Get Rolling!

Want to get fitter and feel empowered? Roller derby might be just what you need!

by Julia Migné

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Roller derby is “an aggressive, fast, hard-hitting sport”, according to Cardiff Tiger Bay Brawlers’ coach. © Julia Migné

Skating around a  circular track, colourful wheels rolling in rhythm, one foot after the other. It could almost look like a school playground scene from another decade, if you were only looking at their feet. Then comes the helmets, the knee and elbow protections, the mouth guard, and the tattoos. It’s a Sunday afternoon at the Penarth Leisure Centre and the Tiger Bay Brawlers, the local Cardiff roller derby team, are training.

Coined in the 1920s, the term ‘roller derby’ was used to describe roller skate races. It evolved in the 1930s into a new kind of sport involving collisions and falls, and placed the foundation for the sport as it is today: two teams of five skaters scoring points by passing members of the rival team. The sport then slowly disappeared, before making a comeback in the early 2000s.

In Wales, the first roller derby team came to life in Cardiff, in 2010. Oceanne Esparcieux, head coach of the Tiger Bay Brawlers, explains that she was part of a regular roller team when a teammate heard about roller derby while in London.

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Oceanne Esparcieux, head coach of the Tiger Bay Brawlers, is part of the team from the beginning. © Julia Migné

Oceanne, also known as Billie Pistol, says: “We started talking about how we could start playing this sport and there were different opinions and the team got divided. There was one team who wanted to do it recreationally […] and there was another team that wanted to take it seriously, start competing and train really hard. I went with the competitive team which ended up being the Tiger Bay Brawlers. So I’ve been there from pretty much the conception of the sport in Wales.”

‘Whip it’ directed by Drew Barrymore and starring Ellen Page, played an important role in the expansion of the sport to Europe. The movie emphasised the values behind the game, showing that anyone could have a place on the track and motivated girls all over the world to try it out.

Emily Stander, alias Smash Ketchum, says: “The first thing I think about roller derby is that it doesn’t discriminate anyone. We have tall people, short people, bigger people, really skinny people, it doesn’t matter. Every shape and size has its place on the track.”

This feeling of belonging and community, coupled with the aggressiveness and the fast-pace of the sport, makes it extremely empowering for women. Oceanne says about roller derby: “It’s an aggressive, fast, hard-hitting sport. It’s addictive, as soon as you go to your first roller derby game, you’re gonna be hooked. There is nothing else like it. It’s very empowering.”

When the sport regained popularity in the US in the 2000s, it initially came back as a female-only sport. However, men are slowly taking over and the number of men’s leagues is now growing in the UK. Oceanne is very excited by this shift and explains that men bring different skills to the sport.

“Obviously they are a lot bigger so they tend to be a lot more hard hitting but they are also a lot more fearless so when it comes to their jammers -the point scorers- they are a lot more flamboyant and they just go crazy.”

Still not sure of what exactly is roller derby? Well, Ellie Brody, also known as Buffy Smothers, summarises the rules of roller derby as follow: “I always explain roller derby as quite similar to rugby, except that instead of a ball, you have a person. And the person is what enables you to score points.”

According to the Tiger Bay Brawlers’ girls, the main qualities to be a roller derby player are enthusiasm, open-mindedness, persistence and resilience. Emily confirms: “you’ve got to understand that you’ve got to get hit, you gonna get hurt and you gonna have to get up and carry on.”

If you are now convinced that this sport is for you, check out online to find your nearest club. The sport has been booming these past few years and you might find one closer from home than you thought.

So if you think you have what it takes, why not give it a go and join the rolling circle?

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