Derby 411

What Is Roller Derby?

Rox Ann Stones blocks RCR's 40 Ounce Bounce

Rox Ann Stones blocks RCR’s 40 Ounce Bounce

Roller derby is a contact sport played on quad skates around an oval track during what is called a bout. Each bout is comprised of two 30 minute halves that are further broken down into periods of time called jams that can last up to 2 minutes each. During a jam the two teams each field 5 players: 4 blockers and 1 jammer. The jammer is the only player that can score points. She wears a helmet cover, called a panty, with a star on it while on the track. The blockers from each team form the pack when they are within 10 feet of each other. Their job is to help their own jammer make it through the pack while also preventing the opposing jammer from doing the same. Blockers are only allowed to hit or assist within 20 feet of the pack: the area defined as the engagement zone. All skaters can only make contact using legal hitting zones on the body, generally between the shoulders and knees, and excluding the back, elbows or forearms. After making an initial pass through the pack, the jammer scores a point for each skater on the opposing team that they lap, including the other jammer, on each additional pass. Using strategy and hard hits, the teams bout it out for the most points. It’s as fun to watch as it is to play!

Check out this video from the WFTDA for more info:

The History of Roller Derby

Press Photo taken during the Patin d’or (“Gold Skating”), 15 October 1911. This skating competition was held for 24 hours at the Vélodrome d’hiver (Winter Velodrome) in Paris.

Believe it or not, roller derby has its origins in endurance races that were held as early as the mid-1880s. Roller skating was growing in popularity and these races, often organized multi-day events, were held for cash prizes on both flat and banked tracks. So how do you go from endurance marathons to full contact 2 minute jams?

Spectators of the endurance races had always enjoyed watching the falls, trips, and tumbles. When Leo Seltzer created the Transcontinental Roller Derby in the mid-1930s, a touring exhibition that was a simulation of a road race between two-skater teams, the increase in contact during races make it extremely popular. By the end of the 1930s, Seltzer was persuaded by sportswriter Damon Runyon to change the rules of his Roller Derby so that contact would be further increased. In 1939 Seltzer arrived at a version that was five-vs-five with contact and players scoring points by successfully lapping members of the opposing team. However, World War II started and derby entered a decline as attention focused on the war effort instead of pastimes.

After the war, roller derby resumed in televised broadcasts before television viewership was particularly widespread. Spectator turnouts for the bouts increased as well. The 1949-50 inaugural season of the Leo Seltzer’s National Roller Derby League held its season playoffs at a sold-out Madison Square Garden. Over the next two decades roller derby was broadcast over even more networks, but the country was losing interest and attendance declined. The decline of the sport continued despite changes made by Jerry Seltzer, Leo’s son and the commissioner of the league from 1959, to make the sport more exciting for spectators and more appealing for television viewers. The changes included scripted story lines and some of the fake fighting theatrics that are now confused for the sport. In the end, the changes weren’t enough and the sport was mostly abandoned with the Roller Derby League ending in 1973.

“A skillful shoulder thrown by ‘Fuzzy’ Buchek foils an attempt by Vivian Johnson (center) to slip between two skaters and start a jam. Roller Derby girls in Life Magazine –1948.

Derby resurfaced through an almost underground revival in the early 2000s in Austin, Texas. This incarnation was all female skaters, all-women organized, and played on the amateur level locally. By mid-2006 there were more than 135 similar leagues across the US and the sport began spreading internationally. The increase in leagues, league sizes, and popularity allowed for more opportunity to travel if teams didn’t want to just compete locally. Today, roller derby is played in over 1000 leagues across the world and in as many variations as suits the needs of the skating population in each area. There are now women’s, men’s, and coed leagues. Flat-track derby is far more widespread, but banked track leagues exist as well. There are even junior derby leagues!

The Charlottesville Derby Dames skate according to the rules of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, and we are proud to have been members of the WFTDA since December 2012. We are love being a part of the history of this amazing sport and we look forward to continuing to make history with our amazing fans supporting us along the way!


Roller Derby. Wikipedia:

Vélodrome d’hiver. Wikipedia:

Vintage Roller Derby Bad Girls | Sass on Wheels. The Selvege Yard.