By day she is quietly desk-bound in her office job, but any other given time you will find Shaolynn Scarlett assuming bright purple fishnet tights, stripey arm-warmers, blue sparkly hot pants and roller skates and going at great speed. For this is roller derby and you’d better hang on or get left behind. Shaolynn came to London 5 years ago and, having led an active and sporty childhood, was struggling to find an organised women’s team sport to get involved with. She was haplessly pushing the gym treadmill until a few years ago she came across the London Rollergirls on the Time Out website. Their manifesto states that they “take pride in being a positive character building experience for women. (They) endeavor to empower all women by promoting athleticism, good sportsmanship, both teamwork and independence, and positive self-image. (Their) vision is to promote and grow the sport of roller derby and build a competitive sporting organization whilst giving back to the community through charitable work.” It piqued her curiosity enough for Shaolynn to take the plunge. As yet she has not renewed her gym membership.
Roller derbies were primarily straightforward cross-country races of fortitude on roller skates, popular in America from the 1880’s to the 1920’s. It was only in 1935, during the Great Depression when a popular touring exhibition staged simulated races on an oval track. Thereafter the teams where re-structured and it became a contact sport with point scoring. It is a mixed-gender sport, yet has been more widely taken on by women in recent years. The basic rules are simple. Each team has 5 members: at the front you have the ‘pivot’ who controls the speed of play, then 3 defensive ‘blockers’ and 1 ‘jammer’. The jammers from both teams race to see who can break through the tight formation of blockers. Points are scored by the amount of laps the jammer passes ahead of the other team without penalties. Already prodigiously popular in America, it is only just now starting to gain momentum in the U.K.. The LRG were the first ever league of flat-track roller derby in the U.K. and presently the only member of the WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association) in the whole of Europe. (They list 77 clubs/leagues yet state there are more than 400 across the globe with at least 24 in Britain.)
Although roller derby is hardly specific to London, the teams within the LRG league represent a broad female community within London. Shaolynn explains further, “We get people from different races, different sexualities, different beliefs, from Crown Court barristers to teachers to TV producers to chemists to mums – but we leave that at the door and break down the barriers before we get the skates on. The sport is associated with a counter-culture image, partly from the fact that it doesn’t adhere to any sporty jock sterotypes before you’ve even started, so everyone gets the chance to shine.” The league works as a co-operative where rights, ownership and duty is equivalent between members. “It’s an all-involving hobby. If you’re not training you’re organizing. It’s self run, so it’s the players and members who have to arrange everything – venue booking, sponsorship, coordinating bouts, coaching, marketing, so its in your best interest to train as much as you can.” And train she does. 3-5 sessions a week. 3 hours a time. She maintains “…it is a great antidote to the sedentary office life I lead professionally. As a sport it is exhilarating, and probably as close to an extreme sport as you can get without going outdoors or abroad. I love London and I love going to vintage nights and other events – but roller derby is based around a wonderful community of people who are talented, passionate and driven, without pretension or condescension, which can be incredibly rare in city life.”
I join Shaolynn and her team, the Suffra Jets, as they are warming up for the 2nd bout of their 3rd season. I take a moment to take in the witticism of their skater names blazoned across their shirts. (‘The Dalai Harmer’, ‘Fox Sake’, ‘Silky Briefs’, ‘Poison Arrow’, ‘Snoop Dodge’, ‘Ecchi Killer’, ‘Vagablonde’, ‘Sugar Bump’, ‘Sinister Mary Clarence’ and my favorite, ‘Knickerblocker Glory’.) Their seats are strewn with banana peels and empty water bottles, the legs are stretching, the arms extending, the glitter war-paint already applied yet the atmosphere and demeanors are surprisingly calm and unaffected. “The London Rollergirls are an incredibly diverse bunch but everyone gets on brilliantly. We’re one league and we all train and hang out together. We only split into our inter-league teams (Suffra Jets, Steam Rollers, Ultraviolent Femmes and Harbour Grudges) for our public bouts. Because roller derby is a self-run sport – there’s no “official” organizing body or funding – leagues pop up everywhere and they can play each other, or play other leagues. Our top 30 players make up the travel teams (London Brawling and Brawl Saints), who play other teams. But the community is very close – we all share knowledge and information, to develop players, groups and improve the sport as a whole.”
The whistle blows and I half expect a massive ‘whoosh’ of wheels, but no. It’s “tactical slow beginnings”. Shaolynn’s team, the Suffra Jets, are recovering from their first big loss from their last bout, so are playing it safe at this point. However, it seems to be not working in their favor, for when there is a brief power failure by jam 15 the Ultraviolent Femmes are leading 60-25. Shaolynn has been pushed into desperate defending and thus spends most of the first half on the bench through penalties, yet it pays off in the last half when Shaolynn gives the opponent’s team star jammer, Vagablonde, a massive hit that puts her out of play and allows precious ‘catch up’ time. The final score: Suffra Jets – 134; Ultraviolent Femmes – 120. The audience is elated, everyone has left their seats and are screaming to the best of their ability.
Shaolynn seems jubilant and not only because her team has won, but also because tonight they have drawn their biggest ever crowd to date. It is important at this juncture to stress that Shaolynn and all her teammates do not make a single penny from their efforts. They just about break even with ticket sales and fund-raising, which is why growing public interest is so important to the LRG. Not to say that it is not already happening, as this coming year the LRG are hoping to be hosts to some American leagues and to help make more European teams make it onto the WFTDA.
Finally, I ask Shaolynn if simply anyone can take up roller derby. She assures me that it is definitely not for the faint-hearted, – “your only barrier is motivation. It doesn’t matter what size or shape you are, if you want a challenge and want to meet some great people, roller derby is the best there is.”