Steel on wheels – meet the roller girls

As Drew Barrymore's film about roller derby hits UK cinema screens, Jayne Dowle checks out the contact sport sweeping the nation.

It is Sunday afternoon at a sports centre in Sheffield. Women in black and orange T-shirts are dragging suitcases on wheels, overflowing with skates, helmets and knee-pads, in to the changing room. Others stand shyly at the door, but are soon caught up in the melee as the Sheffield Steel Roller Girls get ready for their practice session.

Today, the girls are introducing roller derby, one of the fastest-growing contact sports in Britain, to "newbies", including me. The afternoon has been promoted through posters and the internet and about

10 potential recruits have turned up.

"I work in a profession where I don't meet a lot of new people," says Claire Holland, 24, a social worker from the city centre. "And it's a high-pressure job, so I'm looking for something completely different."

Claire, like many of the "newbies", hasn't skated for years. And like Jo Hercberg, 27, a commercial executive from Nether Edge, Sheffield, she is looking for something more exciting than the gym. "I quite fancied the idea of a team sport," says Jo. "But it is quite difficult to find one which you can just walk into in your twenties."

It must be 30 years since I strapped on a pair of roller skates myself. I have fond memories of recreating Gloria Gaynor's roller-dance routine to I Will Survive in the back garden. But this is something completely different. Roller derby is tough, fast and aggressive. As long as you have knee-pads, elbow-pads, wrist-pads, a helmet and skates, you can wear what you like, from tiny shorts to a frilly mini-skirt and tights. The vibe is rebellious and free-spirited, with plenty of loud music and glamour. Proper roller-girls have "skate names", which they invent themselves. The Sheffield posse includes Loretta Vendetta, Mia Malice, Jane Doe-a-Go-Go and Parma Violence.

Roller derby was invented in America in the 1920s. Men are allowed, as referees, coaches and physios, but it has evolved into a female-dominated sport. Each team of five, comprising three blockers, one pivot, and a jammer, competes in one-hour bouts as they zoom at speeds of up to 15 miles an hour around an indoor track.

Its frantic pace means that fresh players swap in and out at regular intervals. The aim is for the "jammer", usually the fastest skater, to get round the track ahead of the opposition players. Jammers earn a point for each player they lap. There is plenty of full-body pushing, shoving and dodging. While women of all fitness levels and ages take part – the Sheffield squad ranges from 19 to 35 – to make the team, you have to be agile, confident, and not afraid to take a few knocks. Common injuries include dislocated shoulders and black eyes. Around 15 regulars, who include teachers, an electrical engineer and students, come every week, and another five or so turn up when they can, depending on work and childcare.

"I was looking for a hobby and I found roller derby on the internet," says Emma King, 26, a former florist who now works at a school in Firth Park, Sheffield. Emma runs the team, which was set up by dental nurse Pauline Chalmers almost two years ago. "Roller derby is such an empowering thing to do, and it has done wonders for my self-confidence."

When Emma, aka Miss D Nightshade, has finished warming us up with 15 minutes of running, and stretching exercises, we take to the floor in skate-boots borrowed from the regulars. A pair of boots costs around 85, but kit is available to hire from the team, or the "league" as it is also known. First though, we have to learn how to fall correctly to prevent broken knee-caps. Then we new girls either glide off confidently straight away, or wobble about like Bambi on ice.

For the record, I don't fall over once. But if I had, I'm sure someone would have picked me up. For all its aggression, roller derby is surprisingly supportive. Every time someone staggers, another girl goes over to help. This attitude extends across Britain. Established leagues help new groups to set up, there are regular bouts between leagues, and special events and "boot-camps" where members from several leagues get together.

The welcoming atmosphere has got 34-year-old Caroline Pringle, aka "Roxy Carolla", a web editor at the University of Huddersfield, hooked on roller derby. She has been a member of the Leeds Roller Dolls since August last year. Caroline lives in Huddersfield and practises three times a week. With two children, aged four and five, this is a huge commitment. "I'm hooked," she says. "But I enjoy it because it is so supportive. It's almost an anti-sport, and if you were alienated from sport at school, it doesn't matter – there is no judgment. If you put the effort and commitment in, you will get it back."

The Sheffield Steel Roller Dolls are planning their next bout at Ponds Forge in the summer, and details will be announced on their website, www.sheffield Meanwhile, if you fancy giving it a whirl, the club is keeping membership open until the end of March.

The first session is free, and each following session, at Graves Tennis and Leisure Centre, will cost around 5 for beginners. Depending on numbers, Emma plans to run a 12-week course to teach the basics: posture, stride, crossovers, speed and endurance, stops, one-foot glides, falls, balance and agility, hopping/jumping, focus, whips/pushes, pacing and weaving.


Roller Derby revolution

There are estimated to be more than 30 roller derby leagues in the UK.

In America, there are 77 leagues.

Worldwide, the number of leagues has grown from one to more than 400 in less than a decade, with leagues in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Finland, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland.

Roller derby is estimated to burn off between 500 and 700 calories per hour.

Legal moves: Shoulder-checking, hip-checking, and a whip, when players pull each other along to pick up speed.

Illegal moves: Tripping, elbowing, punching and head-butting.