Many, many years ago, I first saw the new version of roller derby on the late night comedy show, Insomniac with Dave Attell. in Austin. I was thrilled to find it again on YouTube while writing this post (warning: Language NSFW).
While the leagues I’ve watched have never had the same kind of (staged?) brawl or a wheel of punishment in that clip, at least not that I can recall, this is the fast skating, hard hitting, and most importantly to me, embodiment of feminist ideals of women playing a new version of an old sport that was reinvented by women and for women. The movie Whip It also came out around the same time I decided to try it for myself. Although that film had a few things that weren’t quite true-to-life for the average derby skater, including that most teams in modern derby skate on a flat surface and not on a banked track, it did introduce the sport to the general population. It also inspired several people to hop on their local roller derby bus.
According to Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, or WFTDA there are 416 member leagues (the term used for an organization that has at least one but sometimes many home teams and/or travel teams), and 45 apprentice leagues worldwide. Apprentice status means those leagues have a few more steps to become members. Think of WFTDA as the NFL of women’s roller derby. It’s the organization that oversees member leagues and sets the rules and codes of conduct for WFTDA-sanctioned bouts to provide consistency for member leagues. Also, maybe the biggest difference between derby and most professional sports, is that unless they have endorsements or sponsors (very rare…) most people who are involved with WFTDA leagues don’t get paid, and many skaters actually pay to play. League dues, gear and skates and wheels, travel costs for away bouts, and rental for bout venues and practice spaces that can accommodate a large track really adds up. It’s also more like soccer than American football in terms of its reach: it’s truly international, including leagues from every continent except maybe Antarctica.
I’ll help explain the way the game works as best as I can. But, like any sport, the best way to experience it is live. See the WFTDA link to find a team near you if don’t already know.
For each game, known as a bout, there are two teams competing. If they are opponents from different leagues, and they are both WFTDA members, they are also competing for rankings in the WFTDA system. Based on those rankings, there are bragging rights, of course, but also a chance to compete in tournaments at the international level and a chance to be seen by wider audiences.
Each bout lasts 60 minutes, separated into two halves, usually with some sort of halftime show, like other sports. Also like other sports, there has been controversy around whether skaters stand or kneel during the American National Anthem at games in the United States. More on the controversy here. In fact, some leagues in the U.S. stopped playing it at all based on decisions by league members.
Each 30-minute half is further separated into periods known as jams. Each jam can last up to two minutes, depending on what happens in the jam. Generally each jam starts with up to 10 skaters – five from each team. Each team has up to four blockers – depending on whether any of them are in the penalty box for breaking a rule, and at least one jammer per jam – jammers can also be in the box, but rarely if ever both at the same time.
When all of the skaters are on the track together, they’re known as a pack. The jammers, who wear stars on their helmets, are the only skaters who can score points. The way they do that is getting through the pack once – the initial pass, then they rack up points by passing opposing skaters with their hips in their second time around the track. Their teammates – the blockers – are there to help their own jammer, while also playing defense so that the other jammer can’t get through, or at least not easily. The first jammer to make it through the initial pass is the lead jammer, and is the only jammer who has the capability to end, or call off, the jam, usually right before the other jammer is about to score points. This is why jams don’t generally last the entire two minutes.
If one of the jammers is in the penalty box, generally the other jammer will keep going for the entire two minutes because they know no one else can score points.
I’ve lost track of how many bouts I’ve attended or watched online since the first Indianapolis bout I attended of Naptown Roller Derby in early 2007 at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, including traveling to see other leagues play on their home turf, a couple tournaments, and for several years as a marketing committee member and dedicated Non-Skating Official or NSO for the Circle City Derby Girls in Indianapolis. NSOs are essentially volunteers who help run the game from timing penalties, to keeping score both on and off the scoreboard, to tracking the penalties of the skaters. In fact, Circle City Derby Girls are celebrating their 10th season and have their last bout of 2018 on Saturday, Aug. 4 at Perry Park on the south side of town if you happen to see this before then and live near Indianapolis. They also typically host a co-ed, family-friendly costumed Halloween bout in late October at Ellenberger Park on the city’s east side neighborhood of Irvington. Like many leagues, Facebook is a good place to find an updated list of events for CCDG.
Again, it’s better to just see a bout in action than just read about it. Googling roller derby video brings up entire bouts, but is still not the same as seeing it live.
In addition to WFTDA leagues, there are men’s leagues and junior leagues and co-ed leagues under other governing bodies and rule sets. The sport is also more athletic and less about fishnets and short skirts than it was in the early years of this version of the sport, and there have been changes to make it more inclusive to trans skaters when it comes to gender requirements for derby leagues. Yet the revival of roller derby is still and always will be by the women, including those in Texas who were on that episode of Insomniac only now it is available to all who identify as women (or men or non-binary, for that matter).
Where else could women go to hit other women in a somewhat controlled environment – at least there are required helmets and other safety gear for all skaters and some rules about what can’t be worn on the track as a way to mitigate injuries? And then see skaters hug or high-five after the really good hits or drills? I’ve even seen opposing jammers hug or help each other up after a particularly competitive jam.
For me, having been a part of a league fairly early on, at least as a fan and volunteer and sometimes skater — I attended CCDG’s Thigh Scream Social in November 2009 and would attend practice off and on over the years, plus attended roller derby-inspired workout classes hosted by CCDG skaters and alumni — I often find myself reflecting on what my time in derby meant.
Probably the best part is my connections with women who I might not have otherwise met, and who I still see on a regular basis. I will always think of them as general badasses on and off the track. The women I skated with are mothers, lawyers, doctors, artists, writers, teachers, social workers, you name it. In fact, in my real life job as a lawyer and writer, I would occasionally come across many of these women in our respective workplaces, sometimes unexpected, but I always appreciated our encounters.
There has been an evolution of the sport over the years since I saw the Texas women skate in 2003 on Dave Attell’s show, including the fact that some skaters are now skating under their own names and not the cheeky pseudonyms of the early years (my first derby name was Zelda Hitzgerald and I later changed it to Pamplona Pain, “Pam” for short, after I learned a skater across the country had a name that was deemed too similar by the organization that, at that time, regulated derby names). Plus, even in the last few years there have been several rule changes by WFTDA that I didn’t even begin to address. But the heart and soul of the sport is still there. If you’ve never been to a bout in person, I strongly encourage you to seek one out – or at least a YouTube clip on the WFTDA channel or a team from your favorite city. And if you’re looking for a new tribe and want to learn how to get involved – on or off skates – leagues are almost always recruiting skaters and volunteers.
Rebecca Berfanger is a writer and lawyer in Indianapolis who used to be a dedicated volunteer and active member of a roller derby league, Circle City Derby Girls, in Indianapolis.