Blade runners: Dublin’s roller derby is where physicality and fashion collide

Skating culture is making a revival in Ireland – Dublin Roller Derby now has more than 90 members

“Noise, colour, body contact” is one way of describing the appeal of roller derby, a fast-paced contact sport – often referred to as rugby on wheels – that is surging in popularity in Ireland. With more than 90 members since its first foundation in this country in 2009 and the Dublin team travelling the world, it has its own traditions and culture, with players championing inclusivity, developing their own style and creating signature camp nicknames, no two the same.

The first thing skaters learn is how to fall.

Destroy McLure, Dashing Trudy Snow and Petrafire – featured here in a shoot for Edge Only jewellery – are members of the Dublin Roller Derby squad who have skated together for years and are firm friends, their camaraderie and sense of fun obvious from these photos. “We started training for the roller derby nearly 10 years ago,” says Elaine Snowden, aka Dashing Trudy Snow. “At the beginning nobody knew what to do as Ireland didn’t have a skate culture, so you got to know people and bond with them, all the while on wheels. It’s a special group of people that I would consider to be friends for life territory.”

The person credited with starting the sport in the 1930s was a Chicago-based event promoter called Leo Seltzer, who got the idea having learned that more than 90 per cent of Americans had roller skated at least once. Initially the derby began as an endurance race but later developed a points system gained when one team member knocked down an opposing skater. Today that’s all changed and there are now stricter rules and regulations.


How it works basically is that there are five people from each team (of 15) on the track. A derby game runs for an hour at two-minute intervals called jams. The teams consist of four blockers and one jammer who wears a star on her helmet and scores one point for each opposing skater they pass. Blockers impede the opposing team’s jammer while assisting their own through the pack. No grabbing, kicking or elbowing is allowed. Shoulders, hips and ribcages can push, hit or provide resistance.

“It is not as attritional as rugby,” explains Snowden, “you are not running at people directly as you are all skating in the same direction. We are the best of pals and though we may take lumps out of each other on the track, when we finish we would have a beer and a laugh afterwards.”

“It’s a nice community and everyone is super friendly,” adds skater Amy Plant (Destroy McClure). It attracts women of all ages from those in their 20s to some in their 40s and 50s, though the majority are in their 30s.

Though the sport languished for a while, its current revival resurfaced in Texas in 2003 when a group of women founded the Texas Roller Derby, combining the traditional structure with a feminist slant, creating a space where women could be tough and aggressive. Drew Barrymore’s smart and sensitive directorial debut movie Whip It in 2009 about a young teenager secretly joining a roller derby drew further attention to the sport as it made a comeback.

Explaining its popularity and attraction, Molly Stenzel, aka Master Blaster, president of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association in the US told the New York Times that “there are very few spaces in the world where women, transgender and gender non-conforming folks get to use their bodies freely and unapologetically”.

The Dublin group have a collective creative heart – Snowden works in design and communications, while the others include an illustrator, an animator, a primary school teacher, a psychotherapist, a tattoo artist and one working in a tech company. Though all wear helmets, wrist guards, knee and elbow pads, each has their own individual sartorial style guided by their own personalities and flair, though they all wear a uniform when competing. There is physicality and there’s fashion and there’s fearlessness.

On and off the track, Snowden says she values comfort, loves anything denim, leggings “with a nice shine” and cut-off tees, while Valentina Nicosia (Valdemort) goes for colour and likes to stand out, her sequined jacket often generating admiring comments. “I like to believe that I have a rock chick look but I don’t know if I get it,” she says with a laugh. She painted her skates green “to look like a green galaxy because I love the colour”. Plant describes her style as eclectic. “I am attracted to bold print and bright colour and am a sucker for leopard print and gold,” she says.

Fishnets, glitter, glamour and zany make-up may have defined US skate culture but Plant believes there is less of that now and more emphasis on functionality, as what is considered a niche, alternative sport strives for legitimacy and recognition – though there is no denying it’s cool and the fun involved.

For Snowden, the roller derby “is an incredibly empowering and inclusive space. People get a lot of enjoyment and you put into it what you want to get out of it. It is a sport that is appreciated by those of all shapes and sizes and what is wonderful about it is that you go to the gym not to lose weight but to get stronger for it”.

“You feel your body in a different way rather than what it looks like.” All the members are keen to stress the sense of inclusivity in the sport, a sense of belonging and, says Nicosia, “we try to support and empower each other in a positive, community environment”.

Deirdre McQuillan

Deirdre McQuillan

Deirdre McQuillan is Irish Times Fashion Editor, a freelance feature writer and an author