On a Roll
Roller derby turns into a game of brains over brawn
By Brad Schmitt
Say the words “roller derby” to anyone over 45 and you evoke images of flying elbows, slamming bodies, pile-on fistfights, bruises and bloody noses.
Today, the ladies of the “flat track derby” have skate names — Viva La Trouble, Retro Bruizin’, Rosie the Rioter — that might suggest the rough-and-tumble action of derby days gone by. But gone are (most) brawls and throwing elbows. Sure, there’s lots of bumping and jostling and colliding, but “jammers” — the scorers who used to whip through the pack to rack up points — now count on finesse, agility and strategy to pass by opponents.
And there’s a new strategy that’s changing roller derby again, a “Western style,” or “slow-derby,” or “stroller derby,” that actually has teams stopping on the track, or even skating backward. Skaters use their brains as much as their bodies.
“It’s full-contact chess on wheels,” declares P.J. Shields, a.k.a. “Dangerous Leigh A’zon” from the Rocky Mountain Rollergirls of Colorado.
The general public is noticing. The 2009 Drew Barrymore movie Whip It may have sparked some renewed interest in the sport, both in the stands and in the ranks of skaters. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) says the number of leagues nationwide has tripled to more than 100 in the last six years. Most skaters report growing financial health and bigger and bigger crowds. The WFTDA is now even in negotiations for a television contract.
It’s all in the timing
The rules of roller derby are fairly simple. Each team has five skaters: four blockers and the scorer, or “jammer.” The pack of blockers skates in front, the jammers behind them, and the jammers get a point for every opposing team blocker they pass — legally, that is.
Blockers can only use hips, shoulders and, uh, booties to block jammers. No elbows, fists or back blocks, please. Each round lasts two minutes, or ends when a jammer calls it off by putting her hands on her hips.
“For many years it was a fast-paced track, getting faster and faster and faster — where packs are running,” Shields says. “Then, talented skaters started coming up. And what these women can do on skates — changing direction, changing pace — is remarkable.”
A couple of years ago, the girls in Albuquerque, N. M., decided to use those skills to try something radical: They deliberately slowed down the pace of the game to let their jammer score at will, by passing a huge block of opposing skaters with one quick move.
Then again, it can be a good defensive move, too, says Nashville, Tenn., skater Sheila James, a.k.a. Britches ’n’ Hose.
“It causes jammers to slow down immensely upon entering the back of the pack. They lose a lot of momentum and in turn, often agility,” she says.
Several skaters credit the Denver Roller Dolls with perfecting that technique.
“Other teams came against it and they were confused,” Shields says.
Western teams started using the slow-down techniques, and that’s how the West dethroned longtime champs Gotham Girls from New York in recent years.
“It’s a style some people really don’t like,” Shields concedes. “If it’s overdone, it can be boring.”
Says James, “Most fans newer to derby seem to hate it. I think they just haven’t learned a lot of the idiosyncrasies there are in derby so it just doesn’t make as much sense. Some people want to see fast skaters and lunging hits.”
Shields notes that the potential for injury is high enough without overly aggressive moves. She has a message for fans arriving at a match to see the players duke it out.
“If you want that, you have to go to wrestling. Anybody can pound on each other,” she says. “Women are attracted to roller derby because it’s physically challenging and mentally challenging.”
The fans who stick with it — and many do, by the hundreds of thousands — eventually appreciate it, skaters say.
“Once fans stick around and start to learn the game, you can start to see the light bulbs go on,” James says. “I think the strategy just makes more sense as you see it at work.”
Shields adds, “Our sport is smart. And we sell out our venue, every time.”
These days, most teams have adapted to the slow-downs, and that is just one of several strategies that teams will use in a single bout.
So in any one competition, fans now will see the speeds change constantly, and that can make things exciting. Ask which are the teams to watch and why, and you’ll hear praise for the smartest, most cohesive teams.
“I’ve seen Kansas City play a very slow game effectively. They make impenetrable walls and have amazing lateral movement,” James says. “Their footwork and track awareness are amazing. They also communicate very effectively and seem to be on the same page more often than not.”
Though roller derby will always have a fun factor in its DNA, the women who strap on skates and join a league are just as serious about the sport as they are about picking a cool skating name. Some are even preparing the next generation of skaters.
“I’m coaching kids,” Shields says, “And I love seeing them get physically stronger and more confident. But watching my kids employ strategies is the most gratifying thing.”
Photo one, two and thumbnail – Brian Macke
Photo three – Kelly Jo Garner