By Linda Smith
To all readers who do not know the rules of roller derby, you have the privilege of being called “derby virgins” while I break down the rules.
A wooden, oval indoor track is the setting. There are three rings: the innermost, which is reserved for referees (the people we love to hate in derby); the main skating area; and the penalty ring outside, reserved for when referees deem that a player’s action warrants a rotation or two around the ring.
The players on the court come in all shapes, and they all have a certain amount of grit. They come decked out in skirts; shorts or tutus; tights or fishnets of varying colors and styles; mouth- and wrist-guards; knee- and elbow-pads; and tank tops emblazoned with their chosen derby names and numbers. These names and numbers range from the punny to the harshly satirical; some of my personal favorite names from the Dallas Derby Devil skaters include Rhinestone Callgirl, Planet of the Skates, Machete Vedder and Anita Riot. Coaches, referees, announcers and medics also have derby names.
But what constitutes the real derby action? For each round, or “jam,” five members from each team take to the rink. Usually, eight of these ten ladies are called “blockers,” and the two remaining women have helmet covers with large stars on them to mark their role as “jammers.” Each team may have one “pivot” (who usually still acts as a blocker) for any round: The pivot can strategically take over as jammer if the jammer cover is transferred correctly.
A whistle is blown, and the blockers skate off of their line. After they pass the jammer line, the jammers take off. The jammer who first passes the other team’s blockers becomes the “lead jammer,” and she is then in charge of when the round ends: if she loses her place and the opposing jammer is in a position to score big, she can end the round early. If she continues to pass the other blockers, however, she can earn upwards of 30 or 40 points in a single jam. There is no set time for a jam because of this, and thus one round can last for less than 30 seconds or more than five minutes.
Both jammers — not just the lead — score a point for each opposing blocker passed. Her blockers help her by giving her a clear path to skate through, which sometimes involves tackling opposing team members and employing fantastic formations like “The Whip.” The Whip involves a blocker or pivot, or sometimes multiple team members, grabbing a hold of a jammer’s arm and swinging her forward, thus giving her more momentum.
Roller derby is the perfect marriage of form and physicality. These women can be as mean as hockey players and just as hateful toward the referees, but it is all in the name of this wonderful sport and it contributes to the team effort. The announcers humorously get the audience involved, and it is easy to become instantly entranced by each jam. The players are not paid to play, and as such, their work is even more admirable. Many of them are mothers, and their families come decked out and ready to support them.
As I have mentioned,there is a roller derby league in Dallas. It is comprised of six teams: Army of Darkness; Death Row Rumblers; High Seas Hotties; Slaughterers, this writer’s favorite team; Suicide Shifters; and Wrecking Crew. The season begins in late spring, and concludes with a championship in the fall. Their track is at the Nytex Sports Centre in North Richland Hills. There is, admittedly, not an easy or short way to get there via public transportation, so if you need a ride, convince a friend with a car to go. Also, the bouts are pretty popular and since there are not many of them, they get packed quickly. Be prepared to possibly wait in long will-call lines and only find standing room when you enter the arena. But all of it is worth the wait for the air of excitement that you enter into when you find yourself in the exuberant crowd outside of the shining wooden arena.