Imagine a sport where people whip each other, remove their panties, and make sure to leave as many bruises on each other as possible. No, it’s not jelly wrestling or lingerie football, but roller derby! As a player of roller derby, I get a lot of questions from people who may be unfamiliar with the sport, so I am here to answer them!
SO WHAT IS ROLLER DERBY?
Roller derby is a sport that originated in the US in the 1930s. While it originated as a roller skating race, it has evolved into an international team contact sport played by over 1250 amateur leagues worldwide, with nearly half of these leagues located outside the US. Unlike many other contact sports, roller derby has historically been a female-dominated sport, to the point where there is “roller derby” and “men’s roller derby”. Though its popularity has had its highs and lows over the years, with peaks in the 1950s and 1970s, modern derby as we know it today was kick-started in Austin, Texas, in the early 2000s. In 2004, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) was founded, and in 2006, many local leagues started forming around the world. In 2009, the popularity of roller derby increased with the release of the film Whip It, starring Ellen Page and Drew Barrymore, and many leagues took advantage of this in order to grow the sport.
WHAT ARE THE RULES?
Put simply: There are two teams of five skaters – three blockers, a pivot, and a jammer – on the rink at any time, though a team can field a roster of 14 skaters in a bout (game), who all take turns on the rink. The game is played in two thirty-minute halves broken up into two-minute intervals called jams. The aim of the game is for the jammer (the one with the star helmet cover) to score points for their team by passing as many opposing skaters as possible, scoring one point for each opposing skater they pass after they have made their first journey through the pack. The blockers’ aim is to stop the opposing jammer while helping their own jammer through the pack. The pivot is a skater that wears a striped helmet cover, also known as a ‘panty’ (yes, really!). The pivot functions as a blocker most of the time, but their team’s jammer may remove their panty (uh, the one that’s on their helmet) and give it to the pivot so that the pivot becomes the jammer for the rest of the jam.
DO YOU BEAT UP GIRLS FOR FUN?
Well, yes and no. Like other contact sports, there is a lot of physicality involved in the sport. But, there are rules. Roller derby skaters are not allowed to use their elbows, forearms, hands, knees, shins, feet, or head to make contact with another skater. That means that there’s no punching, elbowing, kicking, tripping, or headbutting allowed. Any hit that is deemed egregious may also result in a skater being expelled from a game or a tournament. However, hitting other skaters with the hips, shoulders, and butt is a common and legitimate tactic in roller derby.
AREN’T THERE LOADS OF INJURIES?
As with other contact sports, the risk of injury is high. There’s a very good reason all roller derby skaters are required to wear protective gear (helmets, elbow pads, knee pads, wrist guards, mouth guards – at a minimum). Some of the more common injuries in roller derby are ankle injuries and concussions. However, most derby players have seen another skater break a bone, if they haven’t already broken a bone themselves. Many roller derby skaters are proud of their wounds and bruises – colloquially referred to as ‘derby kisses’ – and will compete to see who has the gnarliest injuries. However, safety is always a serious concern in roller derby, and all skaters have to pass minimum skills requirements to demonstrate that they can skate safely before being allowed to compete against other leagues.
WHERE’S THE BALL?
There is no ball.
HAVE YOU SEEN ‘WHIP IT’?
Yes, I have.
IS ROLLER DERBY EXACTLY LIKE ‘WHIP IT’?
While the team spirit and camaraderie in Whip It is quite accurately portrayed, there are a lot of differences between the banked track derby portrayed in the film and the flat track derby that is most commonly played around the world today. As I mentioned before, a lot of the hits performed in the movie are actually illegal by flat track derby rules. Unlike its flat track sibling, banked track derby’s popularity has remained firmly in the US, largely due to the need for specialised facilities. Unlike flat track derby, banked track derby has retained more of the sport’s flashy history, with more of an emphasis on theatrics and staged antics than athleticism and serious competition. Think of it as being akin to the difference between WWE and Olympic wrestling. Despite this, roller derby in its current form has retained some elements of the roller derby of the past, including skaters donning punny pseudonyms, wearing brightly coloured uniforms, and sometimes competing with a full face of makeup. Moreover, watching Whip It is a fantastic way to learn about the basic premise of roller derby, which is the same in all its forms. Also, it is a very entertaining movie.
CAN YOU PLAY ROLLER DERBY PROFESSIONALLY?
To an extent. As is the case in most developing women’s sports, although some players and teams have sponsorship deals with roller derby-related companies, the best roller derby players in the world generally work in another job in addition to playing roller derby at a world-class level. Additionally, many of the top roller derby teams run their own fundraisers through crowdfunding websites such as GoFundMe in order to assist with travel expenses. Roller derby is played on the world stage at the WFTDA Championships every year, as well as the Roller Derby World Cup, which is held roughly every four years and will take place from February 1 – 4 2018 in Greater Manchester, England. At the time of writing, the current WFTDA Champions are the Victorian Roller Derby League All Stars, who became the first non-US team (as well as the first Australian team) to win the Hydra in 2017, and the current World Cup Champions are Team USA, who have held the title since the first World Cup in Toronto, Canada in 2011.
IS ROLLER DERBY SAFE FOR A HETEROSEXUAL LIKE ME?
If you have to ask that question, then it isn’t safe for you.
WHERE CAN I WATCH SOME ROLLER DERBY?
Even if you don’t feel game enough to try roller derby for yourself, you can always come to a game and watch some derby! Tickets for adults range from $10-$25 (depending on who’s playing) if you would like to watch a game in the flesh, however, many past roller derby games from WFTDA Playoffs and Champs are also available to watch on Youtube.
WHERE DO I SIGN UP?
Some leagues in the Victorian metro area include East Vic Roller Derby (women’s), South Sea Roller Derby (women’s), WestSide Derby Dollz (women’s and mixed), Victorian Roller Derby League (women’s), Victorian Vanguard (men’s), and Northside Rollers (women’s). You can find a roller derby league near your area on the Skate Victoria website.