Niagara Gazette

September 11, 2012

ROLLER DERBY 101: A look at the fast-growing sport as playoffs hit Niagara Falls

By Jill Keppeler
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Roller derby teams from throughout the country will roll into Niagara Falls next Friday, Saturday and Sunday for the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association North Central Region playoffs, an event that will eventually crown a regional winner (and runners-up) to head off to the national championships in November.

But what is roller derby, really? Is it anything like the fairly ... theatrical ... derby from the 1960s and ‘70s? What’s up with the funny names? And what the heck is a jammer, anyway?

In honor of the regional playoff event, here’s a primer on all things derby, from Alley Kats to WFTDA.

What is roller derby?

According to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, modern roller derby evolved in 2001, although the term “roller derby” dates to the 1920s. It was originally used to describe roller-skate races, but in the late 1930s began to refer to a more physical competition involving two teams of skaters, the basics of which

endure today. The sport began to be televised in the 1940s, but the version most often remembered dates from the early 1960s to the 1980s, with trademark theatrics and sometimes scripted storylines.

According to the WFTDA, modern flat-track derby got its start with one league in Austin, Texas. By 2012, there were 1,100 leagues worldwide ... and counting.

Queen City Roller Girls public relations chairperson Kathy Lisborg, otherwise known as skater “Vile Love It,” said derby is one of the few team contact sports that exist for women.

“It’s a seriously athletic sport,” she said. “It takes a tremendous amount of training, endurance, strength, as well as the strategy of the sport.

“It’s an incredibly mental game, very strategic ... and it’s a lot of fun.”

Western New York’s local derby league is the Queen City Roller Girls, which was started in 2006 by skaters Sissy Fit and Flotorious and became a full member of the WFTDA in 2010. The league has four home teams (Alley Kats, Devil Dollies, Nickel City Knockouts and the Suicidal Saucies), which skate against each other for the Queen City Cup during the regular season; a WFTDA-sanctioned all-star team, the Lake Effect Furies, which plays against other teams in the Eastern region; and the Queen’s Court, composed of players that have not yet been drafted to the other teams.

Earlier this year, the league also started a junior league called the Ice Ice Babies, for girls age 8 to 17. All the teams skate at the Rainbow Rink in North Tonawanda.

How is it played? What are the positions?

In modern flat-track roller derby, each team has five players on the track at once. One player on each team is the jammer, who wears a star on her helmet and can score points. The rest of the team consists of three blockers (whose job it is to keep the opposing team’s jammer from scoring and to clear the way for their own jammer) and a pivot (who wears a stripe on her helmet, controls the speed of the pack and can take over from the jammer in certain strategies ... although not in the case of a penalty).

A derby match, called a bout, consists of two-minute playing segments called jams. A regulation WFTDA bout includes two 30-minute periods with a halftime break. The team jammers line up on the track 20 feet behind the respective team packs as play is about to begin.


According to the QCRG website, “At the first whistle, the pack takes off and gets up to speed and into position: at the second whistle, which is both jammers take off and try to catch and lap the pack. The first one through the pack with no fouls or passes out of bounds is declared lead jammer, and can stop the action at any time by signaling to the refs. If neither one makes it through cleanly, there’s no lead, and the action must continue for the full two minutes.”

Lisborg called it a “combination between a race and hockey and football.”

While jammers have to be very quick and agile, she said, blockers don’t get a lot of the glamour, but a lot of the action.

“It’s unusual that one blocker can stop a jammer from passing,” she said. “Blocking is about working together. They’re the anchors of the team. When you are a wall with your teammates, you are so much harder to get through than if you are spread out or working as an individual.

“You have to switch from offense to defense and back again in the blink of an eye. Not just you as an individual, but as a team. That’s the same in any sport ... Good teams are very cohesive.”

Lisborg has played both as jammer and blocker, and has both positions have their own strategy and challenges.

“It used to be a very defensive game, where the blockers really only paid attention to the opposing jammer,” she said. “The higher up you get, the more the five players play as a team. We specifically set up players to help our jammer get through — because the more points you score, the more likely you are to win.”

How do players score?

According to the WFTDA, “once a jammer laps the pack, she begins scoring one point for every opposing blocker she passes legally. She can continue to lap the pack for additional scoring passes for the duration of the jam.”

Whichever jammer is lead jammer, however, (the first one to make it through the pack legally on that first, non-scoring lap) has the power to call off the jam at any time by placing her hands on her hips. There may not be a lead jammer, however, if neither jammer keeps it through the pack cleanly on that lap.

What are the penalties?

While derby is a contact sport, not all contact is legal ... including the stereotype of skaters throwing elbows. According to the QCRG website, while players can hit, block or push their opponents using their upper arms, shoulders, chests or hips, it is illegal to hit opponents in the head, lower legs or back. Players cannot use their head, elbows, hands, forearms, legs or feet to hit or push opponents. Other illegal moves include tripping or falling intentionally in front of another skater or holding arms or hands with teammates to block an opposing skater.

Four minor penalties count as a major, and more serious fouls are immediately called as major penalties, according to QCRG. A player who incurs a major penalty must sit in the penalty box for a full minute. Her team cannot replace her for that time.

What should derby newcomers watch for?

Both Lisborg and Amanda Buraczewski, the president of the WFTDA, suggested that newcomers watch the jammers to start out, but as they pick up more of the scoring and rules, try to keep an eye on the pack of blockers.

“I would say in the second half, try to watch the blockers a little more,” Lisborg said. “You’ll get to see them make plays and strategize. You’ll appreciate the game more fully.”

Buraczewski has also skated with the Atlanta league and its All-star team, the Dirty South Derby Girls, since 2008 under the derby name “Alassin Sane.” 

In many ways, she said, the jammer fulfills the role of the ball in other team sports— taking all the attention from the other team.

“I think a lot of people tend to watch jammers. They’re going fast and it’s really easy to focus on them,” she said. “I think that if you’re trying to learn the rules, though, the pack is the place to focus. You can really see how teams have to play offense and defense at the same time. You can almost predict how that next pass is going to go if you’re really paying attention. 


“That’s where the amazing stuff happens.”

Why the nicknames?

Most derby participants take a nickname to use as their derby alter-ego — as do many referees and coaches. On the QCRG teams, derby names range from “Roxanne Debris” to “BJ Harmstrong’ to “Day TripHer” to “Legs Luther.”

Lisborg said the practice carried over from old-school derby. There has been a move to get away from that vestige of theatrics, especially as the sport moves toward consideration for the 2020 Olympic games, but most skaters have continued the practice.

“I think it has to do with how women in society, we’re supposed to be nice, the nuturers, the moms, the healers,” she said. “This can help us find that part of us that can be more physically confident and athletic.

“It’s fun and creative. Derby is very much a team sport, but it’s about individual expression as well.” 

Buraczewski said the names are a part of the fun of derby.

“There are some things we feel are necessary from the past we want to keep, like the nicknames,” she said. “It’s not mandatory, it’s just what some people choose to go by. It’s fun having an alter ego; it’s kind of like having a super-hero version of yourself.

“After playing derby for five years, I’m Lass, I’m Amanda, it’s all the same thing.”

Is this a real sport? 

Lisborg has two words for that question: “Play it.”

“Come put on some skates and some gear and play it,” she said. “When I sit down in practice because they’re explaining something, and the sweat is pouring off me and I’m drenched by the time I get out of there ... there is no way you can’t tell me that’s not a sport.”

Buraczewski said that derby has had to fight its old reputation — as in, “If Raquel Welch can do it in the movies, it’s really not that hard.” — but what happens on the track speaks for itself.

“All the things that happen here that are exciting are real,” she said. “If someone falls down and they’re not getting up, it’s because they’re hurt. All the things that may have been exciting about ‘70s derby, it’s being replaced by the athleticism these girls are bringing to the track.”

As derby grows in the public eye, she said, that perception is becoming less of a problem.

“You just have to come out and see it to really understand,” she said. “I can tell them how tough the tryouts are; I can tell them that people are flying places to be on the best team they can possibly be, because they want to compete. No one buys it until they see it.

“It’s a sport. There should be no question. If you watch it, you can’t deny it. Especially at a tournament level, there’s no question. ... It’s about being an athlete. We want to be as athletic as possible and none of us are doing it without having a real life to have to manage as well ... which is the mind-blowing and amazing part.”

What’s going on next weekend in Niagara Falls?

The WFTDA North Central Region playoffs, nicknamed “Thrill of the Spill,” will be hosted by the Queen City Roller Girls from Friday to Sept. 16 at the Convention Center & Event Center Niagara Falls, 101 Old Falls St., Niagara Falls. The top 10 teams in that region will compete to finish in the top three and advance to the WFTDA championships in November in Atlanta (against the top three teams in the West, East and South Central regions).

This year’s competitors are the Windy City Rollers (Chicago), the Minnesota RollerGirls (St. Paul, Minn.), Naptown Rollergirls (Indianapolis), Arch Rival Roller Girls (St. Louis), Ohio Roller Girls (Columbus, Ohio), Detroit Derby Girls (Detroit), Cincinnati Rollergirls (Cincinnati), The Chicago Outfit (Chicago), Brewcity Bruisers (Milwaukee, Wis.) and Mad Rollin’ Dolls (Madison, Wis.) The tournament will feature 17 bouts, starting at 10 a.m. Friday and culminating with the region championship bout at 6 p.m. Sept. 16.

For more information or tickets, visit


ROLLER DERBY LEXICON • BLOCKER: A derby position that includes offense and defense, keeping the opposing team's jammer from scoring while assisting their team's jammer. There are three blockers on the track during a jam. • BOUT: A roller-derby match between two teams. Regulation Women's Flat Track Derby Association bouts have two 30-minute periods with a halftime break. • GRAND SLAM: When a jammer passes all blockers and laps the opposing jammer. • JAM: A two-minute playing segment during a derby bout. • JAMMER: The derby position responsible for scoring points. After the first lap, jammers earn one point for every opposing blocker they pass legally. Jammers wear a helmet cover with a star on it. • PACK: The group of both teams' blockers and pivot blockers on the track. • PIVOT: The pivot blocker serves as the leader of her teammates during that jam. The pivot can also switch into the jammer position. • QCRG: Queen City Roller Girls, Western New York's WFTDA-sanctioned roller derby league. The league has four home teams, the Alley Kats, Devil Dollies, Nickel City Knockouts and the Suicidal Saucies, an all-star team, the Lake Effect Furies, and the Ice Ice Babies junior league. • SUICIDE SEATS: The closest seats to the track. These seats often cost more and come with a minimum age restriction due to the possibility of a skater landing among the fans. • WFTDA: Women's Flat Track Derby Association, the international governing body for the sport of women's flat track roller derby. The WFTDA currently has 156 full member leagues and 91 apprentice leagues throughout the world. -- Courtesy of the Queen City Roller Girls and the Women's Flat Track Derby Association