Skate Your Laces Off

In the immortal words of Limp Bizkit: Keep rolling, rolling, rolling… Leah Jasmine spends a day with Durban’s Derby Dames.

Photo by Russell Grant


When I think of contact sport I think immediately of rugby; the sweaty muscle tanks running around in very short shorts, slamming into each other with violent hugs and pinching each other’s bottoms, pedestalled at the epitome of masculinity. So imagine this same shroud to strange rules, hard contact and short shorts, but on roller skates.


It’s called Roller Derby, and you definitely need medical aid if you want to play. I went skating with some of Durban’s finest Derby girls, one of whom was selected for the South African team competing at the Roller Derby World Cup. Two local women were selected, but Julia Seize-Her, unfortunately, couldn’t make it. Left in the capable hands of Samurai, we wheeled off to the Moses Mabhida stadium for a crash course in Roller Derby.




I do not have medical aid, so we started off with the essentials: protection. Lots of it. With my knees, elbows, wrists and head firmly wrapped in hard plastic, I felt confident that I could get on 8 wheels and avoid death, or at the very least, a trip to Addington hospital.


Samurai is a legend on her skates. I stood with my mouth catching flies as she bounced from side to side, going a direction that wheels are definitely not supposed to go. It made me feel a little sick, to be honest, but only because I know too well the familiar sound of flesh hitting the glassy, marbled floor that runs around the iconic stadium. Of course, she didn’t falter. Not even once.



Rollerskating is basically the same as squatting for a really long time while also moving your legs. You move forward by creating momentum with a little penguin waddle, propelling your wheels where you want them to go. You lean to turn. It’s simple enough. Then comes the issue of stopping, which I admittedly failed to master. I learned that the floor is your friend, you will hug it on the regular, and whisper sweet profanity into its ears. I clearly didn’t catch the “fall forward” memo though, because at time of writing I can still feel the smarting in my coccyx from multiple unfriendly altercations with the floor.


I was busy perfecting my penguin waddle while all around me the Derby girls did powerslides on their knee guards and skated circles around me. It took a single lap before I needed a serious break; my shins were burning in places I didn’t even know existed.



Samurai was patient with me, in fact, all the women around me were pretty supportive. I felt like a duck on wheels, but they all very kindly told me I was “a natural”, although personally, I suspect that’s because they want fresh meat. Derby is an intense game, and a full-contact sport, and I’m still trying to figure out how to stay upright. Basically how it works is there are five people on a team, and one person from each team wears a cap on their helmet (affectionately known as a panty) at a time. This skater is called the Jammer. The Jammer’s job is to skate around the ring, while the rest of the team (Blockers) try to stop her. The nitty-gritty of the rules are still a little blurry to me, but the point is that the Blockers will do whatever they can to make sure the Jammer doesn’t pass them. If she does, she wins a point. Blockers will literally bash you to the ground with a hip (there are “legal” contact zones and “illegal” contact zones).


When I met Samurai about 5 years ago she had just started out on her skates. In that short time, she’s wheeled her way into the national team and I think that’s kind of amazing. It’s the kind of sport that can take you really far, really fast, if you’re willing to fall down and get yourself back up. In fact, it’s all about getting back up again. It’s pretty cool to see an almost all-women sport that entails knocking each other down and helping each other up again. There’s some intense teamwork required here, and it shows in the way they interact on and off their skates.


By the end of the afternoon, Samurai had literally skated her laces off. There are 38 countries competing in the Roller Derby World Cup, with the ZA team’s first game against England. Given the ferocity I saw at our session, I think these ladies will be just fine.


Keen to try Roller Derby for yourself? Keep your eyes on their page for their next Fresh Meat intake


Live stream the World Cup here:



All images by Russell Grant.

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