Roller Derby Teams Invade Belgium for 2nd Annual Skates of Glory Competition

Photo by Antwerp Roller Derby ✯ One Love Roller Dolls

The first inline roller skate was created by Belgian inventor John Joseph Merlin in 1760 and patented by M. Petibled of Paris in 1819; 50 years later James Plimpton of Medford, Massachusetts re-arranged the placement of wheels to create a skate with more flexible movement called the “quad.” The history of the roller skates reflects the reality of their use in Belgium today. If you know where to look, it’s not hard to find people rollerblading throughout Belgium, but you hardly see people on quad roller skates – until now. Ten female roller derby teams have started in Belgium since an American expat introduced the sport here five years ago, and more “freshmeat” are joining the teams each year. On November 9-10, 2013, Belgium celebrates the rise of roller derby with the second annual Skates of Glory competition, which touts “bouts” between 8 top roller derby teams from Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands who are invited to the event in Beveren by the hosts, Antwerp’s One Love Roller Dolls.

Cobble-stone streets and roads filled with potholes make it difficult to skate outside with quads, and Belgians don’t tend to demonstrate the aggression traditionally associated with the roller derby sport; but when an American freelance journalist Courtney Davis, known in the derby world as “Grace Smelly,” moved to Ghent in 2007 and wrote an article for De Morgen to guage local interest in forming a team, she received a positive response. In her article in the February 10, 2010 edition of Flanders Today, Davis quoted another member of her new team, “Having just moved to Belgium, I had no social circles. I joined the Go-Gos and voilà, almost instantly went from being friendless to being a socialite! And of course, derby is so much fun that you stay in shape without realising you are exercising.”

Photo by Antwerp Roller Derby ✯ One Love Roller Dolls

Together with interested players, Smelly created Belgium’s first roller derby team – the Gent GoGo Roller Girls. The team immediately demonstrated the camaraderie and do-it-yourself spirit typical of roller derby teams around the world that earned them new teammates, fans, and practice venue at Rollerland in Aalst. In 2010, the team hosted its first “bout” or match against Stuttgart Valley Rollergirlz and became the sixth European team to join the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association’s apprentice league program, bringing a new aura of sports diplomacy to an already diplomatic country.

True to Belgians’ distaste for traveling far distances, a newer member of the Ghent GoGo Roller Girls decided to begin a team closer to her hometown in Antwerp. The newly formed Antwerp One Love Roller Dolls grew quickly, and once again, two of the team’s members decided to begin their own team in Brussels. There are now 10 roller derby teams throughout Belgium – in Antwerp, Brussels, Ghent, Hasselt, Menen, Charleroi, Liege, Mons, Namur, and Tournai – and they all strive to help each other’s teams gain the venues, materials, and training needed to develop into strong representations of this highly-skilled fun and athletic sport. Nisrine El Hajjami Hussein, one of the two founders of the Brussels Derby Pixies team, says “We just told ourselves: if we can’t do the distance to go to Roller Derby anymore, we’ll bring Roller Derby to us. As we’ve seen the Belgian leagues grow and become more competitive, we do our best to help other leagues reach a higher level. We truly believe that if our league wants to beat yours, we want to beat you at your best.”

Photo by Antwerp Roller Derby ✯ One Love Roller Dolls

With names like Florence and the Machete, RollHerFace, and Mad Twat Her, one may doubt the friendliness or professionalism of members within Belgium’s 10 roller derby leagues, but people will be surprised to learn of the cordiality and business acumen demonstrated by the leagues’ female leaders. The teams are composed of members from Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, as well as more far-reaching lands like the USA and Australia. They recruit “freshmeat” throughout the year via social media and strategic events, like Brussels Derby Pixies’ participation in the city’s Autoloze Zondag. They then arrange training schedules and assign members to committees, where they help arrange the leagues’ affairs – ranging from finances, merchandising, event management, and communications. Nisrine from Brussels Derby Pixies highlights, “Every derby skater must know that the league is theirs. By taking initiative and responsibilities within the league’s committees, all members eventually understand that they are what makes the league. Hence, they are what defines this sport.” Roller derby equipment is expensive, and the teams have done a great job of pairing with local businesses like One Love Boardshop in Antwerp and Sckr Pnch Skate Shop in Gent to offer their members special prices. Finding locales with wide and flat skating space for teams to practice has been a larger challenge, and teams are always looking for new venues willing to host them for bouts, scrimmages, and practices.

Sportcentre De Meerminnen in Beveren, Belgium, where the second annual Skates of Glory competition will be hosted, offers plenty of space for skaters, as well as a seating capacity of 650 people and a big private parking lot for approximately 300 cars. Antwerp One Love Roller Dolls expect around 450 people at this year’s competition after last year’s drew over 400 participants. The event offers weekend passes, day passes and child-passes (for those who are younger than 12 years/older than 6 years of age) that range from €6 to €18, or cash-strapped fans eager to experience roller derby at its finest can volunteer to access the event for free. Come watch Antwerp’s One Love Roller Dolls, Brussels’ Brussels Derby Pixies, Charleroi’s Blackland Rockin’ K-Rollers, Ghent’s Gent Go-Go Roller Girls, Namur’s Namur Roller Girls, Amsterdam’s Amsterdam Derby Dames, Eindhoven’s Rockcity Rollers, and Rotterdam’s Death Row Honeys get down to it and learn what roller derby in Flanders is all about.

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– Alexandra Edelstein, “Freshmeat (new member), Brussels Derby Pixies

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