Balls n’ all!

2013-11-15 11:00

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Listen up, ladies! This full-contact sport with big heart and even bigger attitude may be just the thing for you. 

It’s Tuesday night in a converted warehouse in an industrial corner of Modderfontein, Johannesburg.

This is the home of Jozi’s  League of skaters. Dasia Lutova, 25, a social-media manager, is taking a quick breather from the concrete ring.

‘It sounds cheesy, but this really is a sisterhood,’ she says. Good girls can be bad, aggro, fast and tough – and wear outfits as tight and slutty-chic as they like – without judgment or derision. The teams proudly boast names such as The Thundering Hellcats, Slam Damsels and Whoremones.

‘Roller derby entails a lot of trust. There’s also a lot of groping, ass grabbing and falling flat on your back together. By the end of a couple of bouts everybody is stinking and sweating,’ Dasia says, laughing.

Tonight she has convinced friend Ali Channon, 24, to take a stab at the sport. In roller derby lingo, newbies are called ‘fresh meat’ and as Ali rolls slowly on the cement with a borrowed helmet, she nervously grips her friend’s hand.

‘I love the outfits and I’ve always seen Dasia come back from sessions still alive so I thought I’d give it a try,’ she says.

All skaters, fresh meat and those who try out as referees (many are roller derby ‘widowers’ and neglected boyfriends) must be over the age of 18 and go through bootcamp, which entails six weeks of practice sessions.

This is to ensure they know the rules and how best to protect themselves when they fall. Everyone wears quad skates, a helmet and pads, which add up to about R2 500.

‘In addition, established derby girls have to coach the fresh meat. It’s all about paying it forward,’ says Melinda Lotz, 31, a shipping executive by day who is credited with bringing roller derby to South Africa.

‘It’s a full-contact sport for women of every body type – big or small, tall or short. We have girls from 18 to 42 years old; there are businesswomen, students and everybody in between. There are also those who don’t want to skate but want to manage the bench or help with support and admin, which is what makes the roller derby family so cool.’

And it certainly is a contact sport. Skater Rainbow Crash (aka Melly Jay), 24, shows off her scar from a stitched-up knee, courtesy of derby damage.

Hannah Young, 24, who calls herself Ruby Riot, is jokingly referred to as ‘the bleeder’ because of the blood she’s spilt on the track.

This might not be what fresh meat Ali wanted to hear at her first session. As she heads to an adjoining hockey pitch, action on the track heats up.

Now there’s some shoving and leaping jumps. Someone lands on her back with an almighty thump. Immediately, a clot of skaters are at their fallen sister’s side, ready to offer a hand up.

Born in the USA

Roller derby is an American import. Its roots go back to the 1930s, when movie distributor Leo Seltzer and sports writer Damon Runyon combined roller-skating with teamwork, physical contact and a scoring system.

Its popularity surged again in the 1970s with modern-day league revivals in the early 2000s.

Roller derby got its South African start in 2010, when Melinda pressed play on the DVD Whip It.

The 2009 Drew Barrymore chick-flick about a roller-derby team comes with a big dose of feel-good bonding and girl-power attitude.

‘I set up a Facebook page to see who would respond,’ says Melinda, who at the time was a self-confessed ‘hermit with 35 Facebook friends and 30 kilograms of excess weight’. Word quickly spread.

‘We learnt how the game worked though YouTube videos,’ Melinda recalls. ‘We skated in a dilapidated basement near Zoo Lake, on parking lots and old tennis courts.’

Today there’s a budding league called C-Max (yes, named after Pretoria’s high-security prison) with around 120 girls from across Gauteng, Durban and Bloemfontein.

The girls from Booty Action, one of the teams in the C-Max League, get some practice. Cape Town has its own growing league, the Cape Town Rollergirls. All of which means the game is on! The rules

The game is made up of a series of two-minute bouts between two teams of 14 skaters who field five skaters a side each bout.

Both teams race in the same direction on a flat track. Four of the team members make up the pack; the fifth member is called the jammer.

The jammer must get through the opposing team’s pack, scoring points each time she passes one of the other members. Opposing packs take each other on using hip, shoulder and booty action, to clear the path for their jammer.

Illegal moves result in penalties, meaning sin-bin time and lost points. Speed, pushing and shoving matter but strategy and technique count more. Bouts last two minutes, or less if a jammer gets through the entire pack before time is called. Players come off the track and action starts again as another five players from each side line up.

Going coastal

Durban’s roller derby kicked off this year. There are about 50 girls involved and two teams, the Miss-Fits and Eve’s KanEvils.

Lecturer Szerdi Nagy (aka Julia Sieze-Her), 29, says: ‘Roller derby isn’t just about fishnet stockings, tattoos and crazy names. It’s about discovering yourself, testing your personal boundaries and physical abilities. It’s about the family and support system you become a part of, the community we build and the boundaries and prejudices we break down.’

Two main teams – the Storm Riders and the REV’ettes – make up the Cape Town Rollergirls League.

Mother city copywriter and food blogger Ming-Cheau Lin (aka Wolverming), 25, says: ‘If you’re undecided about joining, go watch. You’ll see why people get obsessed; it’s really a community. There so many different personalities but everyone has a role to play.’

Top moves

Apex jump – Cutting through a bend by leaping into the air and landing back inside the track to overtake an opponent.

Can opener – Passing an opponent, bending low and using your shoulder to push the opponent in her solar plexus.

Leg whip – As your jammer comes past, you raise a bent leg so she can push off your leg and capitalise on your forward boost.

Celebrity fan

Actress and TV presenter Sade Giliberti acts as MC at roller derby bouts.

‘Being a TV face has a downside because it means I can’t play contact sports, including roller derby.’ Getting behind the microphone is right up Sade’s alley, as she can fire up the adrenaline and the crowds.

Big bouts are as much about competition as they are about pure entertainment.

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