I have never been a sports fan, but when I attended my first roller derby bout, I was spellbound from the moment I sat down, and the teams were only warming up; the bout had not even started. By half-time, I had a few favorite players, I understood some of the calls, and I proudly sported a league t-shirt.
Apparently, instant love of roller derby is not uncommon. What is it about this sport where athletes strap four wheels to each foot, skate in packs around a small track, and blockers try to keep jammers from getting through the pack? What makes this sport so unique and fabulous?
The athletes cast the initial spell that intoxicates us from the moment we arrive at our first bout.
Although there are male leagues, women’s derby makes up 95% percent of the sport (but men make up 40% percent of the fans and 59% percent of the volunteers). The women embrace the sport’s original 70s kitsch by bringing knee-high stockings, 50s diner outfits, and sparkly helmets into modern day derby. A few wear spooky war paint, but most show up in lipstick and mascara, accentuating the feminine. Most of the uniforms look like something a cocktail waitress would wear, exaggerating stereotypical feminine beauty and allure, while the athletes wearing them demonstrate supreme endurance, determination, and skill. The ironic contrast keeps eyes glued on the game as sequins flash and we gasp at strength and strategy while admiring the diversity of physiques.
Some blockers are buxom—short with juicy thighs and wide, round shoulders. Amazingly , they skate tight, derby track corners in the splits, making their short legs as much of an obstacle as possible. Their round hips bump wiry jammers right out of the track. Some of the blockers are tall but squat so low for so long you can practically see the flames burning in their thigh muscles. Jammers come in all sizes, too, but most are small and sleek, relying on graceful maneuvering more than muscular force to break through those divas on wheels, which is like ramming yourself into a brick wall. It’s no wonder some of them are named Cadillac, D.Konstructor, and MicroBruiser.
While the beauty of the athletes mesmerizes new fans, the athleticism and intelligence of the game keep fans hooked.
When the first two-minute jam starts, the athletes glide around the track so fast you can hear a “woosh” as if they’re on ice not heavy roller skates. Each team has a group of blockers on the track working together to keep the opposing team’s jammer from getting past them. Blockers skate forward while looking backward, lock arms, communicate in mystical ways, and use their hips and shoulders in unison to make it impossible for anyone to break through.
However, each team also has a jammer, one skater trying to get through the pack and count each one of the blockers as points. How do you block one jammer from getting through while opening up space for your jammer to pass? It’s not that different than letting both football teams have a quarterback on the field at the same time. You’ve got to stop one while enabling the other.
Occasionally, you see a jammer give up. After laps and laps of looking for holes, of swinging to the outside only to get slugged with a shoulder, then punched in the stomach with a hip, her posture sags, and she lets herself get jostled by the aggressive crowd. Just a second of that and a jammer’s chances are over. Most of us would give up and whine, “Hey, that’s not fair, let me through” as if it were only a game of Red Rover.
Nevertheless, a jammer does sometimes get through the blockers, and that’s what fans love. Out of nowhere, some petite, baby-faced, elementary-school-teacher-by-day, looking like she’s got no chance of getting past this wall of serpentine blockers, stands up, takes a look at the pack, then slices through every obstruction, leaving the blockers a little dazed only to find she’s sped around the track so fast she’s right behind them again trying to pass. The blockers link arms, they flare their broad shoulders, but she’s already swiveled by like an ice cube stirred in a glass—that cool and that smooth.
The permanent underdog status of the jammer—one woman up against a brutal crowd—keeps us on the edges of our seats, imagining ourselves having the stamina and determination to bust through our own real or metaphorical gang of thugs.
Finally, the atmosphere of derby bouts turns most of us into fans. Just like the ironic uniforms, the look of a derby bout does not belie its reality. Burley bouncers wearing yellow volunteer t-shirts that do nothing to mask their Harley Davidson lifestyle, guide you to your seat. They ask to see your bracelet, the equivalent of a ticket, but just when you expect a gruff acknowledgement that you’ve not tried to sneak in, they give a slight bow and confirm, “So you can come and go as you please” in a voice so deferential you expect to hear “M’lady” or “Sir.” Fans grip cans of beer, but rather than crushing and throwing them during a tense moment in the jam like hockey fans might, they balance their beer delicately between their knees while they upload derby pictures to Facebook. Each bout program includes photos of referees’ hand signals and a basic glossary of the sport’s rule, objectives, and player positions. The announcers ask for a show of hands of anyone new to derby. They instruct anyone with hands down to explain the game to newbie neighbors. During each jam, the announcers explain ref calls and team strategies. They do this while dressed up in a purple tuxedo, costumed as a lion, or masked mysteriously like a friendly anarchist.
From the atmosphere of a bout to the players themselves, roller derby welcomes all types, weaving humor and pageantry into a sport as physically and intellectually demanding as hockey or soccer.
When we brought a friend to her first derby bout, I watched her as the bleachers filled and the teams warmed up. She hunched forward, on the edge of the bleacher, hands clasped between her knees, mouth a little agape, glints of glitter and steel dazzling her cheeks like a disco ball.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“I love it!” she gushed.
“What is it you love?” I asked, hoping to understand my own instant fangirl metamorphosis.
”Everything!” she said, and the first jam hadn’t even started.