
The roller girls position themselves for the first jam. The two Jammers, one from each team, are positioned at the back, their goal is to make it past all the other players before their counterpart and lap as many skaters as possible, earning their team points. The Jamtimer NSO fills the stadium with her voice, “Five seconds!” The Jammers at the back get low and focussed. The crowd hushes like a cliché and the whistle is blown.
In an explosion of limbs, the pack starts to move forward. Jammers vie for a scrap of space to needle through the opposition. It is a tangled mess. Refs bob up and down trying gain a clear view. After a few beats, one of the Jammers exits the pack and is proclaimed in the lead by the ref’s whistle. The other Jammer struggles still with the Blockers from the opposing team and has fallen to her knees. Determinedly, she stands and pushes low and hard and also exits the pack to a roar and flapping of encouraging banners from the crowd. She picks up her speed to skate around the track.
Meanwhile the first Jammer is about to make her first score. The Blockers of the opposing team are in a triangle formation, ready to counter her offensive. The Jammer sets her heart to stone. In this moment the girls on the track aren’t her friends, her sisters and her league mates. In that second, as the Jammer is preparing to blow through the defensive wall of the Blockers, her face is stern. She picks up her speed and sees a small gap between the hips of two Blockers. She aims like an arrow and although the Blockers have pressed themselves together, they are no match for the force of the Jammer. She powers through, knocking the outside Jammer onto her hands and knees out of the track, faking the other blocker in front of her to the inside track, she swerves and passes the remaining opposition on the outside, exiting the pack of skaters. A quick glance behind her shows that her opposition Jammer is just coming to the start of the pack, so to ensure she does not collect any points, she waves her elbows and repeatedly places her hands on her hips, like a bridesmaid angrily doing the Chicken Dance. The referee following the first Jammer signals the end of the jam with his whistle and holds up his four fingers to the scorekeepers to indicate the points. The exhausted second Jammer receives a zero score for her efforts.
At the sound of the whistle, the scoreboard starts counting down from thirty seconds. Refs scurry back into positions, hurriedly rip tape with their teeth to fix the track and NSOs scramble to make sure all their paperwork is correct. Coaches, conscious of passing seconds, are flinging head covers, or ‘panties’ as they are called, and barking orders at their team. There is a cacophony of “What?” “Who?” and “Yes YOU!” Again, the jam timing NSO booms, “Five seconds”, and the players crouch and tense again.
There is a little bloodlust in all of us. The players’ and referees’ dedication to the sport, often at the very real detriment to their bodies, is mesmerising to watch. Roller girls leap apexes, spin on one foot and hurl their body if they think it will assist their team. They are fearless. And usually, as is the custom, a brief flourish of jazz hands will be shown to assure the crowd and their teammates that they have survived yet another possible tendon snapping fall.
From June 9-11 2018 Adelaide will host The Great Southern Slam, a tournament that brings roller derby leagues from Australia and New Zealand to Adelaide. The Showgrounds will explode in Jammers, Blockers, Referees, glitter, face paint and more than a few unicorn onesies. Roller Derby is a sport where diversity and strength is celebrated and embraced. It can be vicious; it can be painful. But is can also be beauty and grace. And a hellava lot of fun.
Strap yourself in and let’s roll.