Flat track roller derby is a sport that offers many things at once – true athleticism, fierce competition, quick-thinking strategies, fast-paced scoring and a level of entertainment that can’t be found in any other sport. Despite the tongue-in-cheek derby names skaters have, they’re all business out on the track.
In this Fan’s Guide to Roller Derby, we’re going to tell you everything you need to know about the sport whether you’re new to a bout or a devoted fan.
Roller derby dates back to the 1920s and was originally defined as roller skate races. However in the late 30s, a gent named Leo Seltzer took it on the road as Transcontinental Roller Derby and it became more physical with falls and collisions. From there, the current format was born and each team puts five skaters on the tracks who score points by passing members of the opposing team. By the late 40s, roller derby was being televised and, by the early 60s, competitive roller derby franchises were born. However, some of these teams were more about theatrics that the sport and popularity took a nose dive. In 1973, Seltzer’s son Jerry pulled the plug on it entirely.
In both the ’80s and ’90s, attempts were made to breathe life back into roller derby, but nothing stuck until early 20003, when a group called the Texas Rollergirls put a spotlight on the sport and it caught on like wildfire on four wheels. Two years later, there were 50 all-female leagues and more than 135 by August of 2006.
Maine Roller Derby in Portland formed in 2006. There’s also Rock Coast Rollers out of Rockland, Bangor Roller Derby and the WFTDA Apprentice League based in Old Town. The sport is governed by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. Established in 2004, the association sets the standards for safety and determines the guidelines for national and international leagues as well as the season of play. There are now 344 member leagues and 81 leagues in the apprentice program. The apprentice program works with accepted leagues and guides them through the process of becoming a full member.
RULES & SCORING:
First off, roller derby games are called bouts, and each one consists of two 30-minute periods. Within a period, there are an unlimited number of jams, which can each last up to two minutes. At the start of every jam, five players from each team line up on the track at a fixed point. At the back line are the two jammers, one from each team. In front of them, the four blockers from each team are set up and waiting for the jam to start. At the sound of the jam-starting whistle, all of the skaters take off.
The jammer is the only skater who can score points.
Blockers stay together in a tight pack and engage each other to try to keep the opposing jammer from breaking through the pack while also trying to help their own jammer do just that. This all happens very quickly. The first jammer to pass through the pack without getting a penalty (there are rules about pushing others about on the track) becomes the “lead jammer” and they have the ability to call off the jam before the two minute buzzer rings. This is key, because it can prevent the other team from scoring points. The lead jammer pays close attention to where the opposing jammer is and if that jammer is about to score points, that’s when it’s a good time for them to call off the jam.
A jammer scores one point every time she passes an opposing blocker after making her initial pass through the pack. What’s more, the jammer earns an extra point by passing the opposing jammer. Both jammers and blockers are allowed to use their shoulders, torso, hips and backside to block or hit other skaters. But the use of hands, forearms, feet or elbows is prohibited and can land a skater in the penalty box. Penalties last for 30 seconds which, in derby time, is an eternity. If there is no lead jammer, the jam lasts for the full two minutes. The more bouts you attend, the more you’ll catch on to the finer points of scoring and penalties.
FAN ETIQUETTE AND HELPFUL HINTS:
Regardless of where the bout is taking place, plan on arriving at least a half-hour before start time to get a good seat. Most of Maine Roller Derby bouts take place at Happy Wheels in Westbrook. Secure a spot along the edge of the track against the half-wall for a sensational view of the starting line or the third turn of the track. There are also about 75 folding chairs set up on the far side of the track for a great side view of the second turn. This is also where you’ll find track-side seating, typically not recommended for anyone under 18. Although you are indeed sitting on the floor, your view is completely unobstructed. At Fenway Park, you need to pay attention for foul-balls or flying bats. During a derby bout, be on the lookout for flying skaters, because one could end up in your lap. Although you may ratchet up your cheering for the “home team,” be sure to let both teams know how much you dig what they’re doing. And while you’re at it, let the referees know you appreciate them, too. Each bout requires seven refs, and they’re all volunteers who love the sport as much as the skaters.
NOTES FROM A SKATER:
We consulted with Heather “Hard Dash” Steeves, former content producer for MaineToday.com and longtime skater, to get her take on roller derby. Steeves answered the call of the skates in 2010 while living in Rockland and started the Rock Coast Rollers before moving to Portland and getting involved with Maine Roller Derby. Steeves spends most of her time on the track as a jammer.
Here are three things Steeves wants people to know about roller derby:
1.See a home teams game: “We’re all friends playing each other,” she said, “so we have extra fun with it. We might play with new moves we’re trying out because it doesn’t weigh on our international ranking.” Home team games are ones that pit MRD skaters againset each other and don’t impact standings.
2. This is for real: Many people think of the 1970s theatrics when they think roller derby. “We stage nothing,” she said. “We fight for every point.” Instead of elbowing people to the ground – “that would get me ejected from the game,” she says – players play smart. “We have to execute strategies,” Steeves said, “not just wail on people.”
3. Roller derby is a spectator sport: It’s especially heart-warming to see parents bring daughters to see strong women display teamwork and athleticism, Steeves said. But, roller derby is for everyone: “You can support local female athletes while eating nachos, so, really why wouldn’t you go?”
UPCOMING BOUTS & EVENTS:
WHEN: 5:30 p.m. Saturday, April 30
WHERE: Happy Wheels Skate Center, 331 Warren Ave., Portland
HOW MUCH: $10 in advance, $12 at the door, $5 for kids 5 to 12, under 5 free
TICKETS & INFO: mainerollerderby.com