The pleasures of roller derby

On Friday in the midst of work I had two words pop into my brain unprovoked, and those were “roller derby.” I’d never been before, but I looked it up on the Internet like you do and learned that not only is there a Maryland league, there’s a team which plays very nearby to me and although they only play out of their home rink a few times a year, the next derby was literally the next day. So Saturday, I went. Can’t ignore kismet.

Most people will be unfamiliar with the sport, so here’s a quick primer¹. The sport is played by women on roller skates (not inline, the ones with four wheels and a front brake), and on a flat track running counter-clockwise. The unit of a derby competition² is the jam; one member of each team is designated the jammer, and these jammers score points by passing the members of other other team (once they have done so once). The first jammer to pass all of the rest of the other team becomes the lead jammer and has the ability to call off the jam at any point by making a motion to her hips with her hands. Both jammers can score points, however. Each team also has a member who is the pivot, who can become the jammer if the jammer hands off the equivalent of a baton — a cover that goes over the jammer’s helmet to indicate her role. Most of the time, a pivot simply acts as another blocker. Contact is part of the sport, but blocking is not allowed with hands, elbows, head nor feet and must be between thigh and shoulder, I think. Jams end after two minutes if they are not called off by the lead jammer. A derby consists of two half-hour periods with an intermission in-between.

There’s a fair amount of strategy inherent in these rules, and there are probably some rules I’m missing, but that is the gist³.

It’s quite fun to watch, which is the first pleasure. As you start to appreciate the rules and what’s going on out there, you find yourself noticing particularly nice approaches by a jammer to a group of blockers. There were a couple of jammers in particular who were quite nimble on their skates, and seeing them approach the opponent and dance around them without going out of bounds was really quite interesting once you knew what was going on.

Next up, I have to say, is the culture of punny names. Rather than compete under their own names, each competitor chooses her own sobriquet and these can be quite amusing4. From the team I was watching, the Rockville Rock Villains, quite a number stood out: there was The Oxford Commakaze, Grandma Seizure, Gin Demonic, and Too Fast Tofurious (who, I would learn later, wanted to be Artichoke-a-bitch, but was told that would have to be censored). I gather this is a hold-over from when the sport wanted to be an athletic entertainment like wrestling rather than a competitive sport, but I’m glad they kept it.

The atmosphere at a derby is pretty positive; absolutely, as with any athletic competition, people are cheering for their team. But I don’t think I ever heard anyone cuss out a ref, which was unusual for me coming from coaching youth baseball when my kids were younger5. It wasn’t for lack of passion on the part of the athletes nor of the crowd, there was tons of cheering. Just not a lot of screaming or complaints about missed calls or wrong calls. That was really refreshing.

The other thing I noticed, and this may have contributed to the positive atmosphere, is the variety amongst the competitors. There’s a wide range of women’s ages and body types represented, and any woman might participate as any of the roles. I saw women who were very good jammers turn around and serve as blockers as well (they may have been pivots in that situation, because the pivot only became clear to me if she changed role to be the jammer). Jammers tended to be the smaller competitors but not always; larger women could be very effective jammers, though they might approach a group of blockers differently. The women were racially diverse as well.

Finally, there were a couple of things that happened when the derby was over that I thought were great. First, on the rink itself, fans were encouraged to come up and line around the rink and stick their hands out for high-fives from both teams. The victors went first, skating around and slapping hands with all the spectators, and when they finished, they made a tunnel of their arms for the other team to pass through on their way to slap hands.

Second, they invited everyone to join them at a nearby barbecue joint for fun afterwards. A number of the competitors were there, from each team, and I met both The Oxford Commakaze and got the story about Too Fast Tofurious’s name directly from the source, as I had complimented each on their skating.

All in all, it was a really pleasant way to spend an afternoon. I’d encourage people to go, if they have roller derby teams nearby — I gather that there are hundreds of leagues around the world in more than twenty countries.

¹Many thanks to “Fury,” from the other team, who was really patient with me and my many questions over the course of the derby. Fury had recently had a third child and was not competing that day, but was there to cheer on her team nonetheless. I would footnote the use of “Fury” above but it’s one of the pleasures, so you’ll have to keep reading the main article for that. (back)

²Derby refers both to the sport itself but is also the name of the competition between two teams. In tennis, they have matches; in derby, they have derbies. (back)

³In particular, there are fouls for inappropriate contact and for inappropriate offense (such as a jammer being knocked out of bounds and coming back in ahead of someone on the other team whom she was previously behind, that’s called “cutting the line,” if I recall correctly). These lead to imbalances in the teams at times which can be additionally exciting, but I didn’t quite get all of them and so figured I’d just throw them here in the footnotes. (back)

4They also pick their own numbers, it seems, and these were all over the place. There was a 666, a 404 (I wondered if she worked with the web), and quite a variety of others. It seemed part of the whimsy of the names. (back)

5There are any number of stories I could share about being a coach of youth baseball about parents who get a little out of control. But the one that has always stood out to me was during an “all-star” game when my older son was 8 or 9. At that age, base coaches were also responsible for umpiring the bases they were at (and coaches were in the field as well). I made a close call at first base where I called one of the kids on my team out — that was what I saw. The parents were not happy, but were happy to let me know that. I walked over and told them that since coaching was all-volunteer, they were all equally welcome to come out and coach a team. This was a totally meaningless game (which describes almost all youth competition at that age) and the response to one call was definitely out of line, but not out of character. (back)