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'Dainty, but slightly aggressive': Roller girls get their skates on

From Errol Barnett and Aja Harris, CNN
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Fri November 1, 2013
The Cape Town Rollergirls is a South African roller derby league that was created in 2010. The Cape Town Rollergirls is a South African roller derby league that was created in 2010.
The Cape Town Rollergirls
The Cape Town Rollergirls
The Cape Town Rollergirls
Roller derby
'Whip It' (2009)
The Cape Town Rollergirls
The Cape Town Rollergirls
The Cape Town Rollergirls
The Cape Town Rollergirls
The Cape Town Rollergirls
  • Roller derby is a full-contact sport played by women on roller skates
  • The sport has been gaining momentum in Cape Town, South Africa
  • A league of three teams has been set up, boasting women from all walks of life
  • Organizers say the sport embraces strong, yet feminine, women

Every week, Inside Africa takes its viewers on a journey across Africa, exploring the true diversity and depth of different cultures, countries and regions. Follow host Errol Barnett on Twitter and Facebook.

Cape Town, South Africa (CNN) -- Off track, Tasneem Howa is a rather introverted young woman who works as a photographer in Cape Town. On track, however, she pulls on black tights and slips into roller skates to transform into "TazMEANian Devil" -- a hard-hitting, sharp-moving diva on wheels.

"When I put on skates, it's a rush," she says. "You get that, it's like freedom. You're skating and feeling the air; it's awesome."

"TazMEANian Devil" is a proud member of the Rev'ettes, one of the three roller derby teams that take part in the women-only Cape Town Rollergirls league. Just like many of her teammates, she took up the sport after seeing the 2009 film "Whip It," starring and directed by Drew Barrymore.

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"I watched the movie 'Whip It' -- I thought it was chicks bashing each other, getting all bloody, but it's a bit calmer than that," says "TazMEANian Devil."

Quirky outfits

Fast-paced and full-contact, roller derby involves endurance, teamwork and crashes -- all on wheels. As much a bump-and-bruise sport as a lifestyle, derby's alternative edge is on full-on display on the rink.

Roller girls typically don colorful skates, protective pads and quirky outfits as they race on a flat oval track, body checking each other to impede opponents from earning points for their team.

Roller derby empowers S. African women
Cape Town Rollergirls go head to head

"You can be dainty but need to be slightly aggressive at the same time," says Ming-Cheau Lin, a.k.a "Wolverming," who plays for Cape Town's Storm Riders.

In line with the hard-hitting sport's tradition, players also adopt certain monikers chosen to reflect their on-track alter ego.

"One of the most important things about roller derby is your derby name," explains Shawn Graaff, who founded Cape Town Rollergirls in 2010.

"I know it seems kitsch and silly but it's something people get excited about and historically people had derby names because they didn't want to participate in such an aggressive spectacle sport and compromise their professional career."

What is roller derby?

Roller derby is a sport that requires strategy, team spirit and lots of body checking.

A derby match, called a bout, is played by two teams consisting of jammers, who are the point scorers, and blockers, the team's line of defense. The goal is for the jammers to get past the other team's blockers and then lap them. Once the jammer has done so, the team gets a point for every skater she passes.

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You can be dainty but need to be slightly aggressive at the same time.
Ming-Cheau Lin, a.k.a Wolverming, Storm Riders blocker

Along the way, the action is rough and rowdy.

"It's not Miami beach skating!" says Nadine Brits, or "Doll Vuis," who is a jammer for the Rev'ettes. "Full impact -- we're tough; we've got our team's points on the line so we're fighting for that."


Roller derby first took off as a competitive sport in the United States in the 1930s but later evolved into a TV spectacle sport, much like WWE. Its popularity decreased in the 1980s but an all-women league in Texas helped re-invent the sport in the early 2000s, this time with a bigger emphasis on athleticism.

Drew Barrymore's "Whip It" gave the sport attention around the world, including in South Africa, where its popularity has been growing steadily.

The Cape Town Rollergirls league is made up of three teams -- the Rev'ettes, the Storm Riders and the Iron Meisies -- boasting a variety of female players, from working mothers and students to locals and ex-pats. Men are only involved in a coaching or refereeing capacity.

Graaff says the sport is helping break stereotypes, crashing any notions that women can't be both tough and feminine.

Roller derby is one of the most multifaceted and dynamic organizations to be a part of.
Shawn Graaff, Cape Town Rollergirls

"Roller derby is one of the most multifaceted and dynamic organizations to be a part of," she says.

"It's kind a do-it-yourself culture; it's gender empowerment because we praise the finer points of our gender without compromising femininity, but at the same time we are embracing strong independent women."

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Elisabeth Hansen Dreyer, or "Betty Blizzard," a working mom of two, agrees. She encourages other mothers to join the roller derby fun.

"It will save your sanity," says the Storm Riders blocker. "After a day and the kids are screaming and you're just tired of chores and you get to go and bump girls. It's awesome!"

Looking ahead, the Cape Town league is gearing up to host an officiating director from the international governing body of women's roller derby. This will be the first time the organization visits Africa and the Cape Town Rollergirls are excited about the possibilities.

It's a nod to how seriously these players view their sport and will hopefully push them to grow into a bigger brand.

And of course, there will be more bruises along the way.

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