Long before derby had even entered my mind, a friend had been showing me a skating video. He was skating backwards through a line of cones.
It was impressive, but I thought nothing more of it – skating didn’t interest me.
Fast forward a few years later, and I found myself as a bambi-legged fresh meat, wobbling around the local roller disco with kids half my age.
I watched casual skaters carving and twirling around invisible obstacles, seeming not to obey the laws of physics which kept my skates planted firmly on the floor.
Inspiring, yes, but more than that… it seemed familiar.
I’d never seen anything like it at derby training, and yet I was seeing it again and again in wider skating circles.
What were these fancy footwork tricks? How were they learnt? Did it have a name?
After hours spent crawling the web and YouTube, I discovered the answer: slalom.
What is slalom?
Slalom – to be precise, ‘freestyle slalom skating’ – is the practice of manoeuvring through a line using edgework to change direction and dodge the cones.
Emphasis in slalom comes, not only from speed or skill, but also from grace and fluidity of movement. Skilled slalomers seem not to ‘skate’ but rather to glide and dance their way through the cones.
A huge variety of slalom moves exist, from familiar, basic techniques (such as swizzels), through to complex sequences and combinations.
While traditionally performed on inline skates or blades, the same techniques and principles are easily applied to the quad skates we use in roller derby.
What slalom can do for derby
I firmly believe that the skills you can develop through slalom have huge advantages to derby. It complements derby training in way which is tough to train in any other way. Here’s just some of the ways in which slalom can benefit your derby game:
Remember the lateral cuts in your minimum skills test? Slalom is like that… except tuned up to 11.
Strong edgework is the cornerstone of roller derby! Plowing, blocking, crossovers, jukes, hitting, sprinting… Everything in derby is about the edges, and more control means better gameplay.
Slalom develops razor-sharp precision and control over your edges. All of the movement from weaving is dictated by the distribution of weight in your boots. As you learn to move in various directions, you will develop an understanding of the location and amount of pressure to apply to the edges in order to turn, brake or stop.
Watching high-end derby, it’s hard to deny the value of being able to juke around the track on a dime. For jammers, the benefits are obvious. But being able to dodge a hit or slip through the pack is a powerful weapon in any blocker’s arsenal too.
Slalom trains you to stay light on your feet and transfer your weight smoothly and cleanly from foot-to-foot, or edge-to-edge.
If you feel heavy-footed or clumsy when you skate, practicing slalom will help develop your agility and encourage you to stay flexible and light-footed.
A major component of slalom, and indeed derby, is proprioception. Or to put it more simply: understanding the positioning and movement of your body.
To weave through cones, especially for more advanced slalom tricks, you need to be able to control your body without seeing where you are going. Through practice, you develop your ‘body sense’, instinctively feeling how your limbs are positioned and are moving through space.
Equally for derby, proprioception is the reason you can cross over without watching your feet. Proprioception is the difference between hitting a legal target zone, or getting a penalty for making illegal contact.
One of the greatest obstacles when learning to skate and play derby is simply not having the balance to stay in control.
But balance is an elusive beast. The only way to improve your balance is to constantly be pushing your limits; if it feels easy, then you aren’t developing. The path to stability is to constantly be putting yourself in situations where you’re off-balance. Slalom is one such situations.
Because there are so many different techniques and tricks in slalom, it’s easy to practice at a level which is appropriate to your needs. Once you’ve mastered the basic techniques, there are ever-harder moves to try, so you can constantly be pushing yourself and making progress.
Another reason to break out the slalom moves is to develop your confidence as a skater.
Not only will you see the physical benefits in your derby game, but being able to pull off impressive footwork tricks is a great boost to your self esteem.
Mastering techniques and getting to work on ever cooler and more complex tricks is addictive and motivating. It also acts as a great way to benchmark your progress – something which becomes increasingly difficult as your derby career progresses.
6) Enjoying skating
I’d be lying if I claimed to do slalom only for the sake of improving my derby. It’s something I practice just for fun – whether I’m warming up for practice, killing time during a break, or simply bored on a weekend.
Slalom is a rewarding and enjoyable way to add variety to your training schedule, as well as developing areas which your regular derby practice might not quite reach.
Getting started with slalom
Now you’ve decided to give slalom a try, where should you start?
Sadly, the resources about slalom are few and far between.
To begin, I’d recommend watching a few videos on YouTube to get a feel for what slalom is about and what can be achieved.
Next, I’d break out your skates and have a go at some of the most basic tricks. I’m not going to say it’ll be easy, but even getting down these basics will have a profound effect on how you skate.
See here for a list of beginner-level routes (complete with animated GIFs demonstrating each technique).
There is also a great video series by Naomi Grigg, who does a brilliant (and entertaining) job of explaining and breaking down the moves. Her own site can be found here, with some tutorial videos available here.