Click, click, click, clack. The slap of roller skates against the track at the Tel Aviv Sportek carries through the air, along with grunts, squawks, growls, squeaks, howls and, yes, even yips.
“Don’t stop, yalla!” a girl on the sidelines yells. Others whiz by as they skate their hearts out.
“Opa! There’s a passing here,” someone else – half sportscaster, half cheerleader – observes as one derby girl overtakes another. The chorus of encouragement and, at times, loser empathy grows.
“Noooo!” “You’re passing more, yalla, you can do it!” “Oh my God, what’s going on here?” “Way to go!” “Woo hoo!” “Waa-waa-waaa…”
SHOUTS OF victory, cries of defeat – either way, roller derby girls take their game seriously and there is no mistaking the fact that every person here is having a blast. They pride themselves on their gear, their sweat, their bumps and their scrapes.
Depending on whom you ask, they have all sorts of identities which somehow morph their way into their roller derby personas. They’re vegans. They’re feminists. They’re men. They’re women.
They’re athletes. And they all live by the roller derby creed of DIY (do it yourself).
Growing in popularity worldwide, flat-track roller derby is among the sports being considered for the 2020 Olympic Games. According to the sport’s governing body, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, there are currently 159 member leagues and 87 apprentice leagues globally.
The Tel Aviv Derby Girls, an independent league still in its infancy, was established a little over a year ago. Today, what began as an idea in the mind of 23-year-old student and league founder Bar Eldar (also known by her derby moniker, Barth Vadar), has grown into a collection of some 30 members – male and female alike.
Tall and skinny, Eldar is dressed in tights and a bluish tie-dyed tank top, with her long hair hidden inside her helmet. She gets excited as she speaks about roller derby, but there is something shy and unassuming in her demeanor – as if she’d rather be out there skating than talking it up.
Even when sharing the story of the leg she fractured in a fall during practice several months before, Eldar laughs it off. Now healed, she is out here again, lap after lap, working it on the track, eager to get back into the game. Perhaps this is what people need to understand about the roller derby culture – anyone can do it, regardless of background, skill level or injuries incurred.
“I first heard about roller derby maybe 16 months ago,” Eldar explains. “I have a friend in England who established the derby league where she lives and she really fell in love with the sport. It’s pretty much all she does now.”
Eldar was traveling in Ireland and decided to stop off in Northampton to spend some time learning from her friend. “She said, ‘Come here and we’ll teach you everything you need to know.’ I stayed with her for like a week and a half and all we did was derby.” After being put through what she describes as a “really fast like six-session course,” Eldar returned to Israel, intent upon making a league happen and using Facebook to get the word out. “Not a lot of people know roller derby here, so it took a while before we actually got together,” she says.
Getting it together finally happened around November of last year, when a few girls met up for an inaugural workout. “We were just doing a lot of running and pushups and stuff like that, building some endurance and getting into shape,” Eldar recalls.
At that point, other than Eldar, no one really had the gear they needed to hit the track – quad skates, helmets, elbow and knee pads, wrist guards and mouth guards. “It was a serious problem for us because you can’t get it here in Israel; You have to get it elsewhere,” she says. And this gear, which plays an eye-catching role in the already eye-catching roller derby culture, is not cheap.
Colorful skates, sticker-covered helmets and fluorescent laces abound.
“Getting your gear is almost like Christmas,” Eldar says. Most of the league’s participants order what they need online and eagerly await its arrival.
“You know what they say a b o u t women and bags and shoes? So for derby girls, just talking about gear is very exciting.”
If you talk to enough derby girls, you’ll get the idea that everything about roller derby is exciting to them.
They live for its bump-and-grind aggression, even if they’re still wobbly on their skates and still practicing on the sidelines. They’ve all seen the movie Whip It with Drew Barrymore and Juliette Lewis. They wear their gear – mouth guards included – with a sense of pride. And they all aspire to get in on the action and appreciate its “I’m doing something that other people wish they were doing” mentality.
“My friends know that I do roller derby,” says Inbal Rutenberg. The tattooed, dark-haired 23-year-old makeup artist, known as Billie Boom, serves as one of the team’s four coaches.
She’s taking a break on the sidelines and rummaging through her bag. “All of my friends think it’s cool,” she adds, “but I also think that my friends are not part of it because they are – I don’t want to say afraid – but it’s something that they think that they will never be able to do. They’re like ‘OMG, it’s like the coolest thing ever, but me, I’ll watch from the side.’ “So it’s kind of daring, I think, because not a lot of people know about it here in Israel. I want to say that it’s exclusive, but everyone’s welcome. It’s exclusive in a way for the people who allow themselves to go for it, you know?”
FOR THOSE not familiar with the rules of the game, they go something like this: Two teams of five players skate around the track in two-minute sessions known as “jams.” Each team has an appointed “jammer” – a skater identified by his or her starred helmet.
The jammers get a point each time they lap a player from the opposing team. At the same time, members of their own team, known as “blockers,” try to keep the opposite team’s jammer from passing.
It’s a contact sport, and spills and falls abound. However, there are penalties for excessive rough-housing and breaking of rules. Certain blocks are off-limits: no rear-hits, no head, hand or elbow contact allowed.
Strategy is integral to a successful run, and every player is expected to know what’s permitted and what isn’t. The Tel Aviv Derby Girls play their game with the same seriousness with which some people play the stock market or fantasy football. Everything is all about derby.
“There’s a minimum skills test you have to pass in order to start heavy contact training,” explains Naama Fedorov, 27, a.k.a. Engine No. 9. There is even an upcoming written rules test, she says, which each member of the league must pass in order to be cleared for game play. But today’s practice is focused on skills, and much of the session is spent reviewing various moves and counter moves.
“The skills include knowing how to stop, how to fall correctly, knowing proper stance, knowing how to do basic footwork like jumping or stepping to the side,” she says.
Fedorov has been involved in the league almost from the beginning, after having gotten into the sport while living in Berlin and playing for the Berlin Bombshells. Her black skates with orange laces stand out, as does her back tattoo, which shows under her tank top. But screaming tattoos and colorful laces aside, it’s Fedorov’s take-charge-in-a-caring-way attitude that really marks her.
“Does anyone here not feel comfortable to skate?” she asks at the Wednesday night practice. “It’s legitimate,” she tells them. Later, when Eldar takes a spill on a turn and stays down laughing, Fedorov is the first one over, putting out her hand and pulling her up.
PULLING EACH other up, pulling their weight, pulling together – everything here is about that do-it-yourself bootstrap mentality on which roller derby leagues thrive. Once Eldar began recruiting other girls, a well-oiled machine took shape. Today, that machine is made up of three committees, each responsible for one aspect of the league’s business: training, public relations and administration.
Everything is geared toward getting ready for the league’s first official game, which they hope to hold in the next few months.
So for now, they practice.
The training committee takes responsibility for structuring these practices as well as creating training for the referees. Workouts are held three times a week – each day geared toward a different level – at the Tel Aviv Sportek. Everyone – male and female – is invited to participate. Men hit the track alongside the women, learning the game by playing, but the men will end up serving as refs once the game season gets under way.
“Right now we’re building up our skills,” says Mor Koren, 28, a.k.a. The Ref Word. Like the girls, he’s focused on a goal and shows a clear amount of respect for his chosen sport. “In a little while, we’re going to start a referee-specific training course,” he says.
“In the meantime, we’re learning the rule book.”
In contrast to his double nose ring – which brings to mind remnants of a punk subculture gone mainstream – Koren’s glasses give him an air of intelligence and he speaks with a succinct eloquence that is immediately noticed. It is easy to imagine him hunkered down at a desk, reviewing rules and regulations and implementing them on a derby track.
The evening’s practice has moved into quasi-scrimmage mode. The girls gather in the track’s center as Koren and another referee-in-training, 51- year-old Memphis, Tennessee, native Michael Brown, huddle off to the side.
“Okay,” Koren announces, “after a rapid meeting of refs, we have agreed that we are playing for points and that’s it!” The derby girls erupt in a chorus of “yay!” “So no hitting and no cutting,” Koren warns. He and Brown converse and move over to the start line.
Brown, a software designer by day, goes by the derby name of Mike Oxlittle. He is big and goateed and has lots of pretty tattoos and works out alongside the girls, fitting right in.
“Growing up I was like the most unathletic person you could ever imagine,” Brown says. “But I’ve been on quads since I was like eight years old. When I was little this was a popular way to throw the kids outside of the house for a Saturday – to take them to the rink and leave them off.”
Plus, Brown used to hang out with some of the derby girls in Memphis so he says he already had a decent idea of what roller derby was about. He has been with the Tel Aviv league for nearly a year.
And what does his family think of a 51-year-old man doing roller derby? He laughs. “My mom knows about it and she’s cool with it. She’s like, ‘Well, at least he’s not riding that motorcycle anymore.’”
It’s been a long road, and the Tel Aviv Derby Girls see a lot more ahead. They’re looking into an indoor venue for winter practices and games, arranging insurance and expanding the team by pushing publicity and fund-raising events.
They’re working hard to hone their skills and bring their game up to a level that can draw in audiences, just like the leagues do in other cities and in other countries. They want to make derby accessible to everyone, but especially to other women. And yes, they want to be aggressive and they want to be colorful… bottom line: they want to skate.
The sun has gone down and the lights of the Sportek have come on.
Off in the distance, a bunch of guys all padded up grunt their way through a game of American football.
At the other end of the field, people rappel off the climbing wall. And on the skate track, the Tel Aviv Derby Girls are sweating it out.
“Go, go, go, sprint, sprint, sprint! Lift your legs!” Rutenberg yells, in high-coach mode.
Two young religious girls on rollerblades have stopped at the side of the track. They watch intently and talk among themselves, as the derby girls go through their drills.
Who knows, maybe one day they will be derby girls.
The league will hold a fundraising concert on November 19 at Levontin 7. For ticket information, and to learn more about the Tel Aviv Derby Girls – Roller Derby Israel, visit their Facebook page at