Talking Derby

Professionals by Day, Derby by Night, by Sara Noe
by Sara Noe

There is in the land a growing, but far from universal, awareness of a new version of an older American sport, roller derby, reborn of late and now nurtured by people who take it very seriously and care deeply about its growth and progress in the world.

The roots of roller derby go back to a promoter Leo Seltzer and the 1930s. From its earliest years on into the early post-war decades roller derby was presented in varied formats with men’s groups, women’s groups, and mixed groups. Current popular awareness of roller derby exists mostly because of, and still fixates on, the later televised women’s roller derby from the post-war decades. My own awareness dates roughly to the 1970s. In that incarnation, derby continued to be more spectacle and put on; easily likened to the campy and ambitiously named men’s “professional wrestling” that, one must assume, is still in vogue in certain quarters, where the flat screens loom large and the snacks are all factory made.

The derby of our often amnesic national memory involves young women, never overdressed, roller skating in competition on banked wooden tracks and displaying what at base was theatrics, rather than athleticism. The more or less programed jabs, hits, grunts, groans, grimaces, altercations, and falls executed by these young women were marketed to paying audiences as sport. Audiences that in a more plain spoken time would have been simply, “the rubes”. Television exposure and television revenues became major factors. Hollywood, ever unwilling to neglect a money making opportunity, churned out the obligatory exploitation films. In some topic areas, the national memory is strong.

Beginning around the turn of the new century in Austin, Texas, and soon spreading, roller derby has reemerged and evolved. It is now stronger than ever as a sport. The new participants are not young women working for promoters to earn a few dollars until something better comes along, but serious and self-directed groups of female skaters competing because they enjoy the game and are willing to invest lavishly of their own time, effort, and money in order to train with and be part of a group that rolls together and travels together to compete. As a grass roots phenomenon, this is not a money making sport. This is a money burning sport.

What is Modern Derby?

There are now rules designed to ensure the integrity of, and safety (protective gear is required) within, the sport. The governing and sanctioning body is The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). The former venues with wooden banked tracks having been left behind in favor of flat tracks – easily laid out to regulation specifications using tape measures and colored tape on basketball courts, warehouse floors, or other suitably sturdy, large, and flat floor surfaces.

In brief, a bout, or game, is always between two teams and spans a timed hour divided into halves, allowing a halftime break. Teams are limited to a maximum of twenty members, up to fourteen of whom can be on the roster for a given game. The actual competition is a series of timed two minute “jams”, during which each side attempts to score points and also to prevent the opposing team from scoring. There are five skaters on each squad allowed on the track for each jam. In competition the skaters proceed in an anti-clockwise direction around a flat oval track. One of each five wears a star on her helmet and is the “jammer” for her team. The other four skate as “blockers”, one of whom can be a “pivot blocker”. Only the two jammers can score points. They do so by passing opposing skaters. To qualify to score, each individual jammer has to first pass the entire pack once. Having done that a jammer is said to be on her first scoring pass and can score one point each time she passes an opponent. The first jammer to qualify is the “lead jammer”; the advantage conferred by this status is the right to call off the bout before the full two minutes have elapsed. Per example, the opposing jammer enters her scoring pass soon after the lead and is on pace to score, the lead jammer can defensively end the bout whether or not she herself has scored. As with many other sports, the goal is to finish the game with more points than the opposition. The rules are many and can be found in the sixty-eight page WFTDA rule book.

While a serious sport, it retains a spirit of fun and camaraderie. League names are locally rooted and often whimsical. Start up groups are often encouraged and supported by existing leagues. Skaters choose skate names and sports individua attire that becomes a reflection of her sense of humor, frivolity, intellect, or simply personal expression and tells us something of who we are as a society. The sport is now actively international. The WFTDA web site ( is more than worth a visit, or two, or more.

Where are the Clobber Girls?

More than three years ago, Terre Haute was home to a serious effort to participate in the revived sport of roller derby. A group of local enthusiasts came together under the banner of The Bash Valley Clobber Girls. In true derby fashion, this name played nicely on the Wabash Valley location and a well known local product. This group seems sadly to have lapsed into inactive status before having achieved WFTDA certification. Those of us who talked to and encouraged the skaters when they were working hardest to to put a local league into full operation were impressed by their fire and will. We regret deeply the apparent dissolution of the group.

There still exists a website and a Facebook page , but neither seem now to be actively administered

For anyone wanting to learn a bit more about the Clobber Girls effort, a Terre Haute Tribune Star article Bash Valley Clobber Girls find sisterhood on roller derby rink  from December 2010 remains online. There is also an Examiner article New League in Terre Haute from the same month.

About the same time as the Clobber Girls came into being there was another less visible, to me certainly, roller derby effort in Terre Haute. I have been told this other attempt was more top down, and likely commercially motivated, than a do it yourself operation. As such it failed to attract and hold an adequate number of participants.

It is sad that the lights seem to have gone out, for now, for Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby in Terre Haute. Derby involves much more than just the skaters enjoying their avocation.

Why do we need them?

The local leagues do not exist in isolation.

The skaters themselves are not paid performers recruited from afar. They are members of the community where they form their base. To others in their locale, they are siblings, cousins, daughters, mothers, grandmothers, spouses, neighbors, and friends who just also happen to do derby. Some are students. Some follow the professions. Many follow other paths.

In addition to skaters, a large and diverse group of enthusiastic individuals must be part of the local derby effort.

As this is a rule based sport, local groups must recruit multiple volunteers as referees. Aspiring referees in their turn must be willing to train both physically and mentally to do a demanding job – after all, they will be on their skates and moving fast for as much or more time than the competitors and they must know and enforce a complex and evolving body of rules. The referees also must wear black and white striped shirts and put up with being called “zebras”.

Beyond that, each meet, bout, or game requires a cadre of Non-Skating Officials (known as NSOs) and other volunteers responsible for time keeping, score keeping, record keeping, track maintenance, gate keeping, merchandise selling and the general nitty-gritty of getting of things done. Game announcers are nearly always present and must know the ins and outs of the sport.

All these people must be willing to spend long hours and often long dollars at home and on the road. Sponsors are a necessity simply to make it happen, not to make it pay. Venues do not simply appear when needed, neither do programs, tickets, sound systems, or sundry other necessary items.

Fans and followers, often drawn at first from the relatives, friends, and co-workers of the skaters contribute enthusiasm, emotional support, and yes, money. In short, a local sub-community of consensus and enthusiasm must develop. This can only be good for the larger community in which it develops and grows. It is a democratizing influence.

Bouts can often seem a mix between a family a reunion and a carnival. Skaters and fans alike bring their babies and children. Many audience members don elaborate costumes. At least one elderly man wearing a funny hat can be expected to appear. People talk to strangers. The visiting skaters, especially if they have traveled long distances, are often treated like long lost cousins or even like visiting royalty.

The Hoosier state is home to several functioning roller derby organizations, including men’s groups and some junior leagues. From Terre Haute, the closest fully functioning WFTDA affiliated group is the Bleeding Heartland Roller Girls of Bloomington, Indiana. They are active and creative. They have become a vital part of the town. Just one of the good things they do is to raise funds for local charities. Their season is over for this year. The BHRG “A” team (The Flatliners) last skated at the 2013 WFTDA Division 1 Playoffs  in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The playoffs, hosted by the Ft, Wayne Derby Girls were held September 6th, 7th, and 8th . The host league did not skate and the BHRG Flatliners did not advance beyond this playoff. Look for the BHRG to kick off 2014 with a February invitational meet.

You can watch Roller Derby via internet. But, go to see some live roller derby, you owe it to yourself. If you meet a roller girl, tell her, “Talk Derby to me.” She will.

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