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The History of Womens Roller Derby By Kara Baumeister

Throughout modern history, sports involving men traditionally contain elements of physical strength, potential violence, and a high degree of action; whereas, sports designated for women are graceful, non-contact, and with a less dramatic flair. This double standard has affected women in many ways. For example, the majority of role models and sports heroes are men, more commercials and publicity are focused on male sports, and finally, male sports draw a larger audience due to the elements of that sport. There is, however, one lesser known sport for women that just happens to be the exception to the rule. That sport is womens roller derby. Although most people over the age of thirty have heard of roller derby, it is still a sport of mystery. It makes a person wonder how has the unique and physically violent sport of womens roller derby endured and evolved over the last seven decades.
The invention of roller skates is usually attributed to Joseph Merlin, a Dutchman of the early 18th century, who conceived the idea of adapting ice skating for dry ground by attaching wooden spools to a supporting plate. The first skates with metal wheels were fashioned in 1763. The first modern, so-called rocking skates, which enabled a person to move easily through alternate shifting of weight, were patented in 1863 by American inventor James Leonard Plimpton. More durable skates with ball-bearing wheels were introduced later in the 19th century. This innovation popularized roller skating, which became a feature of vaudeville acts.1


The birth of roller derby truly began by accident. In 1935 Leo Seltzer, a film publicist, transformed a recreational hobby into a spectator sport. He promoted an event, the Trans-Continental Roller Derby, that was a cross between a dance-a-thon and a cross-county race.2 The catch was that this was happening on roller skates. In the Chicago Coliseum, 20,000 fans watched this exciting event.3 He had two-person teams continually circle the track thousands of times in order to simulate the distance between L.A. and New York.4 A map was put up that marked approximately where the skaters would be by their logged miles.5 It was soon apparent that crashes and collisions were going to happen when the teams of skaters tried to lap each other. Foreseeing the excitement and a possible business opportunity, Selzer soon changed the rules of his skate-a-thon. As it was since the beginning, roller derby begins with two teams of five skaters to a team. The team positions consist of one Jammer, one Pivot, and three Blockers. Together, the pivots and blockers from both teams make up the pack. The jammer is a speed skater who swerves through the pack. She scores points by passing members of the opposing team. The blockers try to help their jammer to get through the pack while simultaneously stopping the opposing jammer from doing the same. The pivot is also a blocker but she sets the pace of the other skaters while calling out various plays. In roller derby, the game is called a bout. A bout consists of 60 minutes of play--two 30-minute periods and an intermission. Within the bout are an unlimited number of jams. A jam can run up to two-minutes long. When the jam begins, the skaters line up in formation. This starts with a pivot from each team 279

in the front row, four blockers in the middle row, and two blockers in the third row. Thirty feet behind the pack are the jammers from each team. When the whistle blows, the pack takes off. On a second whistle, the jammers start fighting their way through the pack in an attempt to be named lead jammer. The girl with lead jammer status has the right to call off the jam anytime within the two minutes. The jammers pass the pack once, then skate around the track to pass them a second time. Upon the second attempt through, the jammer scores one point for every opposing team member she passes. Being a lead jammer, the skater can gain her points, then call off the jam before the other jammer gets a chance to earn hers. This is how you win a derby bout. After each jam, the teams have no more than 30 seconds to line up for the next jam. The score clock does not stop. If a skater is not on the track when the whistle is blown, her team must skate short of members.6 Seltzer soon organized a transcontinental roller derby sport-entertainment show. Using women in his game was a double-edged sword for Seltzer since he knew the presence of women athletes would sell tickets, although the mainstream press would not consider his sport legitimate or worthy of their coverage.7 He had one derby league with several teams. These skating squads would tour the country completing against each other. Roller derby was first broadcast on the radio in 1939.8 During these years, it was established that women would bout as the warmup event to the mens derby. When the United States entered WWII in 1941, roller derby got its first taste of hardship. Due to the enlistment of many skaters and fans alike, the crowds dwindled. What remained for the young league was one team that skated around to entertain the soldiers.9 It was the absence of male skaters during 280

the war era that finally gave the women the chance to take center stage, or at the very least, to be equal. After the war, roller derby would again entertain the masses. Once derby began appearing on television in 1948, its popularity boomed. Television brought the derby into its first zenith of national fame. This was the beginning of a long love affair between television audiences and the full time roller derby.10 Certain skaters emerged as favorites, such as Joanie Weston, Loretta Behrens, Ann Calvello, Gerry Murray, and Vicky Steppe. For the female skaters, there was a sense of independence. Growing up in the 40s and 50s, there were few opportunities for women, except to get married and raise a family.11 Professional roller derby was an open avenue for some women. It was a chance to get physical while still being feminine. Finally, there were careers in professional sports for women. Women became role models. Young girls idolized them. However, with all the attention and glamour of being a professional roller derby girl, came the negative side that included long periods of travel, loneliness, and the physical challenges of the sport itself. Loretta Behrens best summarized her experience adapting to roller derby with the following quote:
Even though I was skating in speed clubs and at roller rinks, when I got on the banked track it was not as easy as I had thought it would be. Suddenly I was very clumsy and very unsteady on my feet. The banks are elevated at all different angles, and they made your skates want to roll into the infield. Consequently, you have to develop new muscles and balance to manage the banks. It took a few hours on those banks and slowly my legs would developed the feel and skill to be a little


more comfortable. I found that at certain speeds and strides, you would not be fighting the banks as much. I began to adapt to the sport.12

With the immergence of roller derby into mainstream America, new aspects of the sport started to develop. The sport became faster, more physical, more competitive, and contained more collisions. Elbow-throwing, body-checking, and fist fights started to happen on the track. The fans loved it! After getting a taste for this new type of freedom and excitement, there would be no turning back. The glory days for roller derby were in the late 1940s and 1950s. Bouts drew as many as 30,000-40,000 fans. Skaters, now household names, appeared on the covers of national magazines.13 Again, the surge of popularity during this time is credited to the television phenomenon of the era. During the 1950s, the equipment that was used by skaters was very different from what it is today. In todays world of roller skating, there are different types of skate boots; however, in the 1950s there was only one. This particular skate boot had a one inch heel, and it laced up around your ankle. Today this type of boot is only used for dance or recreational skating. The one-inch heel raises and shifts your center of gravity. A skater wants to be as low to the ground as possible. The laced up high ankle of the boot also doesnt permit the skater to use full range of motion in her ankle. While todays skaters wear protective gear, yesteryears fearless women did not compete with any protective gear to prevent injuries. To top this all off, the skaters then rolled on a banked track. A banked track allowed the skater to maneuver around the track quicker due to the angles of the track. However, it also 282

takes more energy and stamina, as well as a better sense of balance, to skate on these tracks competitively.14 The rules have evolved since the 1950s as well. In the 1950s, a skater could hit, elbow, and punch another skater. Now there are penalties for grabbing or using the hands, blocking with the forearms, tripping, kicking, pushing, punching, shoving, elbow jabbing, blocking with the head, and hitting from behind.15 When a skater is penalized, she has to sit out of the jam for a designated amount of time; just like in ice hockey. In the 1950s, physical violence was all part of this uniquely entertaining sport. The trend of transcontinental traveling derby teams, television shows, and media attention continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The sport continued with increasing amounts of physical demands and violence on the track. During the 1970s, the sport began to evolve with an element of sexuality thrown into the mix. The uniforms became skimpier and more revealing. The professional athletes developed a persona and fictitious skater names that were used while on the track. Some chose to portray the evil villain while other skaters played the role of angel. The media fans got into the act. In 1972, Hollywood even got into the roller derby scene by producing a movie called Kansas City Bomber, starring Rachael Welch. The movie was about a divorced mother of two children who has an affair with the owner of a roller derby team. She learns how to skate in roller derby in order to provide for her children. As a side note, Rachael Welch did all of her own skating for this movie. Production was delayed for six weeks while she recovered from a wrist injury.16 283

Unfortunately, the popularity of the sport began to diminish. Due to high gas prices and production costs, it was no longer financially feasible to travel around the country putting on exhibitions.17 In the 1980s the majority of the roller derby leagues that were left were centered in California. As derby continued to evolve with the times, different aspects of society changed how the sport was played. The physical-sport element of derby lost its way in the medias desire for entertainment. The roller derby bouts became increasingly staged with fake fights and fake hits. The production companies started adding smoke machines and laser light shows to entertain the fans. It did not take long before the public grew tired of the spectacle and quit coming. During this time a new type of roller skating became fashionable--the roller blade. A roller skate has four wheels in a 2 x 2 format mounted underneath the boot. A roller blade has five wheels that are all inline with each other. This alignment allows the skater to go faster than she can with a standard quad position. The roller blades can also be skated inside or outside because the vast majority of parts are made up of all plastic or nylon parts. In a roller skate, the boot is leather and the metal parts will rust if gotten wet. Even though inline skating was the new rage, there still were occasional attempts to revive the sport of derby, but by the 1990s, it became passe. In 2001, an all-womens version of the sport was brought back to life. Although the changes are apparent, this sport has definitely gotten a second wind and is gaining in popularity once again. Roller Derby is absolutely, statistically, the fastest-growing sport in the United States. Back in 2005, there were a maximum of 284

60 leagues in existence. In 2006, that number doubled. And then by 2007, we had gone over 200." 18 Today, most of the derby leagues are governed by the Womens Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). The days of a bank track are gone except on the professional level at a few select venues. Every amateur track is absolutely flat. Because of this, a league doesnt have to buy or build a track. There are leagues skating in roller rinks, airport hangars, old factories, old ballrooms, and even parking lots. A skater cant use the banking of the track to assist her speed; therefore, the physical conditioning element has returned to the sport. Also,19 because there is not a track to worry about, fans are on the same level of playing field as the skaters themselves. Being on the same level of play increases their ability to see the bout and be included in the action. In fact, the most expensive seats in todays roller derby bouts are in the seating area just five feet off the track boundaries. This is referred to as Suicide Seating.20 Some people enjoy sitting there because they never quite know when a skater might come flying off the track, out of control and be landing in their lap. The element of surprise allows the fans to become a part of the roller derby action. Without a track to buy or build and without the storage costs to house it, the initial costs of starting a league are now affordable. In fact, the vast majority of roller derby leagues are skater-owned and skater-operated. These leagues are made up of a group of amateur skaters who pay a league fee to skate. It is this fee that helps to start the league. Each girl volunteers her time, talent, and skill in organizing and running different committees, much like a business. There are 285

fundraising, sponsorship, morale, complaints, bout productions, merchandising, and volunteer committees.21 One of the best aspects of these new leagues is that they are non-profit. All proceeds collected from the bout are donated to various local charitable organizations. To be a member of the WFTDA, skaters must adhere to the new rules. Protective equipment is mandatory. A skater must have a helmet, mouth guard, wrist guards, elbow pads, and knee pads.22 Although not mandatory, there are skating boots made specifically for derby. These boots have virtually no heel on them and rise no farther up than the ankle. Every skater must be at least 18 years of age. Medical insurance is a key concern in roller derby. This is a full-contact, physically demanding sport. The question is not IF the skater will be injured; the question is WHEN will the skater be injured. Each skater must pass a basic skills test in order to bout.23 This assures the visiting team that their opponents have the basic skills needed so that they do not injure themselves and others due to the inability to skate properly. Lastly, each skater must register her name. This is commonly known as a skater name or alias. Each skater may create any name she desires as long as another skater hasnt already registered it. Once registered, the name is hers forever. The registered name list is kept internationally. Generally the skater name reflects a certain persona and/or alter-ego the skater has. Skaters often will dress in a costume that reflects their name and persona during the bout, as well as for publicity reasons. This name registration honors the past tradition of roller derby when skaters had nicknames. Interestingly, skaters get to know each other by their 286

skater names and rarely do they know the persons birth name. My registered name is Lophat Kat. I am named after a custom hot rod and motorcycle shop named Lophat Kustoms. My persona and costume reflects that of a 1950s pin-up model with a modern hot rod twist. From personal experience, I can verify that roller derby is a very time intensive sport. Due to the physical demands, fitness conditioning is essential. Eight to ten hours every week should be spent in the gym. Standard derby practices are held two to three times a week, lasting for three hours at a time. A typical derby season lasts for nine months. Additional personal time is spent on development of skating skills. There is a huge amount of time involved in organizing and running the league itself. Skaters attend committee meetings within their league and with other people in the community. To raise money for charities, fundraisers are another important part of being a roller derby skater. Times involved here varies depending on the situation. Also, a section of time is spent on researching equipment. When choosing equipment to use, it is important to understand different variables for each apparatus. In the skate, itself, there are pros and cons for each part. There are differences in price and performance of a vinyl boot, which is cheaper, versus a leather boot, which lasts longer, but is harder to break in. A skate plate is the part that connects your boot to the wheels. There are nylon plates, which are cheaper and lighter and aluminum plates, which are more expensive, but heavier and more durable.24 Another important part of the roller skate is the wheels. Wheels are rated by the degree of durometer or how hard the compound in 287

which the wheels are made of. The harder the compound, the less the wheel will flex over the surface it is rolling on. For a skater, that means the harder the wheel, the less grip or control you will have while skating, but the faster you can skate. Choice of wheels are also influenced by the position that one skates. A jammer is looking for speed over control, whereas, a blocker, who absorbs the rolling body slams, is going to choose control over speed. There are wheels designed specifically for wood, tile, polished concrete, unpolished concrete, asphalt, and new gymnasium flooring25 A skater also has to decide on what bearings to use for which wheel and under what skating conditions. The higher the quality of a bearing, the easier the wheel will roll, but the more money a skater will pay. Derby skate prices can range anywhere from $50 to $800, depending on what equipment is purchased. Obviously more experienced skaters have higher quality equipment. As for the rest of the protective gear (helmet, wrist, elbow, knee, mouth guards), the choice comes down to how much one wants to spend. Each piece of the gear can range from $15 at your local Wal-Mart to $70 at a skate shop. Personally, I believe that you get what you pay for. I chose to buy top quality protective equipment in the hope that it will save me money in doctor bills down the road of my roller derby career. Obviously roller derby is not a sport for every woman. It is a very unique sport with unique women who love it. It can be extremely satisfying both physically and mentally. On a physical level, one gains muscle and coordination. Although you do use all of the muscles in your body, the main muscles being used are the legs and


hips. There is a feeling of accomplishment and increased energy when you are physically fit. As for the mental aspect of this sport, it is a fantastic stress reliever. Skaters have the opportunity to let out all of the stresses of their job and daily life on the derby track. Aggressive skating is encouraged. A skater is more mentally alert. A skater has to play offense and defense at the same time and has to foresee, predict, and implement the actions of nine other skaters on the track. Above all else, roller derby is fun. There is an adrenaline rush that happens when you can knock a girl on her butt while you skate on past her. This is the first season for Rapid Citys roller derby team, the Rushmore Rollerz. In derby terminology, our league and the skaters involved would be called fresh meat. Our first exhibition bout was June 21, 2008. It was an interleague bout held at the Harley Davidson parking lot. Our team skates and falls on the asphalt. For me, it was an incredible day. I got the chance to show my family and friends what has taken over my life for the last six months. After that event, I was chosen by a local new station, KEVN, to be their Athlete of the Week.26 Being that I am a 38-year old schoolteacher, that was quite a honor. Our next interleague bout is schedule for August 8, 2008, in Sturgis, SD. This bout should be fun because we will be skating in front of a large population of bikers. Currently, we are scheduled to bout Greeley, CO in September and Sheridan, WY in October of 2008. These will be our first bouts against other fresh meat teams. The oddity of roller derby has hit the media in Rapid City as well. On June 23, 2008, a local radio station, Q92.3, had a radio promotion going on in which the Rushmore 289

Rollerz got to participate. Their morning DJ, Jay Davis, lost a bet. Princess Jay was forced to wear pink underwear, a pink boa, and a pink helmet. Next, he was given roller skates and all of the protective gear. He had to skate with some of the girls on the team. He was given a five second head start and we got to chase after him down the streets of Rapid City and hit him. It was Rapid Citys version of the Running of the Bulls. I got the first opportunity to knock him down.27 The radio station played up the fact that on skates, Im 65 and he was 58. It was great fun. Although roller derby sounds quite simple in theory, it is a tough sport. Besides all of the rules and regulations, mix in all of the personalities of fifty females, their tempers, the rivalries, and general mayhem. It all adds up to a great roller derby bout.


End Notes "Roller Derby," Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2008 1997-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

"National Roller Derby Hall of Fame." National Roller Derby Hall of Fame. 24 June 2008 <>.

Benkle, Joe. "Roller Derby." Classic Roller Derby. 02 June 2008. 24 June 2008 <>.

Hardy, Lance. "Renegade Rollergirls." Renegade Rollergirls of Oregon. 02 June 2008. 23 June 2008 <>.

Benkle, Joe. "Roller Derby." Classic Roller Derby. 02 June 2008. 24 June 2008 <>.
5 6

Baumeister, Kara A. Personal knowledge.

"National Roller Derby Hall of Fame." National Roller Derby Hall of Fame. 24 June 2008 <>.

Terrance, Spencer. "Bay City Bombers." Bay City Bombers. 24 June 2008 <>.
8 9 "Wikipedia."

Wikipedia. 24 June 2008 <>.

10 Terrance,

Spencer. "Bay City Bombers." Bay City Bombers. 24 June 2008 <>.
11 Loretta,

Behrens. "The Wonders of Being a Women." Roller Derby. 24 June 2008 <>.


12 Loretta,

Behrens. "The Wonders of Being a Women." Roller Derby. 24 June 2008 <>.
13 Hardy,

Lance. "Renegade Rollergirls." Renegade Rollergirls of Oregon. 02 June 2008. 23 June 2008 <>.
14 Baumeister,

Kara A. Personal knowledge

15 Hyde,

Tanya. "Women's Flat Track Derby Association." Atlanta Rollergirls. 24 June 2008 <>.
16 Baumeister,

Kara A. Personal knowledge.

17 Hardy,

Lance. "Renegade Rollergirls." Renegade Rollergirls of Oregon. 02 June 2008. 23 June 2008 <>.

18 Neale,

Rick. "All-Female Roller Derby Elbows Its Way in as a Legitimate Sport." USA Today 24 June 2008, sec. F: 3.
19 Hyde,

Tanya. "Women's Flat Track Derby Association." Atlanta Rollergirls. 24 June 2008 <>.
20 Baumeister,

Kara A. Personal knowledge

21 Hyde,

Tanya. "Women's Flat Track Derby Association." Atlanta Rollergirls. 24 June 2008 <>.
22 Hyde,

Tanya. "Women's Flat Track Derby Association." Atlanta Rollergirls. 24 June 2008 <>.
23 Hyde,

Tanya. "Women's Flat Track Derby Association." Atlanta Rollergirls. 24 June 2008 <>.


24 Low

Price Skates. Low Price Skates. 24 June 2008

25 Low

Price Skates. Low Price Skates. 24 June 2008 <>.

26 "Athlete

of the Week-Kara Baumeister of Roller Derby." KEVN Black Hills Fox News. Fox News. 25 June 2008 <>.
27 "Jay

Davis-Defend Your Gender Payoff." Q92.3 Classic Hits. 24 July 2008. KQRQ. 24 July 2008 <>.