Roller derby’s inherently aggressive nature might make it seem like an unlikely female sport, but not only is it the fastest growing sport in America and the world, it’s mostly played by women. There are over 1,250 leagues worldwide, an estimated 20,000 female players in America, and even my small British homeland boasts 24 derby leagues. However, while the sport is aggressive, unlike the dramatized versions of the sport (see Whip It! as the main offender. It’s still an awesome movie though), there are no elbows and punches thrown in derby, at least not unless you want to get sent to the box or ejected from the game.
Like most sports, the basic goal of the game is to score points. There are two opposing teams on the track, each with five players, and one player from each team is called the jammer: the jammers are the skaters who score points. Each jammer tries to get through the pack and go around the track as many times as she can to score points by passing the hips of players on the opposing team. The first jammer that gets through the pack the first time is called the lead jammer, and she can call the jam off at any point during the 2 minute jam time, giving her and her team a strategic advantage. Each derby game, or bout, comprises of two 30 minute halves consisting of multiple jams of two minutes or shorter, and at the end of the game the team with the most points wins.
During a typical bout you’ll see lots of hard hits, and even harder falls, as girls go flying onto the floor, or even into the crowd. Derby is a highly physical sport. Not only are you roller skating around a track, you are trying to hit people or avoid being hit by people. Getting knocked down is tough, as is giving a hit, and any derby girl can tell you about their bruises, cuts, and fishnet burns.
Roller derby requires a lot of time, patience, and practice, especially since most of the derby girls are like Bambi on ice when they start out. Most leagues offer a Fresh Meat program where you learn skating and derby basics, in between constant tripping and falling, and then the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association requires that all bouting and scrimmaging players pass a national assessment. This includes stopping, hitting, and an endurance test that requires girls to skate 27 laps of the track in less than 5 minutes.
Many derby leagues operate as not for profit organizations, requiring players to pay dues and volunteer their time for charity. The Happy Valley Derby Darlins of Utah County, Utah, donate the contributions from their bouts to local charities, and require all active league members to volunteer at two charity events per quarter.
You might be wondering what draws women to derby, and the answer is that we love it, and a lot of derby girls will tell you that there is something about it that makes you keep coming back, even with the high risk of injury, and the bruises, and the exhaustion. Tanya B Hind of London’s Rockin’ Rollers says, “I wanted something that made me feel like me again … I wanted something different and something that wasn’t being a mum. Here I can just be me” (Osborne), and many derby girls enjoy the game as a competitive sport that helps them to keep in shape, release aggression, help the community, and meet new people.
But the truth is, derby girls aren’t just women skating around in mini-skirts and booty shorts, they are athletes who take the game very seriously. Most practice for at least 4 hours a week, and traveling team members might get up to 7 or 8, without any game play added in. Derby girls are committed to improving their skating and their game play, and thus their physical bodies and their interpersonal communication.
Statistically, women do not play traditionally competitive sports, and the UK Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation estimates that as little as 3% of women play competitive team sports, compared to 17% of men. But that appears to be changing as derby grows and grows. Voodoo Doll, an early roller derby revival skater who formed the Texas Rollergirls said, “It’s changing now, but my generation was taught to ‘play nice’ when we really wanted to play hard” (Moffett) and states that women are innately competitive, and that derby is a great outlet for that as well as a place where all types of women can come together.
Upon meeting Ando Commando, a skater for my local derby league, and expressing that I was interested in the sport, she said, “Derby will save your soul,” and that seems to be echoed by every other derby girl I’ve ever met. The roller derby track isn’t just a place where women can knock each other over, it’s also a place where women are creating friendships, where a variety of body types, shapes, and sizes are all welcome, and where the rest of your life is left at the door. For those two or three hours of practice, scrimmaging, or bouting, your mind is on getting those points and making those hits.
And sure, you get knocked down, and you’re gonna get a bruise or twenty, and you may get injured, but it’s all worth it, and as Clare Jackson of the Rockin’ Rollers says, “After you start it tends to be all you talk about.” And I concur. Derby saved my soul!
If you’re interested in what roller derby can do for you, locate your local league with the WFTDA website.
Photos courtesy of Ron Horton – Physis Photos
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