By Celeste McAlpin-Levitt
As they roar around the track, the roller derby skaters jostle for position at the front of the pack, trying to stay ahead of their rivals from the opposing team. The Varsity Brawlers are trying to unseat the Tough Cookies for this year’s championship. Around the Los Angeles Derby Dolls arena, fans clap and scream their favorite players’ names while munching on food truck fare. The energy is high as the jam comes to a close, with the scoreboard showing the teams nearly neck and neck.
The sport of roller derby dates back to the mid-1930s when Leo Seltzer formed a touring company of teams playing an early form of the high contact sport on roller skates. Throughout most of the 20th century it was a predominantly male sport, but in the early 2000s several all-female, local leagues began to develop in different parts of the U.S. These leagues often had a strong punk or rockabilly aesthetic both in the rink and in the stands, and emphasized a feminist, queer, empowering atmosphere. Enthusiasm for the sport increased rapidly, with 2,000 leagues sprouting up worldwide. The sport gained popularity with the 2009 release of Whip It!, starring Ellen Page as a gifted skater new to the sport.
While understanding roller derby’s complex system of fouls and point-scoring is far from easy, the game’s basic premise revolves around passing the opposing team around the roller rink. Each hour-long “bout” is composed of multiple short “jams,” during which a designated “jammer” tries to earn points by lapping the opposing team’s four “blockers.” Players are allowed to try to knock each other out of bounds or prevent them from passing, but only certain methods of contact are allowed. The action is incredibly fast, and the audience must pay careful attention to keep track.
One of the most unique aspects of roller derby is that skaters pick different names to go by in the rink. They are typically puns, usually funny and indicating how fierce the skater is. A few examples include “Princess Lay-Ya Flat,” “Lucy Furr,” “George W. Push,” “Hermione Danger,” and “Miss Demeaner.”
If you want to check out a local bout, the Derby Dolls have a permanent rink and host bouts regularly. There are still four bouts left in this season, and you can find the schedule , location, and more info below:
If you go to a bout and think you might be into roller derby as more than a spectator, the Derby Dolls also regularly lead “Derby Por Vida” and “Fresh Meat” training programs at their “Doll Factory” and encourage beginners to learn more about the sport. You can find a link for more information here:
Featured image by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner on Flickr
Celeste is a senior majoring in Comparative Literature and Political Science with a minor in Screenwriting. She grew up in Tennessee but has lived in the U.K. and France, and recently returned from a year at Trinity College in Dublin. She has previously worked as a tour guide and conversation partner at the English Language Institute in Knoxville, TN. At USC, she is active in campus societies including United Students Against Sweatshops and the Secular Student Fellowship. She loves dancing, playing with her kitten, watching classic movies, and making her famous mac n’ cheese.