On a sunny Saturday afternoon in Tuanjiehu Park, Beijing’s first-ever roller derby league is finding its feet – which mostly seem to be in the air. Texas-born ‘Hooten-Annie’ (aka Annie Migli), 30, is teaching newcomers ‘how to fall’ on four-wheeled skates. It’s a novel enough sight to work up a curious local crowd. Watching shaky-legged, oddly dressed laowai
collapse in a heap might be par for the course in Sanlitun, but in a country that still doesn’t have a word for ‘roller derby’, this counts as a spectator-worthy sport in of itself.
It’s not surprising that this sport arrived late to China. Roller derby began in the dust bowl of Depression-era America as a form of endurance skating. By the 1950s it had evolved into a team race, but its transition onto US TV turned it into scripted farce, with fake fights and a staged outcome. A few failed reboots later, it was finally reborn in Texas in 2001 as a popular amateur sport for women, keeping the nicknames, point-scoring and outfits but throwing away the script. A single derby match lasts an hour and comprises multiple ‘jams’ (games lasting up to two minutes) in which two teams of five (one jammer and four blockers) begin by lining up behind a pair of staggered marks. When the whistle blows, they race. The jammer, who is basically a sprinter, scores points by lapping the opposition’s blockers, who must slow her down. ‘They can use their shoulders, thighs or booty,’ says Hooten-Annie, ‘but not punch or kick.’
Roller derby’s evolution has led to some confusion, she says. ‘When it started out, it was all sass, tattoos and cussing, with plenty of funky names and alter egos. But a lot of people see it as fake because of that; they think it’s all elbowing and beating each other up. It’s not.’
Annie is no stranger to the sassier side of roller derby. A member of the Saint Angelo Soul Sisters in her home-state of Texas, her alter ego, ‘Hooten-Annie’, is a furious bundle of pigtails, fishnets and knee-socks. When she arrived in Beijing a year ago to work for the US Embassy, she was dismayed at the lack of a league. Then, a few months ago, she stumbled across the Beijing Roller Derby (BRD) website, set up by Brit Jade ‘Jay’ Latarche.
Jay, 20, is a determined wisp of a girl. Her helmet flattens down a mop of cropped, dyed hair but can’t hide a rather broad grin. She opts against a saucy nickname (we suggest ‘Jayl Bait’, to no avail) and explains that there is a split between those who want derby to go legit and lose the ‘sass’ and those with a pathological need for eyeliner and mayhem. Needless to say, both are welcome at BRD.
Jay has been playing for two years now. ‘I was 18 and working in a bookshop in the UK,’ she recalls, ‘when a friend told me I needed to be cooler and asked me to come and tr y out roller derby. I put it off for a while, but then finally gave it a go. It was awesome – you meet all kinds of people from ever y walk of life.’
‘It’s more than a game, it’s a community,’ chips in Hooten-Annie, who has been skating for three years. ‘I grew up playing sports, but a lot of the women in roller derby didn’t. It’s so new, we’re all still learning. You don’t need to worry that you’re coming into a team where everyone has been doing it since they can walk.’
Today there are more than 1,200 leagues worldwide, but setting up in China hasn’t been easy. A single team consists of 14 female players (including substitutes), plus referees and volunteers. And then there’s the track: ‘Practising in Tuanjiehu is okay for now, but it’s not ideal,’ explains Jay. ‘We’re still looking for an indoor venue; one where we can mark out a flat track – like an empty warehouse.’
But that’s the future. This month, BRD is simply planning on holding more regular meets. They’ve already got someone filming their progress for a documentary, plus a rival team in Shanghai; they just need more recruits. It looks like roller derby has finally arrived in China.