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Roller Derby 101

The Basics of Flat Track Roller Derby

Pivot Panty

Jammer Panty

Roller derby takes place on a flat track with an inside circumference of 148.5 ft and an outside circumference of 236.5 ft. The game, played in two 30 minute periods, is a series of races between two teams of five players – three Blockers, one Pivot and one Jammer (scorer). Helmet covers, called panties, differentiate the positions. Jammers wear stars while Pivots wear stripes. No covers are used by the Blockers.

Each race, or play, is called a jam and lasts up to two minutes. At the start of the jam, the Pivots and Blockers gather in formation in front of the jammer line, but behind the pivot line. Jammers line up behind the jammer line. On the jam-starting whistle, everyone begins skating counterclockwise.

A Jammer is the only player able to score points. Their goal is to become the first player to legally pass all opposing players in the pack. Blockers attempt to stop the other team’s Jammer while propelling their own forward. The Pivots act like the pace car in a NASCAR race and control the speed of the pack while also acting as a blocker.

The Pivots and Blockers must remain in a pack and are not permitted to stray more than 20 feet from the largest group. If a Pivot or Blocker falls or otherwise becomes separated, she is out of play and cannot block or assist the Jammers until she rejoins the pack.

After passing the pack the first time, a Jammer scores one point for each opposing player they legally pass. The first Jammer to legally pass all opposing pack members becomes the lead Jammer. As the lead Jammer, the player can ‘call off’, or end the jam, before the two-minutes are up by repeatedly placing her hand on her hips.

Even though a bout may appear to be a no-holds-barred free-for-all, the sport is governed by a strict set of rules. The official WFTDA rules and referee hand signals can be found here.

A Few Things to Know…

  • To receive points, Jammers must pass opponents while in bounds.
  • Jammers do not receive points if they foul a player while making a pass or pass a player headed to the penalty box.
  • If an opposing player passes the Jammer, no points are scored when the Jammer repasses that player.
  • Points are not scored for passing an opposing Jammer unless she is being lapped.
  • Blocking is permitted using body parts above the mid-thigh, excluding forearms, hands and head. Blocks from behind are not permitted.
  • A player cannot block with extended arms or elbows.
  • If a player commits an infraction, such as an illegal block or unsportsmanlike conduct, penalties are awarded. A penalty requires the player to serve one minute in the penalty box.
  • Quad skates, helmets, mouth guards, wrist guards, elbow pads and knee pads are required.

The History of Roller Derby

Roller Derby in the 1950s

In 1935, Chicago promoter Leo Seltzer invented a spectacle called roller derby. The first event, held on August 13, 1935 in the Chicago Coliseum, was a simulation of a cross-country roller skating race. Billed as The Transcontinental Roller Derby, it featured teams of one man and one woman who took turns skating 57,000 laps, or the equivalent of a 4,000-mile cross-country race. Roller derby was an instant success, drawing 20,000 spectators in the first week alone.

Occasionally, massive collisions and crashes occurred. Like any great promoter, Seltzer quickly realized this was the most exciting part and tweaked his game to maximize the carnage. Two teams of five skaters now circled the track, with each team sending out a ‘jammer’ to skate around and lap members of the opposing team. It became a full-contact physical sport, with elbows, body-checks and fights galore. The fans loved it and Seltzer soon took his show on the road.

The sport continued to gain popularity and with the 1950′s introduction of a new medium called television, roller derby catapulted into a national phenomenon. It drew thousands of fans and made legends out of its competitors.

Jerry Seltzer, Leo’s son, moved the family operation to the San Francisco area in 1958. The sport remained popular through the 1960s but waned in popularity in the 1970′s. A combination of spiraling costs and an uncertain economy forced the younger Seltzer to shut down his roller derby business in 1973.

Thanks to a group of industrious and spirited women in Austin, TX, roller derby was reborn in 2001 and has been gathering speed ever since.  This new generation of roller derby pays homage to its theatrical roots but shifts the focus to pure, unscripted, competitive athletics coupled with a DIY attitude and fearless female empowerment.  Contemporary flat track roller derby follows the rules and regulations of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) and is a fast-paced, hard-hitting sport that requires genuine athleticism, strategy, and dedication.  Roller Girls may be theatrical and highly individual, but first and foremost they are athletes and team players.  Today there are more than 400 all-female flat track roller derby leagues all over the globe, in both small towns and major cities.