Time and again, the women throw themselves onto the ground of the Meydan Tennis Academy. They build up speed, slam themselves down, leap up on their roller skates and race to their next controlled crash.
This isn’t some sort of self-destructive behaviour; it’s the first practice of the Dubai Roller Derby season.
As Roger Federer practises on a nearby court, the women – all oblivious to the nearby celebrity – have strapped on elbow pads, knee pads, wrist braces, helmets and roller skates as a coach explains the importance of falling.
“The mouth guard protects not just your teeth, it protects your head from concussion,” says Elizabeth Wright, a Canadian foundation instructor at Heriot-Watt University. “Now, we’re going to assign everyone new a derby mum who will show you the basics, like how to stop your gear from smelling like Santa’s jock strap.”
The Dubai team celebrated its first birthday on Sunday and a new Abu Dhabi team hopes to follow Dubai’s recruitment success.
You don’t have to be a great skater to join. You just have to be ready to fall, and fall hard – and often. Falling doesn’t seem so difficult when you’re tottering high on roller skates for the first time. But a willingness – even an earnestness – to break evolutionary instinct and smash yourself into the ground at high speeds is really an acquired skill that roller derby has turned into an art.
To learn these tricks, the “derby mums” will guide Dubai’s new players through the intricacies of a sport that’s routinely described as rugby on roller skates. Fishnets and tutus are optional.
Dubai’s women have no flashy apparel. The focus is on athleticism, but the sport is the same all over the world: two teams bash their way around an oval track with a jammer speeding round to rack up points while four blockers on the opposite team try to stop her. Teams are usually women, but men are welcome to join the Dubai league to train as backwards-skating referees.
The Dubai team, founded by the Briton Dani Connell, has had a groundswell of support since serious training began in January. It now has about 30 members and more than 1,200 Facebook likes, and counting.
They face the challenge of growing a women’s grass-roots sport in a corporate city.
“We’d like to get all of our skaters up to the point where they can bout but mostly we really need to find a place where we can host that,” says Wright, 34, a founding member of the Montreal Roller Derby in Canada. “We’d love to be able to host a game, but we need a place to actually have it.”
Wright, who plays by the name of Liz-on-ya, joined Les Contrabanditas after a meeting in a Montreal punk bar. She wants to build the same success in Dubai, her home of five years.
But the team itself doesn’t have a home; they are looking for a gym, the polished concrete floor of a warehouse or the parking lot of a car dealership to skate in. Their dream, of course, is to practise indoors so the season doesn’t end when the temperature hits 40°C. Rental rates at the Meydan Tennis Academy have also just increased.
“Some of the schools have really nice gym floors but they want 600 or 700 dirhams an hour and we just can’t afford it,” she says.
The league regularly participates in charity events but laws prohibit the team from fund-raising for themselves. Revenue comes entirely from monthly membership fees of Dh175. Derby’s credo of accessibility is hard to reconcile with a city where venue rental rates are so expensive.
“Not everybody in Dubai is wealthy,” says Wright. “We don’t want to place it out of anybody’s reach.”
The fact that it’s a rough women’s sport has caused further problems.
“Sometimes they’ll actually quite frankly say ‘we have lot of men here so we don’t think it would be appropriate to have women here practising’,” says Wright. “Or they say ‘roller derby, that’s going very punk and you’ll be smashing furniture and marking the floors’.
“We’re very tough girls, but we will treat facilities with respect.”
The sport’s reputation for bloodshed has been no barrier to attracting members. The Dubai group is as diverse as the city and has 16 nationalities, ages 25 to 41. What’s more, they’ve established a stable, dedicated core in a migrant city.
But its reflection of Dubai’s demographics has drawbacks. The team has its share of Emirati players but international bouts specify that a national team requires a certain number of players to be citizens.
The league has experienced athletes on its squad, though many are new and now is the time to join, says the Dubai league president, Aseya Nasib.
“You don’t have to be really athletic, you don’t have to be a size zero, you don’t have to run the fastest around the block,” she says. “It’s not one of those sports you have to have played in high school.”
Nasib, an Emirati make-up artist with red streaks in her black hair, first laced up last October. She hopes to do her first bout for her 30th birthday in March and has already picked out a name for the day she passes her minimum skills: Joan Thrett.
Abu Dhabi is captained by Tracie Scott, who played roller derby in Edmonton, Canada, in a ball hockey dome that was -2°C.
Now she circles around an Abu Dhabi parking lot with her husband, sweat dripping from their elbow pads in weather on the hot side of 40°C.
Scott is one of Abu Dhabi’s derby orphans. They are a team of six, on the hunt for more members as part of a push to establish leagues across the Middle East. This is the region’s newest roller derby team.
Scott, alias Nerd Badger, is a 35-year-old law-school graduate, raised on a farm in Grande Prairie, Alberta. She was the jammer for E-ville’s touring team, part of the Edmonton league that was 100 women strong.
Scott joined the Harlequins Rugby Club when she moved to Abu Dhabi two years ago but the empty parking lot of Sheikh Zayed City proved too tempting. “I just went back to my first love, which was roller derby,” says Scott, a former figure skater and fighter. “I kind of just always looked at the parking lots and thought ‘wow, we could skate here’.”
“I’m about as coordinated as a three-legged rhino on my feet,” she adds. “On skates, it’s different.”
Scott, her husband and the other four members of the Abu Dhabi team meet every Sunday and Wednesday, sometimes with guest appearances from Dubai members.
“The thing about roller derby that is different than other sports is it attracts a lot of women with families and lawyers and doctors who have cool adult day jobs,” says Scott. “You don’t need to be 21 to do it. You can actually have a family and kids and then get away from the family and play roller derby.”
If worse comes to worse, they’ll draw a track with chalk and keep practising until they are ready to have bouts against Dubai.
“What I really want from the league, I would really like it if we could set a standard for roller derby within the region,” says Nasib. “We want to make sure that our league is run up to international standards and we want to make sure that anybody we bout against is up to that standard as well.”
The Dubai team is in the process of deciding which set of international roller derby standards they will use, those of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association or USA Roller Sports. This year, the teams will push women to pass their minimum skills, a seven-page checklist players must pass before they can play, or “bout”.
The Dubai team plans to support women in Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Bahrain who have expressed interest in starting teams.
Egypt’s Cairollers had their first bout in June and have used creative solutions to Middle East problems, like getting gear.
A pair of skates costs from US$100 (Dh367), plus shipping costs. A standard set costs eight times the average Egyptian monthly salary. Last year, the Cairollers did a donation drive from London and Sweden and travellers with extra suitcase space carried gear for them.
Politics have not stopped play, says Sarah Halim, a Cairollers founding member who plays under the derby name of Killa’Patra VII.
“The security situation has made it difficult only in the sense that we have had to constantly change our practice time to make it work with the changes to the imposed curfew,” says Halim in an email.
“We hope our team will inspire women in other countries in the region to start their own roller derby team, much like we did here in Egypt,” says the Egyptian primary schoolteacher. “We’d like to see this sport developing in other parts of this region.”
The region’s only other league is in South Africa. Teams include the Slam Damsels, Hate City, Savage Sailor Dolls, the Raging Warmones, Thundering Hell Cats and Hate City Rollers.
With a growing emphasis on athleticism, the sport is set to expand quickly, the players say.
“Especially in North America, there was roller derby on TV in the 1970s that was like wrestling,” says Wright. “That wasn’t really a sport, it was more of a pageant. We’re trying to dispel that. This is a real sport, with real athletes and real referees. It isn’t some sort of theatrical display.
“When ladies turn up they have to do sit-ups and skate hard and sweat.”
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