What is roller derby?
Seems like a pretty easy question to answer. Most people in the derby community might respond to it with something like this:
Roller derby is a team game played on roller skates where a player from each team has the ability to score points by passing players from the other team, and is a game where teams play offense and defense simultaneously.
For most people, that should be sufficient enough to send them on their way.
But not me.
When I ask, “what is roller derby,” I don’t mean how the game is played.
Nor am I asking for a description of modern derby, the people playing it, the explosive growth of the modern game, or the culture and attitude that permeates through it.
What I really mean is, “why is roller derby?”
In other words: What makes the sport of roller derby, roller derby?
What’s the real reason for having a pivot? If roller derby is supposed to be a game where teams play offense and defense constantly and simultaneously, why do power jams have to be an exception to that? What’s the real difference between “fast derby” and “slow derby?” Why is “the pack” such an important part of making the game work? What does it really mean to play as a “team” in roller derby?
Just how is this sport actually supposed to work?
Many of the fundamental concepts that make derby what it is are unknown to many, including many of the players playing it. Established team sports like football, hockey, basketball, and soccer have been around for decades, and throughout this time has been built volumes upon volumes of knowledge to refer to when teaching the basics, crafting strategies, and refining rules to play by. Roller derby as we know it today has no such repository.
I think it’s about time I change that.
Roller derby is more than 75 years old. During this time, different people tried making their own versions of roller derby (or something resembling roller derby) to various levels of success.
Since those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and the last thing any of us wants is to see roller derby fade away again, the Another Derby series will highlight six different variations of roller derby that have appeared throughout the years, using the history of the game to demonstrate the concepts behind the sport of derby.
Each part of this six-part series will showcase one game variation from roller derby’s past. There will be a brief explanation of its origins, an explanation of game rules, and an appreciation of what that form of derby brought to the table. Even though not all of these games were played legitimately, they are a part of roller derby’s history all the same.
After learning about a game, I’ll break down specific concepts from it to see what clues we can find, if any, to possibly help make the modern game better. There are also important lessons that can be learned, which we should all take to heart as the modern game looks to the future.
The ultimate goal of the Another Derby series is to educate the derby community on how the game is really supposed to work, thereby giving new perspectives and potentially spawning new ideas to aid modern players in their efforts to improve their own versions of roller derby.
I’m also aiming for everyone to have a lot of fun along the way, because there’s so, so much more to this sport than meets the eye. Even the most experienced derby vets may have not heard of all of the derby variants that will be featured in this series—I can guarantee that no one will be able to predict all six I’ll be writing about—so even if you think you know everything about derby, you’re going to be in for one hell of a surprise.
Here’s the first surprise: This series of blog posts is going to be big.
No, really. It’s going to be hugely freakin’ big.
Seriously, I mean it. This isn’t going to be one of my typically long one-shot posts. It’s planned to be a full-fledged series of articles that will take the better part of a year to complete all six (and maybe more!) parts.
Because of the ambitious scale of this project (and also because I’m a big fucking tease) one part of the Another Derby series will be released at a time. When fully completed, this puppy will span over 20 “chapters” and hopefully be a definite take on anything and everything roller derby.
Below is a table of contents for the Another Derby series. Initially, it will serve as a schedule and teaser for upcoming entries. (Fans of WRDN on Facebook and followers of the WRDN Twitter will get previews of what’s going up before it goes up, so if you really want the goods you should get in on that.) As more of the series is made available, links will appear to quick access to each page of each section for ease of reference.
I want to be upfront and honest about this before I get started: This is quite easily the largest solo project I have ever undertaken in my entire life, by a country mile. I would not be doing this if it were not a labor of love, and were it not for the fantastic support I’ve received through my blog in its first year. I wouldn’t be doing it without you all! I thank you for reading, and I’m glad there are so many out there that share my feelings about this great sport.
WRDN Presents: The Another Derby Series
Schedule / Table of Contents
Another Derby #1 – Classic Roller Derby
- Chapter 1: The Pivot Point - Understanding the legitimate origins of roller derby’s past will be important as the modern game defines itself in the future.
- Chapter 2: Classic Derby Rules - The game invented by Leo Seltzer in the late 1930s was made the way it was for a reason; these are the rules as they existed some 40 years later.
- Chapter 3: The Pack Start Formation - The rolling pack start featured in the old game probably wouldn’t work today, but there is a critical element of it that the modern game would do well to consider incorporating.
- Chapter 4: The True Role and Purpose of the Pivot – Today’s pivot is but a shadow of its former self; as it was originally designed, the pivot actually is the position that is the most important in making roller derby function correctly.
Another Derby #2 - Rollergames
- Chapter 5: The Show Must Go On - As the classic era of Roller Derby began to wane, rival promotion Roller Games took the “entertainment” aspect of sports entertainment and put it over the top.
- Chapter 6: Rollergames: The TV Show – Figure-8 tracks. Walls of Death. Alligator pits. The synidicated television version of Roller Games from the early 1990s was so awful, it was amazing.
- Chapter 7: SPORTS! (entertainment) – Although the modern era of roller derby has good reason to distance itself from the “fake” era of the game, that doesn’t mean the legitimate parts of the sport’s past should be discarded in the process.
Another Derby #3 - Roller Game Japan League
- Chapter 8: The Battle With Speed and Crash – The Japanese satellite of Roller Games faced the extinction of their league. It took one man and a unique game format to save it, creating the most insane version of roller derby in its history.
- Chapter 9: The Rules of Roller Game Japan – Players wear full-face helmets and thick protective padding. There is no period clock. Every jam is a power jam. The defense can end the jam in more ways than the offense can. It’s bizzare…but it works! Here’s how the Japanese put the power back into power jams.
- Chapter 10: The 24-(Feet-Per)-Second Shot Clock – Basketball before the shot clock was bad. How they devised a way to fix it is very much in line with why roller derby was designed to work with two jammers on the track at all times.
- Chapter 11: The Power Jam Problem – Trying to retrofit one-jammer situations into a game that was designed to have two jammers creates some problems. Here’s how Roller Game Japan solved this problem, along with how modern roller derby can try to do it with their own games.
Another Derby #4
- Harder, Better, Faster, Failure
Another Derby #5
- The Futility of Individual Effort
Another Derby #6
- A Race Between Two Teams to Score Points
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Disclaimer: The Another Derby Series is a good-faith attempt to chronicle the history of the sport of roller derby, using information sources from books, the Internet, and when possible, casual conversation with participants in past forms of the game. Any factual errors, omissions, or misattributions should not be considered intentional or malicious. WRDN welcomes corrections or additional information, because derby-folk should be working together to make this game as great as possible!