“The first thing you need to learn in roller derby is how to fall. Safely.”
Fourteen people — a mix of locals and foreigners, students and young adults, artists, teachers, an accountant, an interpreter — huddle up inside GOX, an indoor skating space in downtown Saigon.
“You don’t want to break your back or get injured, so you have to make sure you land on the meat,” says Claire Stableford. One, two, three, fall.
A contact sport, roller derby consists of a series of short scrimmages where two teams, each consisting of a jammer and blockers, skate counterclockwise on an oval flat track at breakneck speeds. Team members attempt to hinder the opposing team’s jammer, while assisting their own.
It presents a physical challenge, requiring strength, agility, endurance and control. And of course, knowing how to fall safely on one side of your buttocks and the thigh, and springing right back into action.
But the challenge does not really come from teaching players how to fall, admits Claire. It’s about introducing roller derby, a sport that’s virtually nonexistent in Vietnam before she formed Saigon Roller Derby in September last year.
On average, one-third of the people who come to Saigon Roller Derby’s Sunday session are Vietnamese. Most of them do not know what the sport is, except for the fact that it’s skating. However, roller derby players use quad skates instead of the inlines, which is what most Vietnamese skaters are familiar with.
As the only team that exists in the whole country, Claire’s organization has a huge task at hand. Right now, they have at least 40 members, mostly expats. A 17-year-old high school student is the only Vietnamese in the advanced level.
“I’ve been skating since I was young. But I didn’t know about roller derby until November last year. So I joined the team because it’s a really fun sport, and you get to learn a lot while on track,” says Tam Huynh. Besides being the youngest and the best Vietnamese roller derby player by far, he acts as a translator for Claire and a coach for new members.
Watch, try, practice, repeat. Until you’re worthy to have your own derby name.
Those who have heard of roller derby may say it’s just a sport where women hit each other inside a track. That’s not entirely false. But it’s definitely not just that. Roller derby is a tactical sport with dozens of rules strictly implemented and followed by each player.
A bout is divided into two-minute jams in which each team fields five players. Among those five are a jammer, a pivot and three blockers. The jammers begin behind the rest of the pack and their goal is to lap the pack as many times as they can. The teams try to help their jammer through the pack while trying to stop the opposing jammer. This can be done with full body contact but moves like elbows, head-butting and tripping are illegal and will see a player sent off to the penalty box for a minute.
Saigon Roller Derby members start with Level 1 training before they can do some scrimmage drills. Experts like Claire (who has competed for high level roller derby in her native country UK for many years before moving to Vietnam last year), Angie (a Canadian professional roller derby player) and Tam pair up with newbies for a two-hour basic training.
Skaters learn how to perfectly glide, push, stop, jump on cones, do side-steps, move backward and forward, and weave among others. The first rule, Claire says, is to be confident. “That’s why it’s important to know how to fall, so you don’t get scared.”
For Nhung, who has never done roller derby before and stopped inline skating over a decade ago because “I’m a girl, and skating is not really for girls”, going back to the track was a real challenge. She couldn’t count the times she fell.
“I saw Saigon Roller Derby on Facebook, and I just really want to try skating again because I stopped for so many years and focused on school and work. I thought I was already too old to do this but turns out, it’s fun,” the 27-year-old interpreter says. “I’ll definitely come back for more sessions.”
Once skaters get the hang of it and have mastered the moves, tactics and rules, they can start joining the fast-paced, full-contact jams. And eventually, get their own derby name written on their Eddie’s New York Deli and Diner-sponsored shirt.
Derby names can be seen as an opportunity to adopt an alternative on-track persona. Many derby names are puns, others may be chosen to reflect a skater's playing style or ability. Tablet Magazine describes the ideal derby name as showing "both aggression and humor" and revealing something about the skater.
Claire’s is Willow Whip.
On the right track
The sport can be traced back to the 1930s, but it only re-emerged in the 21st century. The first-ever Roller Derby World Cup was held in 2011. Today, 20 years after roller derby’s reinvention, there are nearly 2000 roller derby leagues, spread across 53 countries, and 100,000 women play the sport regularly, as do many men.
While most Americans, Canadians, British, and Australians know what roller derby is and how it’s played, such is not the case in most of Asia. At present, only a handful of established teams are officially registered.
“There are strong and competitive teams in Tokyo, Beijing, Hong Kong and Bangkok,” explains Claire. But none in Vietnam.
“We really want to build a Vietnamese community for roller derby, because the problem with the expats is that they’re only going to stay for a year or two. When they leave, there will be no more players. But we really want this sport to be recognized here, and have as many Vietnamese play it.”
Saigon Roller Derby is in talks with a team in Bangkok for games and training, after the pandemic.
With hopes of one day creating a solid team that can compete internationally, Saigon Roller Derby holds three sessions a week: Sunday for one-on-one training with new skaters, Tuesdays for fierce plays with Level 2 and 3 members, and Thursdays for group coaching.
“They are already making excellent progress and we have a few skaters who show up every single session, and their progress is reflecting that! We will have them whizzing around the track in no time! We also have quite a few advanced skaters who used to play derby, and after some review, they will be back up to superstar level!”
The team is now getting ready for an intense bout on May 14th at GOX. Those who can practice within this week and next will be eligible to play.