Before Ellen Page took the starring role in 2009’s teen cult classic Whip It, I – like many others – had virtually no knowledge of the roller derby world. Yet despite this shroud of obscurity, it seems that the dazzlingly raucous sport has gained a huge following over the last decade, with a number of teams sprouting up across the North East. So, what’s the appeal? Is it just about skating in circles?
Not quite, according to Newcastle Roller Girls’ (NRG) head coach Kerri ‘Kalamity’ James. In a bid to alleviate some of the mystery, she explains the rules as simplistically as possible.
“Roller derby is a fast, full-contact sport. It’s played on an oval track between two teams of 14 skaters, with 5 skaters from each team on track at once in what are called ‘jams’. Each team has one point scorer – she gets a point for every person on the other team that she passes in a 2 minute ‘jam’, but the other team are not just going to let her skate past! They try and knock her down or off the track.”
As the biggest team in the region, Kerri is currently the NRG’s longest serving member, heading up a group of around 70 skaters separated into three sharply waggish teams: the Canny Belters (A team), the Whippin’ Hinnies (B team) and the North Cs (C team). 2017 is set to be their biggest year yet, as the city prepares to play host to EuroClash at the end of the month. This is the Europa League of roller derby, if you will, as 11 teams from across Europe are set to compete with brutally cool vigour.
It’s the most empowering thing I have ever done
“It’s a big deal, as the UK doesn’t see a lot of high-level play tournaments like this,” she gushes. “plus, it’s the first one to be held in Newcastle! Even if you don’t come down to see the roller derby, you should definitely come down for the burgers – Fat Hippo will be there! [laughs]”.
Admittedly, there’s more to roller derby than just high-adrenaline violence and flashy competitions. The sport is famed for secreting an idiosyncratic culture among its fans and athletes, who bask in a cloud of fierce feminist values and wondrously alternative aesthetics.
“The closest thing I can compare roller derby culture to is DIY punk. It’s a really grassroots sport, full of a unique bunch of independent, strong – physically and mentally – people, doing something really special that will totally change their lives forever.”
Best of all? The doors of roller derby are open to everyone and anyone with a spark of determination, rendering each team safe space for personal growth. In fact, the ability to skate isn’t even an essential – some can join as non-skating officials. For Kerri, it signifies emancipation in every sense of the word.
“It’s the most empowering thing I have ever done. Before I started, I was worried about lumps and bumps, what my body looked like, and I was scared to speak in public. Now, I’m a lot kinder to myself and love my body for what it can do, rather than what it looks like.”