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Roller Derby Thu Mar 11 2010

The Derby Dame's Roller Derby Primer: Gameplay


In the last Derby Dame column, I clued you in on roller derby positions and gear. This week, I'll show you how the game is played, what all the whistles mean, and the legal ways derby girls can bash into one another.

How the Game Is Played

All right, now we're down to the nitty-gritty. First, each game is broken up into two 30-minute halves. Each half is broken into any number of jams, each of which can last up to 2 minutes. The jam ends when either the "Lead Jammer" puts her hands on her hips, signifying the end of the jam, or the two-minute period is up.

And They're Off!

The jam begins when the referee blows one short whistle, which signals the Blockers to start skating. Then two short whistles are blown, setting off the Jammers. The Jammers fight to pass everyone on the opposing team, and the first to do so is designated Lead Jammer. Starting with the second pass, the Jammers score one point for each rival player they legally pass, plus those in the penalty box. They can also receive a "lap point" for completely lapping the opposing Jammer. A pass of all opposing Blockers plus the opposing Jammer is called a "grand slam." A Jammer does not earn points if her skate goes out of bounds or if she fouls a rival player.

The Jammer for the WCR's The Fury skates ahead of the Manic Attacker Jammer.
Photo courtesy of Gil Leora

Derby definition: Lead Jammer--The first pass is to establish Lead Jammer, and this is the gal who can get through the pack first. The Lead Jammer can end the jam at any time by putting her hands on her hips. If neither Jammer legally gets through the pack, then there is no Lead Jammer.

Buco Blocking

Blockers are there to make sure the rival Jammer doesn't get through the pack. They also create avenues for their own Jammer. If that wasn't enough, Blockers will engage (that is, hit or distract) the rival team's Blockers to distract them as their Jammer skates on by.

Despite some media portrayal (and the fantasies of derby fans), Blockers don't get to have a free-for-all brawl. There are very strict ways Blockers can engage one another. According to the WFTDA rules, this is restricted to "a skater's shoulder to upper thigh, chest and upper torso. The player can initiate contact with her booty, hips, torso, and arm from her shoulder to above, but not including, the elbow." Skaters cannot use their forearms, nor can they clothesline, punch, trip, or block to a skater's back. It sounds like all the fun has been stripped out, but trust me, the restrictions are there for the players' safety, and the rules make for some very inventive blocking techniques.

Two Hell's Belles blockers (in red) bookend a Double Crosser Jammer.
Photo courtesy of Gil Leora

Penalty Princess

Which leads us to penalties, or The Many Ways One Can Be Sent to the Penalty Box. There are so many ways to incur penalties, and it would take a whole ton of time to spell it all out here. So, we'll attack the basics: A skater can get a minor penalty for blocking inappropriately (say, using their forearms) or blocking beyond the engagement zone. It also depends on the outcome: If a block to the back caused the hit skater to stumble, the offender would get a minor penalty. If the skater falls because of the hit, then that's a major penalty.

A trip to the box is necessary after a skater has accrued four minor penalties or one major. Offending skaters must serve one minute in the penalty box before they're allowed to return to the track, and the penalty affects both the skater and the position: If the skater happens to be a Jammer, then that team is out a Jammer for the one minute. If, while the one Jammer is in the box, the opposing Jammer is also sent to the box, the currently-seated Jammer may return to the track and the opposing Jammer must remain in the box for however long the first Jammer sat.

Derby definition: Engagement Zone--This is a 20-foot area that starts from the foremost and rearmost pack members. Blockers must be within that zone to block or assist legally. For example, if a Jammer zooms ahead of the pack with a rival Blocker hot on her heels, the Blocker can only engage the Jammer for up to 20 feet in front of the rest of the pack. Anything outside of that is considered a penalty.

The Hammer City Roller Girls have a good (and glossy) video explaining the basics:

After the Mayhem

The game ends when the clock hits rock bottom and the jam reaches its natural conclusion. The winner is the team with the most points. Nothing fancy to it, so just sit back and enjoy the rest of your beer and nachos.

Confused? Try reading the WFTDA rules and regulation sheet sometime. Luckily, there is a whole staff of well-informed referees, statisticians, and others keeping track of the details. Additional information was gleaned for this column from the Windy City Rollers and WFTDA websites and Eamon "Scorey" Daly. Thanks!

The Derby Dame is Gapers Block contributor Kara Luger, who skated as Typhoid Mary with the Windy City Rollers and the Pikes Peak Derby Dames.

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pau1ke11y / March 14, 2010 10:38 AM

Thanks Kara. I understand the sport a little more than I did. I need to get to a bout. -pk

Maris / June 23, 2010 4:02 PM

Can anyone tell me the name of the artist that created that "Derby Dame" poster... or at least if it's based on an actual derby girl, because the picture look exactly like me. I'm just wondering if I have a doppelganger out there. Thanks. ;)

Kara / April 10, 2012 10:54 AM

Hey Maris -

Local artist Phineas made the Derby Dame graphic based on a photo of me. Check out his other work at

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