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Roller Derby girls arrive in Melbourne

Entertainment editor Karl Quinn sits down with two roller derby girls and ends up being chased out of the studio.

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THE last time teams of roller skaters rammed each other into the rails while racing on a raised, banked track in this country, the carnage was choreographed and broadcast in black and white. But now the banked-track roller derby is back and, its promoters hope, it's here to stay.

The live events arms of Fremantle Media and the Nine Network have joined forces to stage the Roller Derby Xtreme tour this summer, in which American teams Gotham Girls (New York) and Derby Dolls (Los Angeles) will do battle over six bouts on the east coast.

The teams are amateur, which is part of the reason the tour isn't going to Adelaide, where the resurgent sport is at its strongest. ''Most Americans only get two weeks off a year, so the tour is really built around their work schedules,'' says Dustin Lockett, vice-president of live experiences, Fremantle Media.

Let it roll: roller derby competitors Gori Spelling, left, and Fisti Cuffs in Melbourne.

Let it roll: roller derby competitors Gori Spelling, left, and Fisti Cuffs in Melbourne. Photo: Simon Schluter

Gori Spelling (real name Anneke Jens), a 32-year-old skater with the Derby Dolls, is keen to point out that modern roller derby - which is barely a decade old and almost entirely female - is a different beast to the game some of us may recall from decades past. ''It's not scripted like derby from the '70s was on TV,'' she says. ''It was more entertainment than an actual sport, like it is today.''

''One of the mantras of modern roller derby is it's for the skaters, by the skaters,'' chips in Emily Marian Langmade, better known as Fisti Cuffs. ''It's all skater-run and it's all real. Winning is important. We're not interested in fake theatrics.''

Ms Cuffs' New York team races flat track, the form of the sport practised by the 4000 or so registered skaters in about 80 leagues in Australia; Ms Spelling's team competes in a banked track league (which they've won three times straight).

The banked track being built for the tour will, she says, be the first used here ''in 30 years''. It will give Australian fans an opportunity to see this version of the sport live for the first time, and even to introduce some riders to it (a small group of local skaters will go through boot camp and race in the bouts).

Fremantle Media's Dustin Lockett says the promoters are spending big in a bid to get in on the ground floor of a sport with lots of growth potential. ''It's a huge underground phenomenon,'' he says, pointing to the fact that the number of leagues in Australia has quadrupled in two years. ''We went to a local game and said, 'Imagine what Fremantle Media could do with this'. We believe there's a demand there.''

A half-hour pre-tour television special is planned for next month and a one-hour program using material from the tour (all bouts will be filmed with six cameras) is likely to be screened early next year, but Fremantle is prepared for a slow build to a regular television presence. ''We're in it for the long haul,'' Mr Lockett says.

The deep pockets of the sport's new media partners could indeed help it get to the next level, but isn't there a risk that in the process the ''new'' roller derby could become a lot like the old?

''There has definitely been some controversy [over the involvement of Fremantle and Nine Live] but they're importing what we do wholesale, they're not trying to change it, they're not trying to say, 'You have to do this weird thing','' says Ms Cuffs.

She's not against TV exposure (clearly), and would love to be paid more than the stipend the skaters will receive for this tour. But she knows not everyone feels the same.

Roller Derby Extreme is at Hisense Arena, Melbourne on Friday, November 23.