What better way to celebrate Galentine’s day than have my main gal, Heather, take over KathyAthy.com to tell you all about the fast-growing, female-dominated sport. A canny few years ago, a little roller rink opened up in our home town, we took to roller skating like ducks to water and Heather had an idea to start training for Roller Derby. I was originally up for it, but then developed an irrational fear of smashing my teeth and ‘gave up’. Heather persevered (which I admire) and has found an amazing hobby that she’s passionate about. See her talk about roller derby, it’s history, the rules, the quirks, why it’s fab (including the psychology behind it!) and how to get involved. Be sure to give her and her team some love!
WORDS: HEATHER OLIVER
MANY PICTURES: SHIRLAINE FORREST, who is our wonderful league photographer and is a star at making us look beautiful.
ABOUT HEATHER/PYROCLASTIC FLO.
I’m Heather, better known as Pyroclastic Flo in the derby community. I took up roller derby because I watched Whip It and thought it looked like the coolest thing ever: the sport is actually nothing like this film, but it was still the best thing that ever happened to me! I’ve been skating with Manchester Roller Derby (MRD) since January 2012 and roller derby has taken over my life entirely. I was never into sports as a kid (in fact, I was downright awful at everything), but I’ve somehow managed to become Vice-Captain of the MRD Furies (Ladies B-Team).
I hope that this little insight into the world gets you interested, and answers any questions you might have had about the sport!
The feature image at the top used for this article is a picture of (L-R) me, Lightning Holt and Ramona Sours looking FIERCE. This photo actually made it onto the publicity for Skate Fast, Hit Hard by the BBC, so I was derby famous for all of 10 seconds. (Shirlaine Forrest).
WHAT IS ROLLER DERBY?
Roller derby is a full contact sport played on roller skates (quad skates, not blades), and is (in my humble opinion) the greatest sport in the world. The modern flat track version of the sport (I’ll get onto the full history in a second) was started in 2001 by a group of women in Texas, now the Texas Rollergirls, before spreading worldwide. It is currently the fastest growing sport in the UK, with well over 100 established leagues already and new ones continually popping up. It is very much a grassroots sport, with leagues run with a ‘by the skater, for the skater’ ethos. The sport is still female-dominated, but there is a growing number of male-only and mixed gender leagues. Most leagues require skaters to be over 18, but junior leagues are becoming more common and play a modified version of the sport.
HISTORY OF ROLLER DERBY.
See a very detailed blog on the history of roller derby: here.
Roller derby was born back in the 1930s, out of Americans desperate need for distraction from the Great Depression. Leo Seltzer began holding walkathons, where competitors would literally walk until they couldn’t stand anymore in an attempt to win a cash prize. These contests could last anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks, with music, comedy and variety acts enticing patrons to come back day after day. After a few years of success, Seltzer moved to Chicago and intended to capitalise on a past-time that most Americans had indulged in at some point: roller skating.
On the 13th of August 1935, the Transcontinental Roller Derby was born in front of an audience of 20,000. The aim was to skate 3000 miles, the width of the United States, by skating laps of a 100-yard long flat track. It was endurance race, with mixed gender pairs skating 8-hour days for four weeks. As well as the basic endurance race, there were also sprints that allowed skaters to rack up extra distance: skaters would have the opportunity to pull away and attempt to catch the back of the pack, stealing laps from opposing skaters.
The game continued to progress, with the flat track giving way to a banked track (as skaters could reach crowd-pleasing higher speeds and bigger falls) and the long endurance race phased out into a series of shorter sprints and a race-for-points system. However, the game at this time was still non-contact. This all changed one night in 1937, when some larger skaters became bored with the nippier skaters lapping them. They decided to block the faster skaters to prevent them from leaving the pack. The crowd loved this development, and were displeased by the officials stopping play and dishing out punishments. Seltzer wanted to keep the crowd happy, so instantly changed the rules to allow physical contact.
As the physical side of the game drew the most attention, skaters began to fake fights for the attention of the press. Seltzer tried to reign in the theatrics, but interest and profits waned throughout the 50s. Leo’s son Jerry (who is still a part of modern roller derby!) took over in the 1960s, and helped the game to reach a heyday in the 1970s, but unfortunately Jerry had to pull the plug on the 10th of December 1973. Roller derby continued to exist in other strange forms between 1973 and the rebirth in 2001, though never with the same following as the early game.
Jump forward to 2000 in Austin, Texas. A musician named Dan ‘Devil Dan’ Policarpo recruited women for a sideshow-esque roller derby spectacle. After management issues, the women split from Policarpo and started Bad Girl Good Woman (BGGW) Productions in 2001. Four teams were formed and played their first public game in 2002. The league then split over business plans: The BGGW league became TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls and developed banked-track play, whereas the Texas Rollergirls followed the flat-track route.
The early days of modern roller derby were still fairly theatrical, with fights, skimpy costumes and minimal rules. Over the past 15 years, the sport has progressed to become an intensely athletic and competitive sport. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) was founded in 2004 and is the main governing body* for the sport, continually working to update rules and policies to fit with the ever-changing game.
*Other governing bodies also exist, such as the Men’s Roller Derby Association (MRDA) and the United Kingdom Roller Derby Association (UKRDA), though they all compete using WFTDA’s rules. Leagues do not need to be officially affiliated with these any of these groups but it can be beneficial to skaters and officials to do so.
To those watching roller derby for the first time, the gameplay can be as confusing as it is exciting. The official WFTDA rule book is currently 74 pages long, so this will be an extremely brief overview.
- The game is one-hour long in total, with two 30-minute periods. Each period is broken up into ‘jams’, which can be up to 2 minutes long and with 30 seconds in between to prepare line-ups.
- Five skaters from each team will be on track at any one time, four blockers and one jammer, which can be selected from a roster of up to 14 skaters eligible to play on the day.
- The jammer is identified by a star on their helmet cover (a helmet panty, if you may) and they are the point scorers. They line up behind the jam line at the jam start. When the whistle blows, they fight through the pack of blockers in front. The first jammer out of the pack is the lead jammer.
- The jammers then loop around the track to the back of the pack. They fight through the blockers once more, scoring a point for each member of the team they pass legally and within the track boundary.
- The blockers must stop the opposing jammer from passing them, whilst helping to get their jammer out of the pack.
- One blocker also has an additional role: the pivot, identified by a stripe on their helmet panty, can become the jammer for the remainder of the jam if their jammer passes them the helmet cover whilst within the track boundary. This is often done if the jammer is struggling to get out of the pack or becomes tired.
- The jam will continue for 2 minutes or until the lead jammer taps their hips to end the jam.
As roller derby is a full contact sport, rules regarding safe contact are necessary to reduce injury. If a skater blocks outside of the legal target or blocking zones, they will be sent to the penalty box for 30 seconds. They can also be sent to the box for tripping opposing skaters (by falling in front of them), cutting onto the track in front of opposing skaters or for skating off the track to avoid hits (amongst many other things). If a skater ignores a referee when given a penalty, they can be given additional time in the box. If a skater receives 7 penalties, they will be asked to remove their skates and leave the game. Additionally, particularly dangerous actions can result in immediate expulsion from the game, as can verbally abusing other skaters, referees or crowd members. It may be an aggressive sport, but respecting others is an extremely important part of roller derby!
THE QUIRKS OF ROLLER DERBY.
See a graphical taxonomy of skate names here (and see if you can find mine!)
There is really no other sport like roller derby. Even though the game has developed to concentrate on athleticism, some of the ‘alternative’ quirks still remain. One of the big ones is derby names: the majority of skaters still skate under a pseudonym, often a pun on their own names (Lightning Holt), or that of famous people (Go Go Chanel), film characters (Ramona Sours), TV characters (Smack Bauer), comic book heroes (Harley Quad) or, well, anything (Sauerklaut, Skulldozer and Faye Tality are some more of my favourites!). These are just the names of skaters I know personally, there are thousands of others! For a sport that has a reputation as being ‘alternative’ and ‘cool’, there are a heck of a lot of geeks around that share their geekery through their names. An increasing number of skaters are choosing to skate under their legal names, but it’s still personal preference as to whether you take a derby name or not.
Mine, Pyroclastic Flo, is a pun on ‘pyroclastic flow’: a superheated cloud of ash and rock that flows down the side of a volcano. They’re extremely fast and deadly, so I thought it was a suitable name! (I’m also a geologist…). We are allowed to choose our own numbers too. It’s normally a number important to us, or something also related to our names. Mine is “64“, originally “64mm”, which is the minimum size for a blob of lava ejected from a volcano to be considered a volcanic bomb.
Another tradition that is still just about hanging on to is the ‘boutfit’: gone are the days of tutus and fishnets (not worth the rink rash…), but some skaters still rock crazy leggings and hotpants or face paint. Even some of the best skaters in the world get painted before heading onto the track, such as Suzy Hotrod (Gotham Girls Roller Derby), Scald Eagle (Rose City Rollers) and Demanda Riot (Bay Area Derby).
My derby wife and I go for Furiosa face paint before games, which is messy as hell to put on but looks pretty tough, if you ask me.
Derby wives is another tradition that can be a weird one to explain. Your wife is generally just your best friend in the derby world, someone who has got your back on and off the track. Derby wives can be of any gender, not just the ladies, and it’s just a bit of fun really. My wife is Ramona Sours, and we are so attached at the hip that we are constantly mixed up by our coach and bench staff. It also helps us on track, as we know each other well enough to have complete trust in what the other will do during the jam.
WHY IS ROLLER DERBY THE BEST THING EVER?
See also: The Psychology of Roller Derby (Katie-relevant!)
Inclusivity: I think this is one of my favourite things about the sport. It doesn’t matter your gender, sexuality, body shape, disabilities, race or background. As soon as you pull on your skates, you are one of us. There are a number of challenge teams (made up of skaters from all over the country/ world) that work to support and celebrate their differences, such as Team Crazy Legs (mental health and chronic illness), Vagine Regime (LGBT), Team Metal Legs (skaters returning from injury) and Team Wheezy (asthmatics).
Support: My league is like my family, and my team is like the big group of sisters I never had. I know that if I ever need them, they will be there, and vice versa. They’re also some of the funniest and strongest people I have ever met, and training sessions are so much fun that we’re always told off for laughing too much.
Sportsmanship: Roller derby is a very aggressive sport, but that doesn’t mean we’re aggressive to each other. It’s very common for teams to start chatting on the jam line when Official Timeouts take forever, or to offer a helping hand to an opposing skater on the floor at the end of the jam. Games always begin and end with high fives, and there’s always a lot of hugging.
Some of the best shows of sportsmanship occurred at the Men’s World Cup in 2014, from the crowd raising over £1000 in a whip round to help the Argentinian team afford their stay, to the fierce support for the underdogs, Ninjapan (I still get teary thinking about it, and I only watched the whole thing via videofeed!).
Fun: roller derby is so much fun! It’s extremely hard and can be frustrating at times, but there is nothing better than tearing around the track on a set of skates or successfully blocking a tough jammer for a whole jam. Not to mention all the social events and after parties!
Empowerment: playing roller derby is one of the most empowering things I have ever done, and many other skaters would agree. It’s taught me to love my body for what it can do and shown me how strong I am. Playing co-ed has been extremely empowering for me: I never thought I could play a sport, but every Sunday I step onto the track and (attempt to) hold my own against male skaters much larger and stronger than me.
Roller derby is even spreading to places where contact sports for women are still highly frowned upon, such as the Cairollers in Egypt, helping to liberate women far and wide.
HOW CAN I GET INVOLVED?
The easiest thing is probably to search online or via Facebook for leagues in your area, most of them will have an online presence. UKRDA also has a list of affiliated leagues but your local league may not be listed here, so don’t despair! Most leagues have kit you can borrow, so don’t worry about not having your own skates. They will also teach you how to skate and the rules of the game, as you need to pass your Minimum Skills and a rules test to be eligible to play.
If you want to skate but don’t fancy the contact part of the sport, refereeing may be for you instead. We can’t have games without referees, and they definitely have a hard job keeping us in check and tracking points! Leagues will always be looking for more refs to join, and many will train you from scratch. We love Team Zebra!
If you want to be involved but don’t want to skate, you could join a league as a dedicated Non-Skating Official (NSO). Again, we couldn’t have games without NSOs to keep track of points, time jams and track and time penalties (amongst many other jobs!). Leagues always need NSOs for games and scrimmages (closed door games for teams to practice). They are invaluable members of the derby community and often get overlooked when people talk about the sport.
There are also a number of other roles people take up in the league, such as bout announcers, bench and lineup managers and many committee roles. It’s not just about the skating!
I hope this was exciting enough to keep you reading, and to persuade you to check out a local game at the very least! Katie says there is Sunderland Roller Derby League, Newcastle Roller Girls, Durham Roller Derby in the North East, and Tyne and Fear Roller Derby (for the NE boys).
If you want to know more, the links below should have plenty to keep you entertained (and if you would be so kind, pop over to the Manchester Roller Derby and Furies Facebook pages to give us a ‘Like’ and keep up to date with our goings-on!’).
Hope to see you on track or at a game some time! More questions? Find me on Twitter!