Sitting on the ground with my roller skates laced up, it's not obvious how – or indeed if – I'm going to stand up. I haven't touched a pair of skates since a fleeting childhood obsession with Starlight Express. Watching the London Rollergirls warm up in front of me – a speeding blur of fishnets, pigtails and aggressive athleticism – is scant encouragement.
Roller derby is a feisty, all-female pursuit that has enjoyed a resurgence in the United States and is threatening to catch on over here. Born as a simple skating race in the US during the Great Depression, it has evolved into a contact sport in which teams of five women in roller boots and body pads adopt ruthless alter egos and fitting pseudonyms, then skate other around an elliptical track in a series of furious, two-minute bursts, barging each other out of the way as they go. An intense workout that uniquely targets the glutes and hamstrings, core muscles, and upper body, it certainly beats the treadmill. To the untrained eye, it looks like a catfight in a roller disco.
There are now 30 roller derby clubs in the UK, as well as league competitions, and attendance is growing. The sport's profile will be further boosted next month with the release of Whip It, a comedy about roller derby directed by Drew Barrymore.
One of the largest clubs, London Rollergirls, was founded in 2006. Bette Noir, a co-founder, leads the warm up, and has nominated league players Missyle Elliot and Fleur du Mal to help me find my feet. I ask Fleur, who works at a graphic-design company, how she chose her name. "I love Baudelaire," she replies, enigmatically.
Once happy on their feet, the first thing rookies are taught is how to fall over. What's key is keeping your hands off the floor – you don't want them to be skated over – and getting up again while wearing wheels.
Next, it's time to master the one-knee fall, in which you skate along and drop to one knee, a movement similar to a lunge which strengthens the abdominals, especially the obliques. But it's when mastering the four-point fall, in which you thrust your body headlong at the floor, taking your weight equally on your hand and knee pads, that my confidence blossoms. Just like Fred Astaire, each time I fall, I pick myself up, dust myself down, and start all over. Suddenly I find I can skate. By the time I've advanced to the two-knee fall, a Bon Jovi-style kneeling floor slide, I'm starting to feel a tiny bit rock star myself.
But why would women want to put themselves through such brutish ordeal – surely there are easier ways to tone up your thighs? "It sounds cheesy, but it's empowering," says Missyle. "It teaches you that whatever life throws at you, just keep getting up."
Missyle joined when she moved to London from New York state, and wanted to meet people. "It's very sociable," she tells me. "A decent proportion of my friends are from roller derby. Because it's an amateur sport, we have to organise everything ourselves, it is a real team effort."
She introduces me to Silky Briefs, who by day is a barrister for the Crown Prosecution Service. Silky is wearing purple eye shadow and striped purple stockings, with a matching mouthguard. "I joined because I used to do speed skating outside, and the weather was miserable," she says. "I was hooked from the first session. One of the great things about it is there is room for everyone in roller derby, whatever shape, whatever age. I'm 40, and I've no plans to stop."
While a variety of women enjoy roller derby, there is one thing they have in common: they are certainly fit.
"Roller derby has great cardiovascular benefits," says Steven Hunter, an exercise physiologist at London South Bank University. "It helps develop balance, co-ordination, strength and power, and gives a full body workout: hamstrings and quads, calves and glutes will work hardest when a skater sets off. A roller derby girl's core will work to give her stability during the blocking moves; she will use her upper body and arms to maintain momentum. It is intense exercise; fight through the pain and she will be rewarded with rushing adrenalin and an endorphin high." Hunter estimates that an hour at the derby burns some 600 calories – more than you'll shift on a six-mile run.
Now that I've got the hang of the falling-over moves, I'm ready to feel the adrenalin of skating at speed around the rink, so I learn speed manoeuvres with the other rookies. Across the hall, the league players are having a practice bout.
This is where things get competitive. Each team consists of four blockers, and one jammer. Points are scored when the jammier overtakes a member of the opposite team. Blocking is as physical as it sounds: the girls shove and jostle and shout in a gladiatorial snarl. At least four referees are needed to skate with the pack, making sure what looks like an all-out catfight stays within strict rules. Penalties are awarded for headbutting, and blocking an opponent with your forearm – or punching, as a layman might term it.
A "bout" lasts about an hour. The whistle blows, the scrimmage is over, and the pack of whirling, wheel-bound furies are suddenly friends again.
"It's a great way to take out your aggression," says Slice Andice, as we lie on our stomach for the warm-down, holding our wheels to stretch our quads. "You have all the benefits of team sport, but with an edge, a dark underbelly. You take out all your frustration, and come off the track feeling fantastic. And, you get to dress up a bit."
By the end of the session, my legs are on fire. I'm exhausted, but exhilarated. "I used to play netball," adds Slice. "But once you try this, everything else sucks."
For details of roller derby clubs around the country, visit tinyurl.com/rollerderbyuk. The London Rollergirls will take part in 'A Fistful of Rollers', a roller derby show at London's ExCeL centre, on Saturday, 20 March. For tickets, visit www.londonrollergirls.com
Original article published in The Daily Telegraph, in March, 2010