Gliding in and out of the adoring crowd, soaked in sweat, their costume make-up smeared and running, and even with bruises clearly rising to the surface of their skin, the skater's faces showed that joyful emotion of exhaustion mixed with elation seen after any tightly fought contest. And that was both the losers and the winners.
This was the first bout of the Richter City Roller Derby – Wellington's first roller derby organisation – and so naturally called The Grudgemaker. The two teams – Brutal Pageant and Smash Malice – had been selected by the coaches to be as even as possible from the pool of skaters they had attracted since 2007. Skaters like Ruby Deathskates, Sneaky Darky, Rita Anguish, Tuff Bikkies, Lux Vengence, Born Lippy and Suffer Jet. For most of the skaters 2007 was the first time they had put on a pair of skates since they were kids.
Yet despite this and despite the skaters not having any real competition there was no nervousness and no fear. At least no one admitted to any. Tuff Bikkies and Suffer Jet seemed relaxed earlier in the day and jitters were put down to the excitement.
They showed me some of the tricks they would use to get a better start or to get through the pack. They also told us of the various perils that you had to watch out for on the track, including one that could be unique to Roller Derby: Fishnet Burn (which would also make a cool Roller Derby name).
See, Roller Derby is a real sport but, like all sport, it is part competition and part entertainment. Brutal Pageant's uniforms are short pink dresses with a sash stitched on. Smash Malice are dressed in leopard prints and miniskirts. Both teams have then accessorised with fishnets, stripy socks, tiaras, crazy make-up (in one case a fake bullet wound), wigs and an overall bad-ass attitude. The personas the skaters use during the bouts are part of the sport and when I showed up just before the start I wasn't able to get any last-minute commentary from them because they were under "lock down", getting ready and getting into character.
How bad-ass was this going to get, I wondered. After all, each match is called a "bout" and this bout was named "The Grudgemaker".
"I don't have a [grudge] list, the other team might though" laughed Ruby Deathskates, a blocker for Brutal Pageant. "Maybe after the bout I'll have one". Suffer Jet and Tuff Bikkies, two of Brutal Pageant's jammers, shared that sentiment, though they did share a brief insight into their tactics.
"They might be too focused on getting revenge on us [for hitting them] that they might forget their gameplan." So does that mean some showboating? "Absolutely!" And they were hoping for carnage too.
"We were talking about falls before, I really hope there's lots of falling in this bout" said Tuff Bikkies, "I'm really good at jumping and I want to jump over a few people".
But the thing they were all really looking forward to was the crowd. And Wellington didn't disappoint, it was a full house. People were actually turned away. And it was the crowd you expected, with decent proportions of: need-to-be-seen hipsters, old-school punks, supporting parents and families, and sports fans. Some of the more notable members were those with signs, those with fluorescent hair, and the very large gentleman in the lucha libre mask. And of course, tattoos as far as the eye could see.
Personally I found my shouting-at-rugby skills transferred easily to Roller Derby. Though I did feel "C'mon Pageant" to be a little less witty than I wanted, so in the end I just started yelling "woooooo!" and "yeeeeeahh!" and "aaooowwww!"; people within earshot seemed impressed.
And the audience knew what they wanted. Like a NASCAR crowd they wanted carnage, they wanted thrills and they wanted spills. Every time a skater hit the ground (usually with an impressive thump) the crowd showed its appreciation, and blood lust, with a hearty "OOOOoooooo!"
Before the bout the (currently injured) Ginger Tonyx – a name derived from a character from The Valley of the Dolls – and her announcing partner described the rules of the sport to the crowd, which was a good idea because apparently at a bout in Auckland everyone left after the first period because they didn't realise that there were two more to come.
The basic rules of Roller Derby are easy to pick up; the more difficult parts (like figuring out how the lead jammer is determined) take a little bit longer. In fact the rules only really became clear to me when I bailed up referee Plaid the Impaler (a PA reader) after the bout. This was despite me trying to explain the game to those with questions beside me in the audience.
The first period started with controversy. Tuff Bikkie, as jammer for the Pageant, lapped the pack and called off the jam. The Ref's whistle wasn't heard and the pack continued. After protests and confirmations the next jam began, but now it was game on.
The Pageant held the lead after the first jam through to the end (finally winning by almost ten points) but it was by no means a close thing. Smash Malice had many more supporters in the crowd and whenever their star jammer Sneaky Darky got through the pack, the audience let roar.
I had to know: did it piss off the Pageant to hear the crowd behind Malice? Yes it did.
The Malice had a good blocking crew and there was no way around the outside of them. Bikkie was having real trouble sliding out too, so a nudge with a shoulder would send her out of bounds. Suffer Jet's short, choppy steps allowed her to get through on the inside, which she did often, and when there was a big enough lead the promised showboating appeared. After the match though, Jet said her favourite parts were the two times she slid over and ended up in the crowd.
Speaking of showboating, in the second period-break one of the referees, Danger Danger, showed off his flashing wheels with some roller disco. He used to (if you excuse the phrase) roll in LA and San Francisco. When he was complimented on his routine Danger Danger said "when no one else does roller disco then the bar is set pretty low to be the best that anyone has ever seen". I still thought it was cool.
In the final jam the Malice had clawed back to within six. Every member of the Pageant in that jam agreed that the last jam was intense, the Malice were going all out to win. But they fell short as the Pageant held them out and scored points of their own.
So had a grudge been made? Had the previously non-existent take-down lists been written? According to Bikkie: "maybe Smash Malice has a grudge now" But really despite all of my prodding and prying and intentionally inflammatory questions, and even after all the hard-hitting jams, the players remain close friends. So just like any other sport then.