The Quick 10: A Roller Derby Primer

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Here in Des Moines, we're enjoying the inaugural season of the Des Moines Derby Dames, an amateur roller derby team. It's been a lot of fun, and I have to say, it's making me wonder how well my skating skills of yesteryear have held up (probably not well. I couldn't even skate backwards at elementary school skating parties). There's something about the campy getups and unabashed violence that just makes a girl want to lace up. The sport has gone in and out of style over the years, but if you're ready to jump in on the most recent incarnation, here are a few things you'll need to know.

1. Although it has evolved over the years, roller derby has been around since the early "˜30s, the creation of Leo Seltzer. It originally started out as a roller skating marathon. Coed teams would race "across the country" on a wooden track by going 4,000 miles, watching bulbs on a map light up to show where they would be if they were actually gliding across the U.S. on eight wheels.

2. The, um, "physical" side of the sport didn't really show up until 1938, when a sports writer suggested that Seltzer introduce elbowing, whipping and slamming into the mix to keep things interesting. Seltzer wasn't crazy about the idea, but he agreed to give it a shot. Skaters and fans loved it and spectacular falls and shoves have been a beloved part of the game ever since.

3. In case you're not familiar with the sport, here are a couple of terms you need to know. "Whip" refers to a move involving two girls of the same team. Girl B comes up behind Girl A; Girl A grabs Girl B's arm and flings ("whips") her out in front. Typically, the girl being whipped out in front is the Jammer "“ the Jammer is the only skater who can score points on the team. She gets points by passing members of the opposing team, which is why it's a good thing for someone to whip her out ahead of the pack.

4. You're intrigued now, aren't you? Here are the rest of the rules.

5. You won't ever see someone wearing #1 on an official roller derby team, and the reason is quite sad. On March 24, 1937, a touring group of Roller Derbyists were in a bus when it blew a tire near Salem, Illinois. It collided with a bridge abutment, rolled over and burst into flames. According to different sources, the number of deaths totaled 19 or 20. Out of respect to those who died, the #1 has been retired from roller derby entirely. Anything else goes, though, including decimals and fractions.

6. Back in the early days of derby, famous fans included George Burns, Gracie Allen, Cary Grant, W.C. Fields and Jack Benny.

7. If you were around in the early "˜70s, you may have experienced roller derby at its peak popularity. The record attendance for a game occurred in 1972 at Comiskey Park in Chicago, with 50,118 fans showing up to watch the Chicago Midwest Pioneers play the Los Angeles Thunderbirds. That same year, Kansas City Bomber starring Raquel Welch as "the hottest thing on wheels" hit movie theaters. Sadly, things started to deteriorate the following year. One famous derby girl of the era attributes the problem to the 1973 oil crisis, which left teams unable to travel.
8. Although I think the fun names are one of the best parts of the sport, some players are bucking the trend and starting to use their own names (gasp).

9. My favorite names tend to be pop culture based (surprise, surprise) including: Lucille Brawl, Kelly KaPOWski, Hot Whips Houlihan and Assaultin' Pepa.

10. You, too, can create your own roller derby name. In fact, we have way too much fun coming up with ridiculous monikers. But if you're not good at wordplay, never fear "“ there are a couple of Roller Derby name generators out there that will do the dirty work for you. You can get a team name as well.

Do we have any derby girl _flossers? I shouldn't limit it to derby girls "“ although that's the trend these days, there are some co-ed teams and a few all-male teams. We'd love to hear about your experience in the comments. And if you're not a derby girl, feel free to fill us in on what your name would be if you were one. I just saw Eleanor Bruiseavelt and Sandra Day O'Clobber on a website and I'm pretty charmed by those.

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May 10, 2010 - 1:50pm
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