Monday, 12 April 2010


With Drew Barrymoore’s first feature film Whip It recently released, it’s high time the roller derby revolution got itself noticed, writes Rosie Blackwell-Sutton.

Many of you are probably unaware of this relatively new sport, in the UK anyway, until today that is. Roller derby is an all-girl, heavy-contact sport played on roller skates. Two teams of five go round in bouts with the aim to skate past the other team as fast as they can, knocking them over as they go.

Unless you’ve had your eyes closed for the past few months, you’ve probably seen Ellen Page and Drew Barrymore, padded up to the high heavens and covered in bruises, not because they’ve been in a scuffle but because, in new film Whip It (out now), they play Babe Ruthless and Smashley Simpson two roller derby girls in Austin, Texas.

The film sees the rise of Bliss Cavendar (Ellen ‘Juno’ Page) as a roller derby hero as she fights to gain respect from her pageant-loving mother and football-obsessed father.

This coming-of-age film is cliché-ridden yet still thoroughly enjoyable, with great characters. Juliette Lewis and Drew Barrymore are hilarious throughout, immersing themselves in their snarky, take-no-prisoners roller-girl roles whilst Marcia Gay Harden is fantastic as Bliss’s uptight mother.

What we learn from the film is that roller derby is a long-standing tradition in the US. Having started in the 1920s and reaching its peak of popularity in the 70s, it underwent a reincarnation in the early 2000s, when young women began to set up DIY clubs all over America. The sport grew and before long, a club launched in the UK, the London Roller Girls (LRG) (

Since 2006 the LRG have grown and grown as the sport has become more popular. There are several teams in London – the Suffra Jets, Steam Rollers, Ultraviolent Femmes – along with many new leagues and squads all over the country, such as Cambridge’s Romsey Town Rollerbillies (, Edinburgh’s Auld Reekie Roller Girls ( and the Tri County Rollers (, based in Staffordshire.

Anyone can be a roller girl as 36-year-old Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis in Whip It) proves. So what exactly is so attractive about derby? Surely the beaten-up look isn’t exactly a good one? Shaolynn Scarlett of the LRG told us exactly why she began skating: ‘It’s a uniquely exhilarating sport, you have to challenge yourself mentally and physically to get to the top of your game, and do it all on eight wheels. It's unlike anything else, although you have to push yourself it's incredibly fun.’

Fun it may be, but those injuries look a killer. Having read about one girl who broke her leg whilst training, I’m not sure how I’d fair in a real bout. However, according to Shaolynn, the injuries aren’t THAT bad: ‘Injuries are part and parcel of the game, but they're not as frequent as many people assume. As long as you play by the rules and keep fit and strong, you can avoid a lot of injuries that would normally come out of contact on skates.’

Hmm… I’m still not convinced. However, I do like the names the skaters take on, be it as an alias, or alter-ego. Some favourites are Missyle Elliott, Misha Naccomplished and Rose Misconduct. But what impact do these witty names have? ‘It's a way to prepare yourself for an aggressive bout, and something you can leave on the track when you go for drinks with the other team afterwards. Your skate name is really just a by-product of the sport – it shows the personality of the sport,’ says Shaolynn.

There’s a big social side to the roller derby. Drinks with teammates and other teams are common and food fights also are also featured, if Whip It is anything to go by. It seems like an excellent way to make friends and be part of a well-established community. At the end of the day, however, it’s all about skating as Shaolynn puts it: 'We're all there to play dery, and play hard.'

If after reading all the gory details, you want to play hard then get involved. Roller derby is getting bigger by the minute and teams are always recruiting so find your local team and get in touch.

Alternatively you can take the easy option and watch roller derby instead. The Suffra Jets play the Steam Rollers on Sat 22 May, Tottenham Green Leisure Centre, Phillip Lane, London, £10. Book in advance at Admission includes free after-party for ticket-holders!

Or take the even easier option and watch Whip It at cinemas everywhere… at least there’s no chance of getting a bloody nose there!

Thanks to Lustmaikamra and Steve Newton for the photos.

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