Edinburgh: Roller Derby

Edinburgh: Roller Derby

There’s a new underground sport taking place in Edinburgh: roller skating. Siân Hickson meets Edinburgh’s roller derby squad, the Auld Reekie Roller Girls

‘This is not a roller disco!’ yells the coach, as a blur of fishnets and emerald green flies past. I’m here to meet Edinburgh’s roller derby squad, the Auld Reekie Roller Girls, if I can catch one …

If you haven’t yet heard of roller derby, your days in the dark are numbered. The sport is taking off in a big way across the UK, with new teams like the Dundee Destroyers and the Granite City Roller Girls springing up in the last few months.

The Auld Reekie Roller Girls celebrated their first birthday in April. From their modest origins in Bannermans pub, in Edinburgh’s Cowgate, they’ve come crashing onto the scene. Modern roller derby is rooted in the alternative, and the girls stand out amongst the bland tracksuited-and-trainered gym-goers with their brightly-coloured hair and abundance of neon, leopard-print and tattoos. All players have skating aliases, usually subversively kitsch or quirky puns that are used exclusively on-track.

The squad began when founding member Maddie Breeze (aka Daisy Disease) saw a poster for the Glasgow Roller Girls. ‘I’d never heard of roller derby, but I thought it looked pretty cool,’ she explains. ‘A couple of us got together, knocked up some flyers and left them around the pubs to see if there was any interest. The first meeting we held, 40 girls turned up, and it just snowballed from there.’

Some of the girls are experienced players, having been on teams in the US and Canada where the sport is more popular, but plenty are novices who hadn’t been on skates since childhood. The squad manage, coach and train themselves. ‘From the start, I got the impression that it was for us, by us,’ says Danger Mouth, who when not on skates goes by Dani. ‘Derby is a sport for people who don’t like sport’, she explains. ‘There’s that competitive element, but also a sense of fun that you don’t get in other team sports.’

That spirit is everywhere in evidence here. The bouts are almost as fun for the customised outfits (I am particularly taken with some knickers emblazoned with the legend ‘Kiss My A.R.R.G.’) as for the action itself. They’re a mixed bunch – the sport is notable for its inclusion of all ages, shapes and sizes, and from varied walks of life. The ARRG are teachers, nurses, mechanics, students and truck drivers. ‘You can be a roller girl at 18 or 40-years old, and be just as good either way,’ vice captain Tartan Tearaway tells me. ‘It’s all about the attitude.’

Tonight, the squad is training for the upcoming bout against the Glasgow Roller Girls. Bouts are high-octane events. Each team, or ‘pack’, consists of a pivot, three blockers and a jammer. The jammer is the point-scorer: she has to push and weave her way through the pack avoiding the opposite team’s blockers, who impede her progress by barging with their shoulders, hips or bums. The pivot’s job is to speed her own jammer through the pack by pushing or swinging (whipping) her forward. Points are scored every time the jammer passes an opposing blocker or pivot. Got that?

It’s exciting stuff – the atmosphere at bouts is raucous, with spectators packing the perimeter of the track and yelling along with the team’s ‘jeerleaders’. ‘Some people seem to think we’re scary,’ says Daisy Disease. Just then, as the jammer swings through the opposition pack, she lets out a blood-curdling scream. This is definitely no roller disco. It’s a full-contact sport, with all the barging and tumbling you would expect to result from people on wheels shoving one another. However, I am assured, it’s safer than it looks, ‘We’ve had the odd broken bone, but we get trained on how to fall safely, so it’s rare. You get a good collection of bruises, though.’

I’m unconvinced, so I think it’s time I got my skates on. With a loan of the aforementioned and some seriously top-spec padding, I gingerly make my way to the track. Having watched the girls speed gracefully around in circuits, I had imagined it would be a simple matter of standing up and letting my inner roller girl take over, but this was not to be. Instead, I stumble and flap like an intoxicated heron before bashing into the opposite wall. I decide it’s best left to the pros.

It doesn’t take long to see that the rising success of roller derby is to do with more than just the sport or fitness aspect, though I am told that ‘it does wonders for your arse.’ Attractive though that notion is, there’s also something very refreshing about this positive and self-sufficient community. ‘Derby allows you to do things girls aren’t conventionally allowed to do,’ explains Daisy Disease. ‘We get to be aggressive, competitive, athletic – but there’s nothing unfeminine about us. It’s just not to do with pandering to expectation.’ Compare that to the rictus-grin artifice of cheerleading, and it’s clear why derby is on the up.

The last word must go to dedicated roller girl and coach, Maul E. Cater. ‘It’s way more than a sport. You find a family here,’ she says simply. ‘There’s a song called ‘Roller Derby Saved My Soul,’ and I think that many here would agree.’ Indeed. Long may they roll.

ARRG always welcome new members – visit www.myspace.com/auldreekie_rollergirls