Hot wheels and short hemlines

The indoor football arena at Modderfontein, one of Johannesburg’s eastern suburbs, sits on a rundown, overgrown plot. It is abandoned on most Saturday nights but this past weekend the arena was transformed into a smack-‘em-up roller rink with bright white spotlights, purple low lights and a billowing smoke machine.

Dozens of tattooed, pierced and fishnetted pretty young things, made up with eyeliner and clad in bright pink bandanas and low-slung shirts revealing just a peek of polka dot, lace and leopard print bras, packed out the place. But by six o’clock, the 30 competitors had put away their make-up kits and hair straighteners and changed into their “bout-fits”—ready to hit the rink for the first roller derby tournament seen in Africa.

Last weekend Africa’s very first roller derby tournament heated up the mean streets of Modderfontein as dozens of tattooed, pierced and fishnetted rollergirls got their wheels on. Mail & Guardian wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
It would be the Inmates—11 skaters in short, form-fitting, orange outfits—against the Wardens—12 teammates in tight blue shirts, very small black skirts, striped knee-high socks and bright pink helmets.

Pretty vicious
Chain-smoking Inmates captain Crow, aka Caroline Hillary, with mauve lips and a cropped, jet-black fringe, tried to impress upon photographers who wandered around the arena before the game that they needed to take care of their equipment in the rink.

“People underestimate it,” she said in a haze of Peter Stuyvesant extra mild. “They think it’s girls on roller skates but it’s pretty vicious.”

Paramedics were on stand-by for the night’s game and it was just as well. Hard knocks combined with speed sent many skaters skidding across the rink, helmets regularly crashed on the solid floor and, just minutes into the game, large bruises were visible on some of the girls.

The three derby groups in Jo’burg—the Raging Whoremones, the Thundering Hell Cats and the Bang Bang Betties Roller Dolls—joined forces to make up the two competing teams for the C-Max championship, South Africa’s first official roller derby league.

By the time the crowds began to filter in, the air in the warehouse was hot and sticky and the atmosphere claustrophobic. Soon the hard liquor and beer (brandy and Black Label were the popular choices) at the upstairs bar began to run out and, after taking a last drag from their smokes, the spectators started taking their places alongside the rink.

Suddenly Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Date with the Night blared out. The games were about to begin and there was a tangible sense of excitement among the 400 spectators.

Blasts from the past
According to the Roller Derby Hall of Fame, the sport dates back to 1935 and was an endurance race. Gradually it evolved into a contact sport with two competing teams of five men each, who scored points by lapping opponents. It reached its peak in the early 1970s and was mainstream, with clean-cut athletes in neat uniforms sometimes drawing more than 50?000 supporters to a game.

But the original league folded in 1973 and it wasn’t until the early 2000s when an all-women league in Austin, Texas, brought the sport back into the limelight—but this time with an alternative edge: punk- or rock-influenced outfits with significantly shorter hemlines. Finally, it was the 2009 film Whip It, starring Drew Barrymore and Juliette Lewis, that sparked a global resurgence with images of hot chicks roughing one another up in barely there ­outfits.

Miss Chieff, aka Melinda Lotz, started the South African league in 2009 after seeing Whip It. “Five minutes into it, I was sold,” she said. “I started looking around locally for somewhere I could get involved and couldn’t find anything. So I stood there for a bit and thought, ‘dude, start a sport’.” She started looking for recruits and credits “the wonders of Facebook” for getting women involved. A derby team came and went in Pretoria last year and C-Max regularly offer guidance to the newbies, the Cape Town roller derby team. “We need more competition,”

Lotz said. “Ideally I’d like to see this develop into a solid league in every province.”

Lotz, sporting a cropped platinum-blonde hairdo, said it was not just about the skimpy outfits—even if the skaters had spent the past few months in photo shoots and graced the cover of a magazine.

“This is seriously hard core,” Lotz said. “These girls are serious athletes. They train their arses off, the hits are real and they work so damn hard.”

At eight o’clock, a whistle blew and a pack of eight roller skaters—four members from each team—started off around the rink. At the second blow, the jammer from each team (the fastest skater and responsible for scoring points) took off to lap the track as many times as possible. For each opponent they pass, they score a point. Their teammates must guard them and try to stop their opponents from blocking them. Illegal moves such as punching, jabbing and tripping are not permitted.

Hard knocks
Saturday night’s game gained momentum gradually. At first, some spectators were confused about the objective of the sport but they quickly caught on. There was a collective “oooh” or “aaah” with each shove or fall. But hard knocks did not phase most of the competitors; in fact, it seemed to spur them on. Their supporters became increasingly engrossed, shouting instructions at their favourite players and screaming: “Somebody take her out!”

One of them, Dave du Preez, was new to the roller derby and enjoying himself thoroughly. “It’s pretty violent,” he said. “I definitely think you can take this seriously as a sport.”

Rudi Engelbrecht thought the game would be “really bad” but admitted he was wrong. “I’ve got to be honest though, it’s still pretty funny,” he said, laughing.

Towards the end of the game, Wardens blocker Blitzkrieg Banshee, aka Chandre Mau, a petite blonde sporting a tattooed chest, pounded her fists violently on the ground and screamed “fuck, fuck, fuck” after a particularly hard knock and fall. An airborne dive into an Inmate won her penalty time in the sin bin—a row of seats under a football goal post.

A particularly rough shove also saw jammer and Wardens captain Miss C-Malice’s, aka Claire Hayward’s, neon-pink mouth guard fly three metres across the track, causing the crowd to gasp and cheer at the same time. In the end the Inmates took the trophy with 188 to 131 points—but not before two girls had been carried off the track by paramedics and many had done time snarling in the sin bin.

Lotz said the event was two years in the making: “It was amazing. It exceeded my expectations so much.”

Hayward said she hoped the game would silence its critics. “I think people are going to take us way more seriously. It was quite an aggressive game tonight. I mean, when they see the way the girls had to fall and the injuries and the strategy. I think people will respect it after they’ve seen a game.”

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen. Read more from Lisa Steyn

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