Want to get fitter and feel empowered? The Tiger Bay Brawlers might be just what you need!
Skating around a circular track, colourful wheels rolling in rhythm, one foot after the other. It could almost look like a school playground scene from another decade, if you were only looking at their feet. Then comes the helmets, the knee and elbow protections, the mouth guard, and the tattoos. It’s a Sunday afternoon at the Penarth Leisure Centre and the Tiger Bay Brawlers, the local Cardiff roller derby team, are training.
The term ‘roller derby’ was coined in the 1920s in the US to describe roller skate races. It evolved in the 1930s into a new kind of sport involving collisions and falls, and placed the foundation for the sport as it is today: two teams of five skaters scoring points by passing members of the rival team. The sport then slowly disappeared, before making a comeback in the early 2000s.
In Wales, the first roller derby team came to life in Cardiff, in 2010. Oceanne Esparcieux, head coach of the Tiger Bay Brawlers, explains that she was part of a regular roller team when a team-mate heard about roller derby while in London.
Oceanne, also known as Billie Pistol, says: “We started talking about how we could start playing this sport and there were different opinions and the team got divided. There was one team who wanted to do it recreationally […] and there was another team that wanted to take it seriously, start competing and train really hard. I went with the competitive team which ended up being the Tiger Bay Brawlers. So I’ve been there from pretty much the conception of the sport in Wales.”
‘Whip it’ directed by Drew Barrymore and starring Ellen Page, played an important role in the expansion of the sport to Europe. The movie emphasized the values behind the game, showing that anyone could have a place on the track and motivated girls all over the world to try it out.
Emily Stander, alias Smash Ketchum, says: “The first thing I think about roller derby is that it doesn’t discriminate anyone. We have tall people, short people, bigger people, really skinny people, it doesn’t matter. Every shape and size has its place on the track.”
When the sport regained popularity in the US in the 2000s, it initially came back as a female-only sport. However, men are slowly taking over and the number of men’s leagues is now growing in the UK. Oceanne is very excited by this shift and explains that men bring different skills to the sport.
“Obviously they are a lot bigger so they tend to be a lot more hard hitting but they are also a lot more fearless so when it comes to their jammers -the point scorers- they are a lot more flamboyant and they just go crazy.”
The Tiger Bay Brawlers are also one of the rare club in the UK to have a junior league. The idea came from a player who was a teacher involved in an initiative called 5×60. The concept was to encourage children to exercise for 60 minutes five days a week.
Oceanne explains: “She suggested that they could try roller derby, which was a great way to do grass-root recruitment. We are teaching them from the age of 11 and when they become 18, they can join the main league. Unfortunately there are not that many junior teams in the UK or even in Europe, so they’ve not been able to compete with other teams yet which is a bit of a shame.”
If you are thinking of starting roller derby, the Tiger Bay Brawlers organize regular ‘fresh meat’ events advertised on their Facebook page. These trainings are 12-weeks long and allow you to learn how to skate, as well as the basics of roller derby. Ellie Brody, Tiger Bay Brawlers’ player known as Buffy Smothers, summarizes the rules of roller derby as follow: “I always explain roller derby as quite similar to rugby, except that instead of a ball, you have a person. And the person is what enables you to score points.”
According to the Tiger Bay Brawlers’ girls, the main qualities to be a roller derby player are enthusiasm, open-mindedness, persistence and resilience. Emily confirms: “you’ve got to understand that you’ve got to get hit, you gonna get hurt and you gonna have to get up and carry on.”
So if you think you have what it takes, why not give it a go and join the rolling circle?
Wales vs Ireland (Men’s league) 20-02
Tiger Bay Brawlers vs Swansea City Roller Derby (Women’s league) 27-02