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A Beginner’s Guide To Roller Derby


A Beginner’s Guide To Roller Derby

Ottilie French

The last time I was on roller skates, I was about 10 years old. I was banned from leaving our quiet suburban street, and my mother put me in so much protective gear I looked like the Michelin Man. Despite this, roller derby has always fascinated me. Aside from netball, I’d never really come across another almost all-female sport until I discovered it.

Adelaide’s roller derby scene has been around for 10 years, and has gradually built up a following of locals who flock to the track. I went to June’s bout between the Road Train Rollers and the Salty Dolls at the Adelaide Showgrounds as a derby virgin, and have compiled a little guide to roller derby to save others from being as totally clueless as I was.

1.       Take A Cushion

Seating options include metal bleachers or the concrete floor. Your caboose will go numb within 15 minutes. Nick one of those superfluous cushions off your Mum’s bed to save your butt.

2.       Arrive Early

The earlier you are, the better your view. The metal bleachers get nabbed quickly, and some are reserved specifically for club sponsors, so most onlookers set themselves up on cushions and picnic blankets around the edge of the track.

3.       Go In A Group

Bouts are incredibly inclusive environments, and people from all walks of life watched the ladies battle it out. There were a number of families with small children set up on picnic blankets and rugs on the edges of the track. LGBTQIA+ persons are also welcomed with open arms, and anyone with brightly coloured hair will feel right at home. Patrons are welcome to BYO food, however alcoholic drinks can only be purchased from the on-site bar.

Adelaide Roller Derby Stephen Muller

4.       Have Some Idea Of The Rules/Jargon

There’s two teams of up to 5 players, meaning a total of 10 skaters on the track. Each team has 4 blockers and one jammer, the only person who can score points. Jammers always wear a star helmet cover, which makes them a bit easier to keep your eyes on. The 8 blockers (a.k.a the pack) start on the track between the pivot line and the jammer line (which is 30 ft. behind the pivot line), while each team’s jammer will start at the jam line, behind the pack.

Roller derby bouts (the term for match/game) are made up of two 30 minute halves, which are broken down into jams. Jams are basically mini battles within the halves, and can go for a maximum of two minutes. Once everyone’s in position, a single whistle starts the jam, and the jammers now have to work their way through the pack, passing all the blockers. The first jammer to get through the pack legally (i.e. without copping any penalties) is declared lead jammer by the referees. Obtaining lead jammer status basically means that skater gets to call the shots for the rest of the jam, and can call off the jam whenever she likes by placing her hands on her hips repeatedly.

Once both jammers have made their way through the pack and a lead jammer has been established, both jammers can start to score points. For every opposing team member you skate past, you score a point. Jammers try to weave their way through the pack as quickly as possible, but this isn’t made easy for them. Blockers, as their name suggests, try to hold up the opposing jammer, while simultaneously knocking the opposing team’s blockers around so their jammer sails through and scores more points. All skaters are trying to avoid penalties too. Penalties are given out for any action that affects the safety of the game in a negative way, and result in 30 second time-out in the sin bin for the naughty skater while the jam continues without her.

After two minutes, or once the lead jammer has signalled she wants to end the jam, 4 whistles sound and the two teams have about 30 seconds to rotate players, change positions and to line up ready for the next jam. After the two 30 minute halves are over, the team with the most points wins.

5.       Enjoy A Good Pun

Roller derby is rife with puns, and the skaters tend to have pun names. Amongst the Road Train Rollers and the Salty Dolls, there were skaters dubbed Victoria Bitter, Femmebot 3000, Blue Wrenegade, Harry Smyles and Maiden Hell. Once of the MCs was titled Miss Informed, and even the live band Juliette Seizure & the Tremor-Dolls got in on the pun-demonium (hah).

6.       Some Really Random Stuff Happens

It’s a pretty quirky environment. Before the bout, each team skates onto the track to their designated theme song and performs an introductory dance, during which the MCs announce each skater’s name. There’s uniforms, but they’re open to interpretation, meaning some players opt for comfy clothes in team colours and others appear as though they’re in costume. If a time-out is called, music is blasted over a stereo and (at least at the bout I attended) a troupe of audience members led by a woman in a sailor hat took the opportunity to get up and dance. At the end of the bout, the crowd formed a tunnel for the derby girls to skate through during their victory lap. All of this happens with no seemingly obvious warning or prior organisation, so just go along with it.

7.       It’s Fast

Really fast. Skater’s feet are a blur, competitors fall constantly and I have no bloody idea how the referees do their bit. It’s impossible to have your eyes everywhere they need to be, and without a ball or some solo piece of equipment to keep your vision centred, it’s incredibly easy to miss awesome moments. Also, there really isn’t another sport similar enough to even liken roller derby to, so if you’re a derby virgin, chances are you’ll walk away almost as confused as when you walked in (which gives you a great excuse to go again).

Adelaide Roller Derby Stephen Muller

8.       There’s More To Roller Derby Than Roller Derby

Not all the entertainment provided is solely derby. A designated area behind the track is set up for kids to hoon around on skateboards, scooters and skates of their own. The pavilion boasts a small canteen as well as the aforementioned bar, and there’s even a merch stand. Without a doubt, however, the best non-derby drawcard is Bout Village. Essentially a rockabilly Gilles Street Market, Bout Village is teeming with life. Derby-goers can find everything from Hello Kitty socks to gothic threads to wooden earrings shaped like woodland creatures. A number of stall holders have EFTPOS/PayPal/Apple Pay facilities too, just to make your life that little bit easier.

9.       Whip It Isn’t An Accurate Depiction Of Roller Derby

For starters, non-Hollywood derby is way less violent. Skaters are allowed to block their opponents with their chests, shoulders, backs and butts, but elbows, knees, hands and feet can’t be weaponised as Whip It would have you believe. Similarly, there’s less stunts, so don’t expect a replica of that wicked scene where Ellen Page jumps over her horizontal opponents. What the movie does accurately portray, however, is the female athleticism and comradery embodied in roller derby. It’s great to see a community rally around these sportswomen and celebrate their talents.

10.   Now That I’ve Convinced You Roller Derby Rules...

Buy your tickets to the next bout right here!


All images taken by Stephen Muller for Adelaide Roller Derby