KYEO.tv Meets… The Newcastle Roller Girls
By Lee Fisher on September 20, 2012 in Society
If you still think roller derby is cute girls in fishnets and hotpants knocking each other over to a Ramones soundtrack, you’re wrong. And you’re about to get schooled – by Kalamity James and Brie Larceny of the Newcastle Roller Girls, no less, so you best pay close attention.
A friend of Newcastle Roller Girl jammer Kalamity James once described roller derby (or more correctly, ‘women’s flat track derby’) as “the starheads are scoring the points and the starheads have to get past the other ones that aren’t their colour.”
Although that description is essentially true, it’s much, MUCH more complicated than that. In the face of the continuing (mis)perception of roller derby as somehow frivolous, a sport for dreadlocked, unsporty girls to show off their new ink, Kalamity and NRG captain Brie took the time to talk us through some of the history, culture and controversies of this fast-expanding but still mysterious sport.
To kick off, Brie explains how we got here. ”Roller derby is a more rooted thing in the States, going back to the 20s and 30s, when it was basically an endurance thing, they used to race around a banked track and kept going until one party collapsed. Then it evolved into fake fights, trackside dramas, that kind of thing, like wrestling. It died out, although there were failed attempts in the nineties to bring it back with rollerjam. But in Austin, Texas in 2001, a bunch of people got together and decided they wanted to rework the sport. It did all start with this kind of preconceived notion of fighting and glamour and badassness – it had a lot of fishnets and dramarama, hence the funny names and the theatrics. But since that time, it’s evolved and spread all over the world, the rules have been sharpened up, as has the athleticism. The way the sport is perceived - as an athletic event, a proper sport – has really become quite strongly ingrained. But we still have elements of the theatrics.”
Kalamity: “I don’t think the names will ever go away. There are a couple of people skating under their real names. It’s just a personal choice really…”
Brie: “yes, they want to be taken seriously, get the sport taken seriously, but if you come see us play you’ll see how serious it is. And the frivolous stuff is still how we get people there…”
Brie and Kalamity, in unison, bellow “OH, GIRLS IN HOTPANTS!”
The less serious reasons are, at least until recently, the initial attraction of roller derby, as Kalamity explains. “I was quite sporty in high school, but after school there wasn’t really a sport I fitted in with and I couldn’t be bothered. I joined roller derby for all those frivolous reasons before I got properly into it, but then when me and Brie joined three years ago it was still all sequined shorts and fishnets. The way the sport has evolved in Britain takes its lead from America, because it hasn’t been here that long – the oldest team, London Roller Girls, have just celebrated their sixth birthday. But over those three years it’s become less and less about frivolities.”
Brie: “it’s not that I’m not still a silly frivolous person, cos I am… But NRG are probably one of the most vanilla teams about. I was never involved in sport at school, couldn’t be bothered, but with roller derby you have no choice but to do it properly, to take on board cross training and the rest.”
Ah, yes. The training. This is where the commitment and drive of rollergirls becomes evident.
Kalamity gives an exhausting breakdown of what’s involved. “If you’re on one of the bouting squads, you’ve got 2 mandatory practices a week, and there’s an additional practice with the men’s team on Friday night. There is a new session bi-weekly on Thursday and there’s a skills session on Monday… “
Brie: “…and there’s an unofficial one on Tuesday you can go too, ‘Tuesday is Bruiseday’”.
Kalamity: “…so there are potentially six days a week you could skate. And that’s not including all the gym stuff you need to do to get fit for roller derby – I’m in the gym at least four times a week doing stuff that will make me better at roller derby. Speed and stamina is essential. You’re never going to reach top level – the people we aspire to be – without working your fucking arse off. “
Now you’ve got your head round how hard the roller girls train, let’s talk about rules.
Brie: “We’re always creating new strategies, thinking of new ways around the sport, because we’re always going to be students of this sport, finding new ways to interpret the rules. You will never be finished. There’s a debate about whether the sport is just too complicated… maybe it will change into something that’s a bit more simple and palatable. Because the worry is that maybe it alienates people. But for now we worry about this, but the audience don’t.”
Brie and Kalamity go onto discuss the long-awaited new rule set, avidly watching US bouts online to pick up new plays, the intricacies of ‘taking the knee’ and going to other teams’ bouts to spy.
Kalamity: “To be honest, it can look like a bit of a clusterfuck if you know nothing about it!”
Brie: “To be honest with you, people in the roller derby community are the only ones who understand the true extent of what is going on because the rulebook is 40 pages long and the nuances of the sport are such that not everything is communicated, something is lost. But in the meantime, people come to our bouts and they have a lovely time. They enjoy that we’re serious about what we do, it looks good, it’s fast and fun. There are stalls and face painting and all the rest. So people have a good time, whatever angle they take. Are we upset about that? Not really… “
Kalamity: “I couldn’t care if somebody comes to look at my arse or my fantastic footwork, whichever of the two works!”
Whether tempted by arses or feet, the audience for roller derby is growing fast.
Kalamity: “There’s some away games we’ve been to where the entire audience has been made up of the friends of the two teams of skaters. But we have an absolutely stunning following. We have people now who come to the bouts that have no friend or family connection, it’s genuinely that they want to come and watch. There’s not vast amounts, but it’s getting there.”
But for both girls, roller derby will always be a DIY, grassroots sport.
Kalamity: “It’s the one aspect that will never change, it will always be DIY. I can’t see rollerderby getting so big in England that we’d need to do it another way, not in my lifetime, there just aren’t the venues for a start.”
Brie: “I think there’s a lot of resistance to all that. People actually ask me if I think I’ll ever get good enough to get paid, and wow, in my dreams! But I don’t wanna get paid. People would say that though, because they don’t get it. I love it, that’s why we do it. But I also think there is some resistance to making things so massive and soulless and corporate. I think the skaters would be massively uncomfortable with that.
Kalamity: “It would be nice to just not run at a loss. We’re lucky that we have quite a healthy bank balance, skaters recently haven’t had to pay for coaches to a bout, we get a free t-shirt once a year. But this is still with everybody paying subs every month. It would be great not to have to pay subs, to pay to play.”
Despite being keen on the grassroots approach, the word ‘amateur’ ruffles feathers.
Brie: “I can’t say we’re not an ‘amateur sport’, in the strictest semantic sense, but it’s not a word that would ever occur to me to use because we’re so full on with it. It doesn’t encapsulate what we’re about. It doesn’t make sense to define us as amateur because it’s just the nature of the sport. Even the top people don’t get paid, despite what they’ve achieved. “
Brie and Kalamity have an infectious enthusiasm and love for the sport, and go on to discuss the recent addition of the men’s game (Newcastle’s Tyne & Fear male team are apparently successful “because they play like girls”), the feminist roots of roller derby, inclusivity vs meritocracy, the seven-year average career, injuries and physio and how much everybody involved loved the movie Whip It!
- Mad Smacks – Newcastle Roller Girls Get Ready For Latest Bout