Roller Derby at Eastbourne
Roller Derby at Eastbourne

Call it!’ scream the onlookers as the jammer frantically pats her hips before the blast of four short whistles, signalling the end of the jam.  The players on track skate off as the next line-ups promptly take their place.  On the whistle, the two jammers leap into the pack and the screech of wheels against floor deafen the hall as the battle commences.

   A controlled booty-block will slow down your rivals and a well-timed hip-check can have your opponent flying off the track.  Aside from the grace of a well executed apex jump, there’s no place for dainty here.

   This is the addictive game called Roller Derby, one of the fastest growing sports in the UK.  Brought to England by American enthusiasts, who created the first team ten years ago, there are now an estimated 140 clubs all over the country.

There isn’t currently a team in Hastings so all local members, including Emma Nicholson (captain and head coach of Eastbourne Roller Derby – ERD), travel to Eastbourne.

As well as weekly training sessions and regular games against other teams, every year they host a free, two day event as part of Eastbourne Extreme.  ‘The whole team has to pull together in order to lay the event on,’ says Sarah Hesse (ERD).  ‘Everyone has a job to do and team members play and volunteer on the same day.’

   This commitment and work ethic is displayed throughout the derby world where the principle of “by the skaters, for the skaters,” is echoed in every aspect of the game and its organisation.

  So, what is it, exactly?

   It started out as an endurance race in the 1880s.  Due to the rise and fall of roller skating’s popularity, the sport was revamped several times, occasionally on banked tracks.  The element of physical contact was originally unintentional but encouraged once it was found to please the fans.  Often theatrical, it has struggled in the past to be viewed as a legitimate sport.

  The 2001 flat-track revival is a full contact sport with an eighty-one page rule book.  Each team may have up to fourteen players on the roster for a game, with a maximum of five players on the track during a jam.  Jams last for up to two minutes during which jammers (players with starred helmets) strive to pass all other players on track before the opposing jammer in order to gain status as lead jammer.  This grants her the power to call of the jam.  Once jammers have skated through the pack once, they score points for every opposing player they pass until the whistle is blown (either when the lead jammer calls it off, or two minutes have passed.)

Maintaining solid walls of defense whilst monitoring the situation elsewhere (lest your jammer requires offensive assistance) all the while communicating the strategy to your team without disclosing your plans to the opposition, is the objective for the blockers.

Naturally, that is just the beginning.  It’s ‘like rugby and chess on roller skates!’ says Emma.

Not only is it a complicated game with oodles of simultaneous action, as an emerging sport there is also the chance to create inspired techniques and invent daring methods of play.  Apart from being ‘a kick-ass thing to be involved with’, what has kept Kristen Lee, coach for London Rollergirls and Team England, around so long is that ‘we are still building it.’

Gotham Girls of New York, trailblazers in the world of RD and considered indomitable, were beaten for the first time in five years last November.  This was down to a risky but ingenious new strategy adopted by Rose City Rollers from Portland, Oregon.  Their game plan of two blockers on defense, two on offense was particularly gutsy considering the outstanding capabilities of Gotham’s jammers.

   ‘The game was amazing to watch – the close score, the constant lead changes.  That’s what makes a great game,’says Rebecca Cornford (ERD).  ‘It’s great that the standard has increased in other leagues to the point where they can now compete with Gotham.’

   For the ambitious, it is possible to join a team with no previous skating experience and, within a few years, join the elite.  That would be impossible in other, more established sports.

  What makes the sport unique is the extent of physical aggression in a game primarily associated with women.  With men’s derby and co-ed games on the rise, this may change, but for now, according to Shane Aisbett (Southern Discomfort Men’s Roller Derby/ Team England, Men’s) it is the women who are leading the pace in development and are at the forefront of innovation.

   Renowned for its alternative sub-culture and encouragement of healthy body image, it appears to be the sport of choice for many previously adverse to sports.  ‘I think if you were to ask most roller derby players if they liked P.E at school, the majority would say no,’ says Russell Phillips, director at UKRDA and referee for ERD.

   As roller derby’s popularity increases, this appears to be less and less the case, with many people turning to derby from other sports; but perhaps it is this open acceptance that has created a strong network of obsessive fans.

Speaking with members of the Eastbourne team, what became apparent was the supportive nature of the sport, not only amongst their team, but in the wider derby community.  There are mixed scrims and challenge games where members from a variety of leagues attend and teams are formed spontaneously on the day.

You build up friendship groups with different teams,’ says Georgina Kemp, who has tried many other sports and asserts that the community spirit isn’t as strong elsewhere.  ‘It’s a whole other world!’  She initially enrolled for the physical side of the sport but says ‘you end up loving the sport for more reasons.  You get to know the people.’

These enthusiastic people are focused on the love of the game.  There is, as yet, no money to be made from playing the sport.  Indeed, if anything, it can be rather costly to participate.  Despite this, the majority of people questioned preferred the hands-on approach over funding that comes at a price.  ‘At the highest level, I still want us to play with integrity,’ says Kristen.

In the end, it is this that separates derby from other sports.  By maintaining their principles of “by the skaters, for the skaters,” this intoxicating sport evades the murky world of corruption and prima donnas, exemplifying what a sport should be; fun, competitive, and full of integrity.

   Looking for a sport with a difference?  Eastbourne Roller Derby welcomes new members, refs and non-skating officials.  The first four sessions are free and there is equipment available for loan.  Previous skating experience is not necessary.

   There is also an open skate at the YMCA on Bohemia Road every Tuesday.

   For more information, e-mail [email protected]

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