I went to a few practices to chat with Jay and Annie about the challenges of creating an alternative sports league out of nothing in Beijing:
BRD founders Hooten Annie (left) and Jay Latarche (right)
SmBj: So where are you from? How did you start Beijing Roller Derby?
Jay Latarche: I'm from the UK. I've been in Beijing for a year and a half. I grew up in China as a kid, so I wanted to come back again because it feels like home. I missed it. I used to skate for Milton Keynes Concrete Cows and when I came to China, I realized there was no derby in Beijing. There's a team in Shanghai. I put out a forum post saying, "Is there anyone out there that's pro-derby, or interested," and Annie got in touch with me. She was really up for starting a roller derby team. So we actually founded it together. We met up last February, it was really wintry, and we skated, freezing but so excited. And then she put the word out through the American Embassy, and through word of mouth it got spread out from there.
Hooten Annie: I'm Hooten Annie, from the southwest US. I used to skate with the San Angelo Soul Sisters in San Angelo, TX. I've been in Beijing for two years last week, I work at the US Embassy. I started skating in Beijing and hoped I would run into people, put out feelers on Facebook and different websites. And then wasn't getting much feedback. Finally last February I saw on Facebook that Jay had started a page for Beijing Roller Derby. I messaged her the next day and we skated a week later. When we first started out, we started word of mouth, asking around the Embassies, asking around our friend groups, and then we really kind of grew from there. We got into a couple of magazines, did a couple of articles, but most of our recruitment has come from word of mouth, people we know.
SmBj: How many people are on the team? What's the demographic?
JL: About 20. You need 14 for a full team with subs as well. As for our team, it's made up of people from Norway, from America, from England, from Germany, from all over the place. We have a few Chinese members. One got pregnant, so she had to leave. But she was telling her friends, and then they told their friends, so mainly through word of mouth. We're going to start joining some Chinese websites, and we're going to start translating everything into Chinese. The original goal was for the team to be Chinese and to teach the sport.
a fraction of the BRD team; these are the diehards who turn out for the Tuesday training
SmBj: What have been some of the biggest challenges of recruiting and training up the team?
HA: Number one for us: gear. If you don't have skates, China doesn't really have roller derby-style skates. The rink rents them but they're high top. Roller derby skates are typically low top. And it's quite expensive. A full set of beginner solid derby gear is 300 USD. So that's kind of a challenge for us. The second challenge is explaining the game to someone who's never heard of it. It's actually quite complicated … We have this floor but we don't actually have a track. So trying to play a game when you don't actually have a place to play it.
SmBj: Seems like a lot of the team members are beginners. To what extent is this competitive and to what extent is it training?
JL: At the moment, more training. We have four players that have skated previously for a number of years, publicly, in bouts. Everyone else is beginner level. Currently Shanghai and Hong Kong have teams, so we're hoping that by the end of the year we'll be skating competitively. We've had a year, we've been training, but we have a high turnover rate, because most of us are expats.
HA: I've heard rumors of maybe Xi'an starting a league. So they're popping up all over. But ideally, our closest … probably Shanghai, they're already set up, they're close. We're also getting to a point where our league could have our own inner-league bouts. Ideally we'd like to become big enough that we have four, six teams to play each other.
SmBj: What are the main obstacles to getting up to competitive level at this point?
JL: The goal we're working on right now is to integrate newbies into the system we've already got. That's really tough. We only have two coaches currently, myself and Annie, so when we have new recruits coming we have to try and work out a system to be able to train them alongside our core team that will be competitively skating. So at the moment we do a lot of scrimming [practice bouts] on Saturdays. Tuesdays are more special skills, endurance, technical things to help with Saturday's training. We're already in contact with Shanghai and Hong Kong in the hopes to be able to go down and skate with them. I imagine our first competitive bout will be relatively beginner-level. It will be friendly matches, hopefully with the aim that once Shanghai's league grows and our league grows we can really start to competitively skate.
SmBj: So since it's outdoors, I guess it's season-specific?
JL: No… We were actually lucky, since Beijing Roller Derby started we've been able to skate nearly every single weekend, apart from when it's raining or thunderstorming. We didn't have any trouble with snow, the guy kept the snow off the track. We actually skated two Tuesdays back when there was a thunderstorm, but we kept on skating until the track was just too wet. So actually the team are pretty hardcore in their skating. When it's really hot we skate, when it's snowing we skate, when it's raining we skate until we're slipping over and have to go home.
SmBj: I saw on your website that BRD is co-ed. Do you have separate teams for men and women, or does everyone skate together?
JL: Currently we're co-ed, so everyone is happy to skate mixed, men and women. We had quite a few male members a while back. Currently we're mainly women, but we are open to male skaters. The women are all happy to skate with the guys, and the guys who join us are happy to skate with the women.
SmBj: Are co-ed derby leagues common?
JL: It's a newer thing. It's something you have to be continuously aware of, everyone's limits. You have to talk to people. "Do you feel comfortable skating with women? Do you feel comfortable skating with men?" If people don't feel comfortable mixing they can opt out and skate in the set gender teams… I've seen it work. I feel that men bring something to derby, and women bring something to derby. Our team will continuously be open to men and women, but we are aware of listening to the members. If a woman wants to join the league and she doesn't feel comfortable skating with men, we will try and make other options available. We will try and be accommodating.
SmBj: What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have, about roller derby in general, and in Beijing specifically?
JL: I think one of the biggest misconceptions within Beijing is that we have a lot of Americans that are very interested in the sport, but have seen an older version of roller derby. One of the misconceptions is that we hit each other, we all wear fishnets, we all have funny derby names. We don't all wear fishnets, we often wear athletic gear. You can choose to skate under your normal name or choose a skate name, which just adds to the DIY culture of roller derby. In Europe and the States, the sport is really growing as an athletic sport. It should be in the 2020 Olympics. So in Beijing, we really want to start where roller derby is already at right now. We want to start fresh. You can join with your real name or a derby name, you can wear whatever you want to wear. Our sport in Beijing is very progressive, we're open to all body types, all genders, sexes, you can be who you want to be. We don't hit each other. That used to be staged a long time ago... derby now, there are legal hitting zones, legal blocking zones, like rugby. Actually maybe you can punch each other in the face in rugby; derby, you can't. We're not here as a stage act, to make a show of ourselves. We're a proper sports league.
SmBj: So y'all have pretty much built this league from scratch. What have been the major challenges of putting together such a DIY operation?
JL: First, we don't have an association. In the States they have the WFTDA, if you are in the States or the UK you can get an apprenticeship program. So they support you, they give you feedback, and you can be certified around the world. You can only do that if there's another certified league in your country that can sponsor you. Because we don't have any of that in China, and we're so far spread out, it's very difficult for us to join any official programs. So the actual official sporting structure is a bit far away for us to reach. Shanghai and Beijing are going to try and put in a China roller derby infrastructure, so there will be a body in China that follows the other bodies in the world. How you set up a league, how you get members.
Embassies have been our saving grace. Having someone in an embassy that can spread the word, give out leaflets, that has spread the word through the expat circle. But as for getting the Chinese to come and skate, translation difficulties… there's no information available on the internet, unlike in other countries.
Venues. We get a large gathering, as you can see… these people come every Tuesday and Saturday, they're super interested. People often shout things, "Look at the foreigners, they're doing funny things." So sometimes the embarrassment factor can be quite high. We've all had to develop quite a thick skin, if we have to fall over and hit each other on track, and ignore the masses that gather.
And pollution. Which is why we need an indoor venue, and even then we need air filters. We have a 300 AQI limit that was voted by the team, if it goes above we don't skate.
HA: The rink, finding a space. Once we find a space, convincing people to let us use it. A lot of people, since they don't understand the sport, they're afraid of what our gear will to do the floor, or the minute they see us hitting each other they're a little like, "Whoa, whoa, I don't know if we want that here." Gear is not as easily acquired, so that's a challenge. Other than that, it's kind of built for difficulties. You can make it whatever you want. We've spoken with the guy here at the rink [in Tuanjiehu], and he said we can put down a track. We don't have the tools that we would use in the States, but we'll just go get some tape at a local market. I bought a measuring tape, we'll lay a track. We can do it ourselves.
JL: As for infrastructure, it has been very DIY. It's been looking online, contacting Shanghai, contacting my home league, Annie's contacted her home league. Because there's only really four of us who have skated before, it's just our heads bouncing together. For our new recruits, they're happy to join committees and help with infrastructure, but there's nothing they've really seen or had much knowledge of. So we really have to rely on international help.
SmBj: What's unique about the Beijing team? How is it different from your team back home?
JL: I'm amazed by the people that have joined [the Beijing team]. In teams in the past, back in the UK, when it's readily available, there's a set venue, a set time, you know how much dues you're going to have to pay, you know when there's a bout and when you have to train for that. In China everything is a lot more up in the air, but we have people that make it regularly. They even come on the Tuesday nights after working all day. There are people that are new, that haven't played the sport. Some haven't even heard of it. And they've jumped skill levels faster than I've seen in the UK. People are ready to get competitively skating, just in the right head space. If someone gets injured, they heal up and get back on their skates. Here, everybody counts. If one person drops out, it affects the whole league. I've never seen people learn a sport that they've never practiced before so quickly.
SmBj: So you have this Skateathon fundraiser coming up next weekend. How does that work?
HA: Basically we'll set up a track here and each of the girls are individually responsible for going out and getting sponsors. Their sponsor would basically say, "OK, your'e gonna skate for an hour, I'm gonna say that you're gonna do 200 laps in that hour. For every lap you do I'll give you 1 kuai." We also have friends and family that are just giving a flat rate — "You skate for one hour and I'll give you 50 kuai." We have a website — gofundme.com/helpbrdskate — so we've gained a little bit of money that way. And we're just gonna come out here, promote the sport, and skate as many laps as we possibly can.
Once we have that money, it's basically our startup fee. We can pay to have new gear, loaner gear for people who want to try the sport but don't want to spend so much money. We can get t-shirts made and have merchandise made. Once we have merchandise we can make our own money, we don't have to rely on donations so much. Jay and I have said from the start that we want Beijing Roller Derby to be a no-membership-fee group, we don't want people to have to pay to play, which all other groups in the world usually do. So we would like to have enough sponsorships and sell enough merchandise to be able to support ourselves.
SmBj: So do you think you'll keep the league going for the foreseeable future?
JL: I'm actually going back [to the UK] in August, I'm starting at university. I'm doing a linguistics degree. So I need to get back for that. I already deferred for a year, for derby. We already have enough members now to keep it going. It breaks my heart to leave but Annie will be here...
HA: I have two more years in Beijing, so I'm here for a little while longer. I know Jay has plans to stay involved with the league, she's gonna come back periodically, skate with us, train with us. And then she can also provide support by spreading word back in the UK. I think we have enough girls that are dedicated now that no matter who's here, it will survive. I think it's just that type of sport. It's growing and it's totally DIY. So, I think it'll last.
Catch the Beijing Roller Derby League in action at their Skateathon fundraiser on Saturday, June 7 from 11:30am-2:30pm at the skating rink in the middle of Tuanjiehu Park. More info on that here. Get more general info on the league at their website and Facebook page. You can contact the founders via email here.