Roller derby got its start in 1935 when Leo Seltzer got the idea of putting a Depression-era "walkathon" (i.e. prolonged dance marathons, if you've seen the opening of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster you've seen what they were like) on roller skates. From these humble beginnings he quickly noticed that fans became particularly interested when skaters physically collided. Reducing the distance to be skated increased the skating speed and made collisions more likely, and soon a contact sport was invented. The Seltzer family (first Leo and then his son Jerry) promoted roller derby through thirty-eight years, World War II, the McCarthy Hearings, and numerous other events before the original roller derby league folded in 1973, victim of the 1970s oil crisis.
There were a handful of attempted revivals during the 1980s (Roller Games) and 1990s (Roller Jam), all the while a handful of the original roller derby teams, including the Los Angeles T-Birds and San Francisco Bay Bombers, kept the sport alive on the West Coast.
In the early 2000s, a small startup league formed in Texas, the Texas Roller Derby (whose name, as well as the name of its most popular team, the Holy Rollers, was adapted in the 2009 film Whip It). In 2001, the league split into the banked-track TXRD Lonestars and a second group, the Texas Rollergirls, promoting a new version of the sport: Flat track roller derby.
Freed from the requirement of maintaining an expensive wooden track, flat track roller derby exploded. A skater-oriented governing body was formed in 2004 with a twenty-league United Leagues Coalition organizing in Chicago, which the next year changed its name to the Women's Flat Track Derby Association. WFTDA remains (as of 2015) the highest-level governing body of roller derby in the world. A decade later, "by the skaters, for the skaters" remains the credo of the roller derby movement.
The Least You Need to Know
At its most basic, roller derby is a contact sport played on an oval track by 10 players on quad-style roller skates (the kind with wheels positioned like on a car), 5 on a team, in discrete plays of two minutes or less called "jams." During a jam, both teams have the opportunity to score points by having one player on each team race each other in an attempt to repeatedly lap everyone on the other team, while the remaining players attempt to stop the other team's scoring player and assist their own. Jams are played during defined periods, the most common period lengths and numbers are 4 10-minute periods (the original game as defined by Leo Seltzer and Damon Runyon), 2 20-minute periods (the original WFTDA game length) or 2 30-minute periods (most rule books as of 2015).
The on-track positions in roller derby are:
- The Pack: The pack is the majority of the skaters on the track at a time (eight in all, four from each team). Maintaining the pack is a rules necessity (no skater in the pack can be more than 20 feet from the nearest other skater in the pack, known as the "engagement zone") and the subject of much of the strategy of the game.
- The Pivot: The Pivot is the on-track captain of the pack. She wears a helmet cover (or "panty") with a stripe down the center, arranged front to back. The Pivot is the skater who coordinates strategy and calls for pack moves. Additionally, the pivot can under certain conditions become a scoring skater - depending on the rules set this is called a "pivot break" or a "star pass," the latter being often colloquially called "passing the panty."
- The Blockers: Blockers wear no panty on their helmet. Their two jobs on the track are to stop the opposing jammer from scoring and assist their own jammer. Barring penalties there are three on the track from each team at a time.
- Jammer: Jammers wear a panty with a star on it. The jammer is the skater who scores by lapping other skaters. A complete successful scoring pass by a jammer normally scores four points. note If the jammer passes the star panty to the pivot, the jammer becomes a blocker, rather than a replacement pivot. Popular and prominent jammers include Bonnie Thunders of Gotham Girls Roller Derby, Second Hand Smoke of the Minnesota RollerGirls, Jackie Daniels of the Texas Rollergirls (formerly of Windy City) and Scald Eagle of Rose City Rollers.
One of the features that distinguishes the modern roller derby revival from previous versions of the sport, scripted or unscripted, is the presence of fanciful, self-chosen names for skaters. The tradition of derby names started because one of the skaters of the original Lonestar Rollergirls was an abuse survivor who wanted to adopt a tough nom de guerre for herself, and the other members of her team also chose names as a gesture of solidarity. Though sometimes criticized, the tradition of derby names has stuck around and shows no sign of disappearing, though greater numbers of skaters are using their legal names for interleague play.
The current codes of Roller Derby are
- WFTDA: Played by most national roller derby governing bodies as well as the Women's Flat Track Derby Association and its Spear Counterpart, the Men's Roller Derby Association (and, with adaptations, by the Junior Roller Derby Association - for example, hitting is discouraged in the Junior form of the game in favor of positional blocking). The WFTDA form of the game is noteworthy for having the longest jam times (two minutes) and for the lead jammer being a position that is earned once during a jam - the lead jammer remains the lead jammer for the entire jam unless she is sent to the penalty box, in which case there is no lead jammer for the remainder of the jam. The WFTDA rules were the first rules set designed specifically for flat track roller derby.
- The WFTDA rules govern roughly 95% of all roller derby played in the world. The vast majority of national-level rollersports authorities acknowledge the Women's Flat Track Derby Association as the highest-level sporting authority for roller derby in the world.
- USARS: This rules set is created and maintained by USA Roller Sports, the primary Olympic-level governing body of roller skating in the United States. Unlike the WFTDA rules, the USARS rules set designates whichever jammer is in the lead at any given moment to be lead jammer, and requires the lead jammer to be upright and inbounds to call off the jam. The USARS game disallows counterclockwise skating (unlike WFTDA) and has a shorter jam timer (90 seconds). Other than these noted variations, the two games are broadly similar.
- MADE: The Modern Athletic Derby Endeavor rules, centered on the US East Coast. MADE's rules emphasize co-ed play and share the 90 second jam time and have no legal clockwise play. In general, the USARS and MADE rules are very similar to each other and can be considered variations of the same rules code. MADE's rules also (allegedly) encourage closer scores than the WFTDA rules, which have from time to time been infamous for blowout games (though this has become substantially less frequent since the WFTDA regional division system was swapped for a promotion-and-relegation system that made it easier for leagues of comparable skill level to arrange games with each other).
- RDCL: The Roller Derby Coalition of Leagues is the primary governing body of banked-track roller derby (the track superficially resembles that of a velodrome), consisting of five leagues along the West Coast. The RDCL rules are focused on a very fast-paced form of play, taking advantage of the higher speeds afforded by a banked track. An RDCL jam is one minute, typically long enough for at most three scoring passes.
- Renegade: Not actually a rules set per se. "Renegade" represents leagues that play by their own set of rules. Renegade leagues tend to be small (often only consisting of two home teams if even having any home teams at all) but passionate.
Tropes commonly seen in Roller Derby
- Action Mom: ANY mom who plays roller derby.
- Awesome, but Impractical: Banked track roller derby is faster-paced than flat track, has a more wide-open play style and generally closer scores. But the track is very large and heavy, expensive to maintain, and takes a lot of space both to store and when brought out for practices or games (an entire flat track, including the outside safety lane, can fit within the infield of a banked roller derby track). There is a reason why flat track derby became the dominant form of the sport.
- Boring, but Practical: The four-wall and its younger sibling, the braced wall and box formations. A jammer can spend so long grinding against a well-disciplined wall that by the time she breaks free there's not enough time left in the jam for a scoring pass.
- Cool Old Guy: Jerry Seltzer, the second owner/commissioner of Roller Derby (and the son of the inventor of the sport), who blogs about his experiences in the game at rollerderbyjesus.com.
- Crossover: In many larger areas, a roller derby league has anywhere from 3 to 6 (most commonly 4) "home teams," which pool their skaters for an All-Star Team which is their primary travel team which competes with teams from other areas for WFTDA ranking. Some leagues, additionally, have a "B Team" which serves both as an intermediate talent pool for the All-Stars and travels and plays in its own right.
- Also, "crossover" is the name of an important basic skating skill without which it's more-or-less impossible to skate on the level that roller derby play requires.
- Deadpan Snarker: VERY common, both among announcers and players.
- Design-It-Yourself Equipment: Every piece of a skater's equipment is chosen for a balance of speed, agility, strength and protection. Most skaters have built at least one set of skates themselves.
- Early Installment Weirdness: The early Transcontinental Roller Derby was extremely different from the form the game would eventually take on. Male-female teams of two skaters would enter, and skate until a member fell down on the track. Hitting was forbidden and skaters would simply skate as long as possible. The word "Transcontinental" referred to the length of the race, 3000 statute miles (the distance, roughly, from New York City to Los Angeles). The rules that would eventually come to define roller derby (two teams with five players each on the track at a time, with one player on the team competing to lap the pack and score points) would evolve in the late 1930s when Americans became bored with the spectacle of simply seeing people skate for a very long time.
- Fan Nickname: The sport is sometimes called "Derbs" by fans. This is also a nickname ("dank herbs") for good marijuana. Take of that what you will...
- Friendly Enemy: Leagues are close-knit and friendly. The woman you just knocked into the Suicide Seats might be your best friend in the whole world (or at least the whole league).
- Gretzky Has the Ball: Almost inevitably, in works about the sport not written by skaters. In order of greatest frequency: Fighting is an expulsion, repeated fighting will result in your being asked to leave the league. Elbows are illegal. No, it's not scripted. In flat track roller derby, the track is the floor - that's the whole point of flat track derby. The maximum number of points on a legal scoring pass is 4. And no, there's no ball.
- Good Costume Switch: When your favorite skater switches to your favorite league or team.
- Insistent Terminology: Many skaters, despite changes in official terminology in 2014, continue to determinedly refer to a roller derby match as a "bout" rather than a "game."
- Also the insistence of using "skater" rather than "player" for a person who plays roller derby. Which becomes slightly confusing considering that referees are also, in the strictest sense, skaters.
- Kayfabe: In the TV era, roller derby had complex storylines and "face" and "heel" teams similar to those seen in Professional Wrestling. Today these have gone by the wayside, but Derby Names and a general punky, DIY look to skating garb is common.
- Large Ham: An essential trope for derby announcers.
- Lightning Bruiser: A large number of taller skaters can be this - they can hit hard and long legs equal great speed on the track.
- Mascot: Some leagues have them, many leagues don't. Gnarly the Narwhal (North Star Roller Girls) and Minnie Sorta-Nice (Minnesota RollerGirls) are two examples.
- Mirror Match: A bout between two leagues with very similar play styles will look a lot like this, especially if they're teams that have swapped players in the past. Examples include Victorian Roller Derby League vs. Rose City Rollers, or Minnesota Roller Girls vs. Arch Rival Roller Derby.
- Of Corsets Sexy: A common costume element before the "serious athletes" era of the derby revival (2010-present). Seldom tightened because an athlete needs to breathe...
- Older Than TV: Roller derby was in fact one of the first sports to be televised.
- Out-of-Genre Experience: The halftime show. An artifact of derby's entertainment origins and still a mainstay of the sport. Many roller derby leagues feature a rock concert or dance party as entertainment at the halfway point of the game.
- Pintsized Powerhouse: Many (most) smaller skaters are this.
- Punny Name: VERY common in derby.
- Romantic Two-Girl Friendship: Derby Wives
- Serious Business: Roller Derby IS NOT played on rollerblades and (the brief presence of Rollerjam aside) it never will be. Don't ask.
- Many people's choices of equipment can verge on this, especially the ongoing (and somewhat open-ended) question of 10 vs. 45 degree trucks. Also, the question of skateboard-style helmets (like the Triple 8 Brainsaver or S-ONE Lifer) vs. hockey helmets. Expect any given skater to have strong and detailed opinions about her gear and why she has what she has.
- Shout-Out: Most derby names that are not simply puns are this.
- Tights Under Shorts: Unless you want to get rink rash (hint: You don't).
- They Call Me Mister Tibbs: Heel manager Georgia Hase...
"That's MS. Georgia Hase (to you)!"
- Unintentional Period Piece: Any media related to roller derby before 2013 will look like this to an informed fan, as numerous rules changes were implemented to speed up play (most notably, the one-whistle start).
Roller Derby in Various Media
- Roller Girl by Victoria Jamiesen ("Winnie the Pow")
- The Batman '66 version of Harley Quinn wore a costume based on a 1960s roller derby uniform
- The main-continuity Harley Quinn tries out for a roller derby team in her New-52 series, but quickly gets banned for gratuitous violence. She then gets recruited for a "skate club" that is basically an illegal no-rules Fight Club on roller skates.
- The Dorothy's Derby Chronicles series (Rise of the Undead Redhead and Woe of Jade Doe) by Meghan Dougherty and Alece Birnbach
- Three In Cryptid short stories by Seanan McGuire feature Antimony, the younger sister of Verity and Alex Price, aka "Final Girl": "Blocked" (2013), "Bad Dream Girl" (2014), and "Jammed" (2015). The first story, rather significantly, blends the rules of flat and banked track derby but happen on a flat track; later ones are written more like flat track derby (Antimony's league, the Silver Screams, plays in the former Northwestern Division of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association as of "Bad Dream Girl," which was presumably written before the regional division structure was replaced by the current ranked division structure; while it seems to stand in for the Rose City Rollers, its theme is very different).
- Whip It, starring Ellen Page, is the forerunner of the "modern" roller derby movie. It functioned, effectively, as a multi-million-dollar ad campaign for a sport that many people were unaware still existed, and helped fuel a significant expansion of roller derby.
- Rollerball is this trope on speed and turned into a futuristic Blood Sport.
- Alita: Battle Angel has Motorball, which is the above-mentioned Rollerball on steroids — with cyborgs of various shapes and forms and countless ways to tear each other apart when chasing the ball.
- The Murdoch Mysteries episode "Hot Wheels of Thunder" is set at a 1900s women's roller racing competition, at which a group of competitors are secretly colluding to let one of them win, including assaulting the other competitors if necessary. Rebecca James assembles another team to beat them at their own game, with the result that the final race is essentially a proto-roller derby, with Miss James as the pivot and Dr Ogden as the jammer.
- The Victim of the Week in Elementary episode "Down Where the Dead Delight" played roller derby. Sherlock spends much of the episode inventing "roller derby names" for Watson, including "Joan-Cold Killer".
- In the second half of the single season of Bunheads ballerina Mel was introduced to roller derby as an outlet for her latent aggression. She went by the name Cleosmacktra.
- "Roller Derby Queen" by Jim Croce is the ur-example of a song celebrating rollergirls, written just before the collapse of the original roller derby league.
- "Roller Derby Saved My Soul" by Uncle Leon & the Alibis
- The official video of "It's Not You" by Halestorm features flat-track roller derby.
- At one point in the video for "Every Morning" by Sugar Ray (which was filmed at a roller rink), two female roller derby players can be seen fighting with each other.
- The Sequinox girls get sent to a Roller Derby-themed world partway through episode 11 while fighting the reality-hopping Gemini.
- Skylanders' Roller Brawl is a pink-haired vampire roller derby champ who fights evil when she becomes the unwanted crush of said evil.
- Heroes of the Storm - One of Nova's costumes is a surprisingly accurate roller derby interpretation of her main outfit.
- Jam City Rollergirls was a moderately well-received WiiWare video game released in 2011. The style of play is fairly true to how the game was played then but is a little odd compared to current rules.
- In Agents of Mayhem, Daisy was a derby girl before joining the titular organization. In gameplay, she skates to get around and can perform body checks as an attack as well.
- Bonnie N Collide chronicles the out-of-derby travails of the titular roller girl.