x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Wheels are in motion for Dubai roller derby

Nearly 20 women have already signed up for a future roller derby league in the emirate, and 70 more have expressed interest.

Dani Connell (left) and Susan Strickland puts on their skates during the roller derby group meeting at Jumeirah Lake Towers. Jaime Puebla/The National
Dani Connell (left) and Susan Strickland puts on their skates during the roller derby group meeting at Jumeirah Lake Towers. Jaime Puebla/The National

DUBAI // Along the pathways at Jumeirah Lakes Towers, a group of women don skates on weekday evenings and practise for what will eventually become the country's first roller derby league.

Complete with knee and elbow pads and the obligatory helmets, the Dubai Roller Derby women practise moves in a sport famous for its knocks and falls, as well as its drama and daring manoeuvres.

In keeping with roller derby tradition, the women have adopted nicknames such as Liz on Ya and the Harmonator.

But the Dubai team is a bit more circumspect when it comes to uniforms. Shorts and fishnet tights will not be making an appearance any time soon.

The women, almost 20 of them, are not deterred by the lack of proper skating facilities in their search for an adrenalin rush and fun. Another 70 women have expressed an interest in joining the league.

The sport, which has evolved since the 1920s, features two teams of five who race around an oval track.

Points are scored when one player, designated as the jammer, legally overtakes members of the other team. The action and skill comes from the four players of the opposing team who try to block the jammer.

The rules do not allow elbowing, back-blocking or use of hands. The only legal contact the blockers can make is banging into another player from the side, which is when the tumbles occur.

The sport is popular in North America and Europe, and some of the women on the Dubai team have played before. But many are novices - "fresh meat", in derby parlance.

Dani Connell, 29, a marketing and events director, skated in the UK and set up a Facebook group in Dubai to find other fans of the sport to form a team.

So far, almost 600 fans have signed up to the page and the number is rising.

"To get involved in Dubai Roller Derby you just need to want to do it and get motivated to get on your skates," Ms Connell said.

Susan Strickland, 34, a flight attendant who is trying the sport for the first time, said she wanted to put her years of skating to good use.

"It is fun and I can skate, so I think I should do it," Ms Strickland said.

Skates and protective gear are necessary to join the practice sessions. Special skates that offer more speed and agility than those found in UAE shops have been ordered from the US. Until they arrive, newcomers use their own equipment.

"We have a motto that safety is sexy," Ms Connell said. "No one plays or trains without a helmet, elbow, wrist and knee pads. Even a gum shield."

Sarah Harmon, 31, said she bought her skates and protective gear on a recent trip to New York and was not bothered by the clunky pads. "I know they will save me from breaking my bones."

Injuries are a reality as the players move at high speed, and blocking and knocking are part of the game.

"The most common injuries I know about are bruises and strains," Ms Connell said. "Roller girls are proud of their bruises and most leagues will have a bruise hall of fame."

Liz Wright, 33, a special-education teacher who took up the sport in her native Canada, tore the muscles in her shoulder but was back on skates the next season.

"Once you get hooked, it's hard to walk away from," Ms Wright said.

Tiana Kuzmanovic, 35, from Serbia, was looking forward to competing. She said she was attracted by the speed, "and maybe because it's a little bit aggressive".

The women hope to have a league set up within a year.

Some members travel from Abu Dhabi and there are plans to set up a league in the capital once the Dubai group establishes itself.

Teenagers have also shown interest, but the organisers are trying to find ways for them to compete among their own age group.

The group has still to find a proper venue in which to practise as there are no roller derby tracks in the UAE. A disused warehouse or gym with a wooden floor would be ideal, Ms Wright said.

"There must be someone with an indoor, smooth, flat surface the size of a regulation basketball court or bigger who will want to let us use it for free," she said.

eharnan@thenational.ae