Greater Than the Sum of Our Parts

a miscellany of the wonderful and the banal

DURRby: N00bs to Roller Derby Learn The Basics, Pt 1

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So you’ve probably heard of this great new sport called “roller derby.” You may even know a little bit about it; people often describe it as “a moshpit on wheels” or, less succinctly, “hot chicks in fishnets and skates beating the crap out of each other.” But do you actually know what the sport is about, and how it’s played?

The History

The original incarnation of roller derby was essentially an endurance race on skates, popular from the 1880s onwards, and especially throughout the Great Depression. It wasn’t until the 50s that it started to resemble the moshpit on wheels we know and love today, when the endurance aspect was abandoned and a point-scoring system was put in place. Over time, roller derby veered away from sports and towards sports entertainment. Competition from Roller Game and Roller Jam, declining ratings, the increasingly screwed-up economic situation through the 70s, and a run of really bad luck combined to bring an end to roller derby as it was. Fortunately for us all, in 2001 a group of girls in Texas got together to found the very first roller derby league. In 2003, some of those girls formed the first flat track league, and from there roller derby has spread like a virus. In 2011, the first roller derby world cup will be hosted by Toronto Roller Derby in Canada, with teams coming from the USA, Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Argentina, Brazil, and France to compete. Isn’t that insane?

The Basics

Modern roller derby only has a very little in common with its previous incarnations. For the sake of simplicity, this guide will be dealing strictly with flat track roller derby, compliant with the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association rules (v 4.0). A game of derby, also referred to as a bout, runs for two half-hour periods, with ten to fifteen minutes of half time. Each period is divided up into jams. Each team can have a maximum of fourteen players, five of which will be on the track at any given time. There are three types of players on each team; blockers, pivots, and jammers. The blockers and pivots skate in a big group called a pack, and the jammers must work their way through. The jammers’ first pass through the pack does not score any points—it is simply to determine lead jammer status. Jammers begin scoring on their second pass, earning points for every opposition player they pass, as well as opposition players in the penalty bin or opposition players.

The Pack

A more complicated concept than you’d think, with some fairly strict rules governing exactly what it is and is not. The pack must consist of blockers/pivots from both teams, be that one of each or all four of each or four of one and one of the other or any other combination. It is defined as the largest group of blockers within ten feet of each other, and any blocker who does not make up part of the pack must be within 20 feet of the pack if they want to actually block someone. The 20-foot-rule is also referred to as “the zone of engagement,” and many derby strategies involve creative ways of exploiting it. The pack lines up behind the pivot line, and takes off at the first whistle.

The Pivot

Often referred to as the brain of the pack, the pivot is basically a blocker with more responsibilities. Each team gets one. They can be recognised by the stripe running down the centre of their helmet The pivot’s job is to control the pack. They speed it up, slow it down, and control the formation of the blockers within it. They’re also the last line of defence against opposing jammers, and the point off which teams will rally. Pivots tend to be skaters with loud voices and owl-like necks, who are happy to skate while staring over their shoulder; they also need to have the best grasp of strategy of the team, and the ability to react and adapt quickly to any situation that might come up. Pivots also get some special moves—holding the pivot line, and passing the star, though more on this later.

The Blockers

Blockers are the muscle of the pack, and are demarcated by having no special adornments on their helmet. There are three on each team. Their jobs are twofold; offence, in which they help their jammer get through, and defence, in which they stop the other jammer. Blockers can also be split into two subtypes—striking and stalling. Striking blockers, as the name suggests, specialise in the big dramatic hits that are considered the hallmark of roller derby. When playing defensively, they might take up a position at the back of the pack as a sweeper, moving back and forth across the track with the intention of taking out the opposing jammer as she comes up. Alternately, they might move to the inside line, near to the front of the pack, where it’s very easy to swing out and hit a jammer as she approaches on the outside. Offensively, they can be placed anywhere in the pack and will usually man on—more on exactly what that later. Stalling blockers are blockers who specialise in positional or obstructive blocking. As roller derby leagues evolve more nuanced and complex game play and tactics, stalling blockers have become instrumental to dozens of different strategies. Even a single stalling blocker is a force to be reckoned with; the good ones can stop even the most determined jammer dead in her tracks. When used defensively, they will often team up to make the pack tighter, or get in the jammer’s way and make it hard for her to get through; playing offensively, they might occupy particularly troublesome blockers, or they might take control of the front of the pack and stop it dead to let their jammer keep on scoring. Blockers come in all shapes and sizes. While you’d think striking blockers would all be huge muscly powerhouses, some tiny girls can perform amazing blocks simply by being low enough to take everyone else’s legs out from under them. Long legs are a bonus for stalling blockers, but not even close to being required.

The Jammer

Jammers wear panties with stars on, and they score the points. They start out 30 feet behind everyone else on the jammer line, and take off at the second whistle from the refs. They’re traditionally the fastest players on the team, because they have to lap the pack—the jammer who manages to get through the pack first without taking any penalties gets awarded lead jammer status—and once they’ve done that, they can start scoring points. They get one point every time they pass an opposing player’s hip, and if there are opposing players in the penalty box, they also get a point for them once they’ve scored on someone else on the opposition team. Jams either last for two minutes, or until the lead jammer calls it off, so having lead jammer is a great tactical advantage–but more on that in a later part.


Written by Amelia &/or Delilah

May 11, 2011 at 10:19 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Nice post! More strategy involved than you’d think.


    May 11, 2011 at 10:30 pm

  2. ‘Jammers begin scoring on their second pass, earning points for every opposition player they pass, as well as opposition players in the penalty bin or opposition players. ‘

    This sentence is unclear. Or opposition players what?


    May 15, 2011 at 4:42 pm

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