Hot Wheels: Inside the Battle on the Bent Track
SYDNEY: It’s rough, tough and not for the faint-hearted. But those who participate in roller derby say the sport is fun, empowering and significantly, queer-affirming. Lachlan Bennett speaks to players competing in Australia’s first-ever all-queer national roller derby tournament, Battle on the Bent Track.
Since time immemorial, the sporting arena has been used for more than just playing sport. It’s been a political battleground, a field for ideological debate and a stage to represent your county.
Now with Battle on the Bent Track, Australia’s first-ever all-queer national roller derby tournament, the sporting arena is not only the scene for one of the world’s fiercest and fast-paced sports, it’s also a place for people to celebrate their sexuality and gender identity.
“Roller derby is one of the only sports in the world that I can think of that actually celebrates being queer,” says Sydney skater Robyn Soper, or as she is better known on the rink, Great Bolz of Fire.
“So what we’re trying to do with Battle on the Bent track is just unite all the queer skaters from around Australia.”
Roller derby is an all-female roller skating sport played with two teams, each consisting of four ‘blockers’ and one ‘jammer’. The blockers skate around a narrow circuit in a pack, whilst the jammer tries to skate through, scoring a point for every skater on the opposing team they pass.
The full-contact sport is renowned for its rough methods, subversive tones, punk culture, derby names and, of course, a huge queer following.
Bolz is one of the many queer skaters who will assemble at Batttle of the Bent Track. A state tournament with players from Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT, it is being held on Saturday, February 16, at Sydney’s Hordern Pavillion.
Bolz has been skating well before any roller derby league existed in Australia and got her derby alter ego by adapting her teenaged skating nickname. She is also one of the tournament’s organisers and a member of queer roller derby support network, Vagine Regime.
“The Vagine Regime is kind of like a world-wide queer roller derby alliance. So if you identify as queer, you’re already on the team,” Bolz tells SX.
“Everyone really supports each other and I think it’s a good outlet for young people who are coming out.”
The Vagine Regime was established in the US in 2008 as an alliance devoted to supporting queer skaters, promoting queer rights, raising awareness and money for LGBTI charities.
The Vagine Regime was brought to Australia by US skater Two Ton Teyla. Teyla played a major role in setting up the Sydney Roller Derby League. She was regarded as a role model for many queer skaters.
“I was married when I started doing roller derby and Two Ton Teyla was a big influence in me coming out,” Bolz says.
Tragically, however, in 2010, Teyla died in a road accident in Sydney’s inner west. Thus the meet will also pay tribute to Teyla’s pioneering efforts.
“We’re sort of having a derby tournament in her honour,” Bolz says. “Teyla died in really tragic circumstances and we thought it would be really nice to pay homage to a woman who was very out and pretty much the Sydney league’s founder.”
A trophy depicting the late skating icon will be given to the team who wins Battle on the Bent Track. In years to come, the trophy will be passed on to future title holders.
Another queer skater participating in Battle on the Bent Track is Ann Barker or, as her fellow skaters call her, Deth Biffo.
Biffo began playing roller derby in the UK after her friend dragged her along to a training session.
“I just loved it,” Biffo tells SX. “I think when I moved back [to Australia] I had a roller derby league sorted out before I had a job or a house.”
Biffo’s skating alter-ego is derived from Beth Ditto, the front-woman of indie-rock band Gossip. She takes inspiration from Ditto’s outlook, which aligns itself easily with roller derby.
“I really, really like her music. But I also think she’s a great role model. I like the fact that she’s pretty tough and stands up for what she believes in, in terms of LGBT rights, anti-bullying, positive body image and things like that.”
Biffo says that roller derby’s runaway success and growing popularity since its reinvention in the early 2000s is attributable to its inclusive community and the way in which it challenge ideas about women and women in sport.
“The hardest players I’ve had to get around are always the ladies that are really built. And that’s not something you see that’s usually associated with sport or athleticism,” Biffo says.
“It’s not often you see women on roller skates trying to knock each other down to the ground,” Bolz adds. “So the concept of roller derby is a very sellable one and the lifestyle is one that people want to be a part of.”
Presently, Australia has a 250,000-strong roller derby community, with leagues running in every major city. The sport is traditionally for women only, however in Australia, men are allowed to participate as trainers and referees.
“We’ve had a great support network of men around us and roller derby guys are beautiful,” Bolz says.
“And seeing your ref turn up to training in leggings is always fun,” Biffo adds.
Although Australia currently only has female teams, mixed and male-only teams are starting to emerge in the Unites States. But despite roller derby being a predominantly a women-only sport, Bolz and Deth welcome the idea of male teams being established in Australia.
“We’re kind of happy for men that they’re getting a chance to play,” Bolz says. “They’re just as quirky as we are. They wear hotpants and they love it.”
“It’s a very queer sport all around. There is nothing mainstream about roller derby at all."
[Image] Robyn Soper aka ‘Great Bolz of Fire’ and Ann Barker aka ‘Deth Biffo’ are ready for Battle on the Bent Track. Photo: John McRae
Battle on the Bent Track is on Saturday, February 16, 5pm-10pm, at the HordernPavillion, Entertainment Quarter, Moore Park.Tix $34/$30 plus booking fee from battleonthebenttrack.com. The Official After Party is being held at The Standard, Darlinghurst, from 10pm. Tix $30 door/$25 presale from mardigras.org.au