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Friday, 28 October 2011 15:00

Survive a Roller Derby Jam

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From Wired How-To Wiki

Mayday Malone of Manhattan Mayhem hitting a competitor out of bounds. Photo by Tom Igoe/Reprinted with permission.

When the roller derby revival began in Austin back in 2001, skaters had little idea what they were doing. They looked at some University of Texas archives for tips, but, for the most part, recreated the whole game. Adopters of this all-female contact sport have been fine-tuning it ever since.

Derby used to be full of theatrically violent moves like clotheslines, tackles and face punching. But try that these days and you’re in for an expulsion. Today’s derby skaters take the sport seriously and have worked hard to overcome the 20th century vision of the sport as WWE-inspired T&A fakery. Today, most leagues play by the official rules of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, even if they aren’t a member of the organization (out of more than 900 teams worldwide, 124 are WFTDA members).

Here are the basics of the game that’s also become a cultural revolution, from Danielle Furfaro, a blocker for the Queens of Pain, one of the home teams of the New York City-based Gotham Girls Roller Derby.

The game

Roller derby is played on a regulation-sized oval track while wearing speed skates. There are two teams of five players on the track at once. Each team has a jammer, who scores a point for each opposing player she passes. As the jammers race around the track, the blockers help their jammer through while simultaneously trying to stop the other jammer. Each jam lasts up to two minutes; bouts are an hour long.


The jammer

She is the point scorer, the one with a starred helmet who everyone on the track (and usually everyone on the stands) has their eyes on. Jammers tend to be the fastest, wiliest players on the team. But they also have to be tough, since they’ll be on the receiving end of the most frequent and hardest hits from opposing blockers.

The blockers

Everyone on the track who’s not a jammer is a blocker. Each blocker has two simultaneous goals – to stop the opposing jammer from passing them while helping their own jammer make it through the pack. Blockers are usually assigned one of four positions on the track, which may vary based on strategies.

The pivot

The pivot acts as the head of the blockers. Anyone can call out plays, but it’s typically the pivot who’s in charge. She traditionally played at the top of the pack, but as the game has evolved, she’s more likely to be found in a tight wall with the rest of her blockers. The pivot is also the only player on the track who can take over as jammer mid-jam.


The WFTDA rulebook is lengthy and complex. Even the most seasoned players and refs get a rule wrong or find themselves arguing the nuances of a call. Here are the most important rules to know:

The legal hitting zones

Repeat after me: there are no elbows in roller derby. While this seems to be the fantasy weapon of choice for newbie fans, elbows are a strict no-no in derby play. There are two kinds of legal hitting zones: those used to hit with and the places on another skater’s body that you can hit. Skaters can hit using anything below the neck, above the mid-thigh, and above the elbow. If a skater hits with their elbows, forearms, hands, knees, feet, or head, they should be prepared for a trip to the penalty box or worse.

The engagement zone

You have to be in bounds and within the pack zone in order to engage another player. This means no speeding ahead to block a jammer who’s on the other side of the track. To touch a player who is not on your team, you must be within 10 feet of the pack, which is designated by the area of the track that has the most players from both teams. You also have to be on the track and have at least one foot on the ground.


If you do get hit or skate or fall out of bounds, you cannot advance your position in the pack. So skaters have to be very careful to stop and come in behind all the skaters who might have passed them. This might seem simple enough, but when you’re speeding around a track and bodies are zooming around everywhere, it is not easy.


No fighting. It’s as simple as that. This includes tripping, kicking and shoving. Engage in anything that could be deemed as misconduct and you’ll be ejected from the bout.

Pro Moves


Donna Matrix whips BZerk forward to victory. Photo by David Andrew Morris/Reprinted with permission.

This is the classic derby move. A blocker puts her arm straight out for the approaching jammer to grab and slingshots her ahead so that she can speed though the pack.

A variation on this is the elusive leg whip, where the blocker holds her leg out so the jammer can slingshot off of it. It’s only used by the most advanced players and even then, it doesn’t happen much. Seeing this move is like spotting a unicorn.


What would derby be without the hits? When fans think of derby, that’s probably what they think of. And when a player delivers a monster hit that sends someone else flying, that’s bound to get the biggest cheers from the crowd. The key to hard hits is to get low and target well, hitting with your hips and shoulder with a force that comes from the legs. And it isn’t always about taking a skater off her feet. A good steady push to the outside can keep a player disengaged for longer than a hit from which they can quickly recover.


Suzy Hotrod and Anais Ninja forming a wall. Photo by Alex Erde/Reprinted with permission.

This the basic and most effective strategy in roller derby — blockers work together in groups of two, three or four to make an impenetrable wall that a jammer can’t squeeze through. As packs get tighter, some derby play is starting to look more like a rugby scrum. A lot of teams now start their packs as close to the jammer line as possible, so when the whistle blows, there’s a tight mass of clashing bodies, all struggling to get the jammers where they want them. The team that makes the best wall usually comes out ahead.

Jumping the apex

Suzy Hotrod jumping the alex. Photo by Tom Igoe/Reprinted with permission.

The jammer comes up on the pack, but sees traffic everywhere. The blocker closest to the inside thinks she’s holding the line, but is she really? If a maneuverable jammer with good timing hits the pack right at the turn at the end of the track, they can safely jump over the out-of-bounds area without their feet ever touching.

The juke

Bonnie Thunders pulls a juke. Photo by David Andrew Morris/Reprinted with permission.

Jammers don’t make it through a pack of blockers on speed and maneuverability alone. A little psychological trickery is also called for to get out of light spots, and that’s where the juke comes in handy. In this move, a jammer bops back and forth from side to side to confuse the blockers and make them think she’s chosen a specific path. When the blocker moves right to keep her from rolling up the outside, she shoots inside…and scores.

Pulling a cut

A player hits a jammer or opposing blocker out of bounds while they are at the top of the pack and then races backwards. Since the player who’s gone out could be called on a penalty if they cut in front of anyone, that player is forced to the back of the pack.

Backwards blocking

Wild Cherri executing a backwards block. Photo by Sean Hale/Reprinted with permission.

The newest trend is backwards blocking, where a blocker, either on their own or as the connector point of a wall, turns around to block the jammer with their chest. This is a tricky move because the skater needs to keep moving in the same direction as the rest of the traffic on the track or they’ll be called on a foul for clockwise blocking.


While you might be ready to strap on some skates and hit the track, roller derby takes a lot of training and practice. Unless a new player has a background in skating, it will probably be a few months before you’re ready for contact with other skaters. And, no matter what your skill level, always wear the appropriate protective gear, including a helmet, a mouth guard, knee pads, elbow pads and wrist guards.

Article by Danielle Furfaro,

This page was last modified 22:12, 27 October 2011 by howto_admin.


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