Saturday, November 20, 2010

Slow Derby Sucks?

Attending the 2010 WFTDA Championships in person was an overwhelming and exciting experience. Some of the best teams from around the country had gathered to battle it out. Teams whose athletes had worked tirelessly on their own time to build endurance, agility, and explosive muscular strength so they could compete, on wheels, for an hour of full contact chaos. I was thrilled to enjoy a whole weekend of derby up close and watched in awe as skaters I aspired to be took each other on, and they were getting… booed?

As the weekend went on, “Slow Derby Sucks” t-shirts started circulating through the UIC Pavillion and people had signs that either stated the same, or demanded skaters to skate fast. Anytime there was stalled, stopped or slow action on the track, the crowd went crazy, heckling and booing the skaters. Crowds can be very fickle depending on where their loyalties lie, and booing is usually reserved for the referees. I couldn’t understand why the crowd had become so antagonistic towards the skaters in general.

My first frustration with this aggressive attack on a style of play is that it is a generalization of action on the track. My assumption then is that perhaps most people booing may not even know the thought process behind some of these strategies. What is “slow derby” anyway? The website behind the crowd's response, states: "Slow derby is when skaters slow down, completely stop on the track, or skate backwards or clockwise (in the opposite direction)."  Queen of the Rink recently posted about the website and a comment to the post had it right in saying there should be “three separate conversations about three discrete tactics:
1. Delaying the Jam Start.
2. Pushing a skater out, then skating clockwise to force her to come in behind you
3. Generally keeping a slow pace for the pack.”
(A thanks goes to “Ryan” for bringing up this great point.)

Delaying the jam start is when the whistle blows, yet all of the defined pack does not cross the pivot line, thus delaying the jammer’s whistle and wasting the clock. A team may do this because they have the lead and want to burn the minutes that the other team could spend scoring points. They could also do this if they have a blocker, or worse yet a jammer, in the box and want to stall so that their teammate can finish her penalty and join them on the track. It could also be a ploy to confuse or disrupt the other team in order to establish position and control the pack.
Gotham tried skating backwards to create no pack but
Philly moved with them to keep stalling the whistle.
A player may not re-enter the track in front of a skater who knocks her out of bounds, so often the initiator may slow down or stop to slow the movement of the out of bounds skater, forcing her to come in play directly behind her. This has been a common sense strategic move for awhile, but the first time I saw someone skate backwards to force the other skater back further had me nearly peeing my pants. It is such a satisfying maneuver to execute and works especially well against the opposing jammer. The whole point of defense in roller derby is to stop the other jammer from scoring points, and this tactic keeps them out of the pack longer, thus scoring no points. A blocker has to exercise precise movements in order to not fall out of bounds herself, while also keeping an eye on the pack because she must stay in play in order to contain the opposing skater.
A Charm City girl knocked the Minnesota jammer
to the inside and slows down.
Keeping a slow pace in the pack throughout a jam is often reserved for power jams. When the opposing jammer is called off the track, you would want to trap one of their blockers (called a goat) and slow them down to force the rest of the pack to slow down as well. If they don’t they will become out of play and if there is no goat and the two teams split, there is no pack. Slowing the pace allows for your own jammer to make as many five point passes as she can (a grandslam), and leaves the other team scrambling to regain control. There is also a flip side to this strategy. If your own jammer gets sent to the box, you would want to immediately speed up the pack so that the jammer can barely make it through the pack, or not at all. In this fast pack situation there may be little to no hitting or action because the opposing team is just working on trying to catch up. 
Philly traps a Kansas City Roller to help their jammer score points.

The main argument puts forth is that “slow derby” is lazy. To me, as a skater, slowed action intensifies the game. The explosive muscles and agility of starting and stopping and avoiding skaters is at its height more than it ever is in a fast pack situation. A jammer has to be decisive in order to not backblock and blockers are straining to hold position or lean another player out. They also have to keep mental notes of where the pack is, what direction they are skating when they engage, where the jammers are, or if they are keeping a solid wall. To slow or stop and confront the opposing players instead of just skating away from them takes a lot of precise skating and judgment. There is definitely a subtly to this kind of action but I would not call it lazy.

Roller derby is still in its infancy and is growing and evolving all the time. Since the first shared rule set in 2005, derby has gone through many growing pains and revisions. In its fifth edition I believe it has finally developed into a concise yet detailed guideline for the game and will only require small tweaks from here on. The lure of roller derby has always been short skirts, fishnets and hard hits, but as these women cultivate the sport, it becomes more and more purely an athletic endeavor with a feminine shell. Those things all still exist in derby, but the boutfits I saw at Championships were more uniform and streamlined. Skaters still have some of their own certain flair, but most teams just looked solid and well put together on the track.
Gotham looks like a well-oiled machine in just their warm ups.
The game itself has even streamlined and become more about how the game is played and not just the show. Dive bomb hits and explosive take outs have been traded in for booty blocks and effective leans. Skaters are realizing that it does their team no good if they take themselves out with the opposing skater. It is becoming about position on the track and a balancing act of offense and defense, not just an all out war. Big hits are becoming equal to the slam dunk in basketball; it’s a crowd pleaser, but not necessary to the game. Are fans going to stand up in outrage because skaters are using more positional blocking then all out hits?

It’s not that I am advocating that roller derby should become all about slow play, but there’s just something that rubs me the wrong way about this aggressive response and being demanded to play derby a certain way. I get that watching girls standing on the track may be boring or frustrating to watch, but I also get the strategy behind it. There are times that it be used excessively but I feel that as teams experiment with these tactics more and more, they will figure out what works and what is worth it to their game. There were many times I saw it used effectively at Championships and the skaters switched so quickly between tactics that no one hardly noticed. There were also times when it ultimately failed and a team wasted thirty seconds for nothing. The skaters will either become more effective with their use of these strategies, or drop them all together.

The Mad Rollin' Dolls all take a knee to keep
Philly from stalling on the line.

The only change I could see happening would be something equivalent to a shot clock on the start lines. A team could potentially stall a jam for a whole two minutes, which would be ridiculous, but the rules wouldn’t stop them. Stalling for ten seconds to gain another player or jammer on the track seems reasonable, but anything much longer seems a bit excessive. Skaters are already figuring out how to counter act this ploy by kneeling on the line before the jam even starts. If they do it before the whistle there is no pack and no penalties issued, and the jam whistles sounds right away. 

The rest of it is just smart derby. Most of the fans who watch derby are new to the sport and don’t understand all the rules or action on the track. There are lots of die-hard derby fans as well who have been following the sport and are frustrated with these trends in the strategy.  I hope as the sport moves forward, the fans will be patient as it evolves, and have a deeper understanding of what they are watching and be just as passionate.

Playing to the crowd is a double edged sword. Yes, their support helps us keep our DIY system going, and bouts scheduled, but when it comes down to it skaters aren’t being paid. They are there because they want to play and they are in love with the sport of derby. If there were no fans that would not necessarily kill the game for us. I would still strap on skates and find a gym and scrimmage with my teammates for as long as my would muscles would allow. Derby still runs a fine line between being seen as a sports endeavor and as mere entertainment. (Check which section your local newspaper puts the story about your team in; was it the sports or the arts & culture? Kudos to Animal for pointing that out.)

I'm glad fans are taking roller derby so seriously, but it just seems like a selfish argument and I don’t like being told how to play the game. I think the best solution would be to start a discussion, not a petition. The whole campaign of just screams propaganda and feels too political by forcing people to “choose sides” or act outrageously. Roller derby today has democratic principles that propel the mantra of “by the skaters for the skaters,” and it will be the skaters who have the final say. I think the more knowledge and discussion the better, get the conversation started.


*Speical thanks to everyone I've chatted with in the last few weeks about this, you helped form these thoughts. Keep on talking.

Monday, November 15, 2010

"It Ain't Like Being There!"

As a newly inducted apprentice league, getting a glimpse last weekend at the WFTDA Championships was inspiring to say the least. I have watched some of those same teams play on DNN boutcasts, but as their slogan goes, “it ain’t like being there!” Seeing all sorts of different teams, vendors and fans was overwhelming and exciting; so many people brought together for the love of derby. I realized how small our team is in the derby world, but also that there are no limitations but the ones you set yourself.

The Hydra, Championship Trophy
named after a founding member of WFTDA
The twelve teams I saw play in three days in Chicago all average about five years of bouting experience and represent all areas and styles of play around the country. Finishing our first full season, and second year of bouting means potentially in three years we could be on the track with some of these teams. Every year derby seems to keep evolving and teams all over are pushing the game harder. The Hydra went to Rocky Mountain this year, with the previous champions, Oly taking second, and Gotham, the 2008 champions, taking third.

Since the recent epidemic of roller derby began in Texas and spread to the coasts, it seems like the middle of the country is still at a lower level of playing. Watching Gotham and Oly play was like watching majestical creatures glide smoothly across the track, and weave effortlessly through the pack. The 2 and 3 seed teams seemed a bit more awkward in comparison, but any WFTDA team seems to be leagues ahead of any team we see here in Iowa. Since derby is still so new, the level of skill varies because teams have to discover on their own time how to excel and improve. I knew Minnesota, Madison and Nashville would probably not make it past Friday, but their tenacity and determination did surprise me. Although they each lost by over 100 points, they were there to prove they wanted it, and were not going to give up without a fight.
Hugs all around after the Minnesota vs Charm City bout. 
We got to the UIC Pavillion a little late Friday and missed the first team to be eliminated, the B.ay A.rea D.erby Girls, who played the Texas Rollergirls. It sounded like a good match up after seeing the low score of 72 to 59, a win for Texas, but I was most excited to see our Minnesota friends play next. They started out strong, but struggled with Charm’s solid control of the pack. MNRG’s Psycho Novia had insane footwork, as she seemed just cut through the pack like butter. I was surprised they didn’t jam Jukebox more, and didn’t realize until later that Vuedoo wasn’t playing due to injury. The floor also looked pretty slick, and after skating on Minneasota’s sticky home turf at bootcamp, I bet they were thrown off by the surface. They ended up losing 119 to 249. The other two bouts were kind of blow outs after the first half; Philly 213 to Mad 53 and Oly 214 to Nashville 53. (And very oddly similar in scores.)

Suzy Hotrod at full go.
The second day was a full day of derby with six bouts that upped the intensity. The Gotham Girls beat out Texas 151 to 52 with a very fast paced and skillful game. There were few penalties and both teams played very smart. I haven’t really seen Texas play much, so I mostly paid attention to Gotham, and of course Bonnie Thunders and Suzy Hotrod. Their jamming style is breathtaking and I hope I absorbed their skills through my eyes.

I was excited for the Rocky Mountain vs Charm City bout which upped the intensity even more. I have had my eye on Rocky since the Western Regionals where they upset Oly’s 22 straight win record, taking first place. They have a sassy sort of playing style, which also leads them to be prone to more penalties. A jaw dropping YouTube video of Urrk’n Jerk’n has me swooning over her sweet jamming skills and Amanda Jamitinya gets my love for her blocking (and her name). Charm’s tight pack control couldn’t reign in Rocky, and they lost 103 to 165. It was this bout that we saw our first ejected player of the weekend, Dolly Rocket from Charm.

Philly played Kansas next, which I was curious to watch since apparently I know nothing about Kansas, or any other South Central team. I believe it was this bout we saw a lot more of the kneeling on the line to counter act slow pack. If it is done before the whistle there is no pack, and no one receives a penalty as the jammers are then released right away. It also gives less time to gain control of the pack, but I could go on all day about the variables that apply to strategy. This bout also was high in penalties as I saw both teams’ jammers go to the box twice in one jam. It ended with Philly on top, 147 to 126.

The Oly Rollers were up next to play Windy City on their home track. Day two of the tournament resulted in a much more packed Pavillion since it was a Saturday, and a majority of those seats sounded like they were filled by Windy fans and they were very vocal with their support. This was another fast game and after Windy gave it all they had, they lost to Oly 76 to 178.
There wasn't a bad view in the whole UIC Pavillion.

I was looking forward to the next bout which put Gotham against Rocky, and it didn’t disappoint. My assumption was that Rocky would give Gotham a run for their money, but would still not overcome the seemingly untouchable New York team. That was not the case. Rocky dominated the first half but started to lose their lead to penalties in the second. The Rocky jammers had a hard time since they could only keep two blockers on the track at a time, which also didn’t provide help against the quick feet of Suzy and Bonnie. They started to look frustrated but pulled themselves together long enough to skate away with their second win, 113 to 79. The last bout had Oly vs Philly and as the previous year’s Champions, I was correct in assuming Oly would come out on top, 106 to 81.

After such an exciting Saturday, it was kind of sad to only have two bouts to look forward to on Sunday. Gotham went up against Philly for third place in a battle of Eastern teams. The first half kept it pretty close but Gotham’s fast game seemed to win it out in the end. Philly seemed to utilize the slow starts a little more which epically failed at one point. Their pivot was in the box and they managed to stall the line for about thirty seconds to get her back in. She then failed to re-enter the pack from the back and was sent back to the box for an illegal procedure. After wasting the clock and lots of booing, they didn’t even accomplish their goal. Philly just couldn’t keep their blockers together and lost 51 to 162.

Now the whole weekend had come down to Rocky Mountain vs Oly, a battle of the West. I think most people assumed Oly would win it all for the second year in a row, but Rocky was the only team they lost to in Western Regionals (86 to 127), so it appeared to be an exciting rematch. That would be an understatement.

I apparently took no notes of this bout because I gave it my full attention. Rocky started out dominating the pack, but lost their lead again due to penalties and not being able to keep a full pack on the track. When playing a team of speed skaters, that is not a situation you want to be in. I was nearly convinced they had already lost it, but they managed to bring themselves back into the lead late in the game.

Everyone is on their feet for the last jam of the weekend. 
What seemed to be the last jam of the night, started with Tannibal Lector from Oly on the jam line by herself. She made grand slam after grand slam, and pulled their score ahead of a scrambling Rocky. Although, by the end of the jam, Tannibal back blocked, sending her to the box as Frida Beater snuck back on the track to score a few points for Rocky. With only 20 seconds left on the clock, Rocky called a timeout in order to fit another jam in. (Another strategy of trickery.)

Now the tables had turned and Rocky was setup for a power jam with only two blockers from each team in the pack, and Frida lining up to jam again. She got through as lead, and came back around for her first grand slam as blockers from the penalty box started to return to the track. She barely made it through another time and looked up at her jam ref, and then the scoreboard… Rocky pulled ahead by ONE point. She called it off and the place was at full roar as we all stared down the scoreboard to make sure the score was official.

Rocky won it 147-146.

Go Go Berserk from the Quad City Rollers caught the last two jams on video so you can relive the insanity...


Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Going to the WFTDA 2010 Championship tournament was insane to say the least, and an experience well worth emptying my bank account... Here are a few of the interesting things I discovered or saw for the first time in person:

Flat Track Revolution is an online store that I had seen ads for recently. They have some rad designs and one of a kind t-shirt dresses that I couldn't take my eyes off. Skater owned and operated out of Portland, OR.

There were  oodles of Derby Skinz in numerous colors and designs to dig through. I finally picked up a pair I had eyed at boot camp that I call the "Lisa Frank" style. Don't think these are reserved for girls, Dumptruck knows how to rock a good pair of Skinz... Based out of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, they also make helmet panties and jerseys. SO&O out of Harrisburg, PA

 Fast Girl Skates is a derby store started by two Rat City girls with all sorts of gear and apparel. They strive to teach new skaters about equipiment so they can make an educated decision when opening their wallets. This was the booth that renewed my feelings about the Vanilla boot, and the girl I talked to offered me socks to try on her own pair of skates. SO&O out of Seattle, WA

Wicked Skatewear was a must to stop by. They have a great cardigan I can't stop eying, and of course the coloring contest that I can't forget to do. They also had some high waisted hot shorts that I hadn't seen before that would probably look hotcakes on Animal but not me... SO&O by the infamous B-Train out of Huntington Beach, CA

In the same corner was Scarred Derby Designs that had some funny shirts and tanks and the word socks that have become quite the hit. I bought the Whiskey ones for Animal. SO&O out of Salt Lake City, UT

As one of the official WFTDA sponsors, Dr. Hauschka had a booth and was handing out free buttons and samples of their Ouch! Aids. Definitely something I'll keep in mind if I get more waffle rink rash.

Roller Derby Quilt
Something I've thought about taking part of for awhile now is the Roller Derby Quilt. I saw it in person this weekend, and it's obvious a lot of creative souls play derby. OCCRG should definitely do a square. Stitched together by Dreadnought out of Boston, MA.

There was also a table for Down and Derby: The Insider's Guide to Roller Derby, a book Zom B had brought back from Rollercon and I immediately purchased. Written by Kasey Bomber and Axles of Evil, it's a very all around, informative book about roller derby, with lots of skater profiles and pictures. As a skater it can either be beneficial, or repetitive depending on your knowledge of roller derby.

I collected a lot of buttons this weekend, and free buttons are always the best. Someone gave me one from Roller Derby Inside Track, a blog I had discovered recently that is pretty informative. It seems like more of a straight forward news and sports writing site about derby.

They also had Jam City Rollergirls for the Wii available to try out. Should be released next year.

From above, I noticed with jealousy all the photographers and videographers who got to take in the bouts up close, or from the taped off box in the center of the track. I spotted Axle Adams and Joe Rollerfan, two derby photographers of note. I also saw a low to the ground wheely video camera contraption and I think I've discovered the owner of that, Sam R. eye. He has an awesome style and already has a video up from day one of Championals.

Jerry Seltzer sitting with OCCRG!
A person I often saw around, chatting with everyone was Jerry Seltzer. Son of Leo Seltzer who started a version of Roller Derby in 1935, Jerry inherited the business until it ended in the 70s. His happy and open demeanor shows he's excited about where derby is today. Bat R Up, Toxic Sugar, Tynamite and Ophelia Fracture even sat with him in the VIP section!

Something Tynamite happened upon was a flyer for Roller Derby World Cup. Organized by Blood & Thunder Magazine, they are hoping to gather skaters to form teams all over the world to compete against each other in 2011. Hosted by Toronto Roller Derby in December of next year, I feel like its a hefty project to take on, so I'm interested to see how it pans out. Roller Derby has really started to pop up all over the globe and I hope this will maybe inspire roller derby at the Olympics.

The very last thing I walked away from Championals with was Hellarad. As the crowd was exiting the Pavillion, a girl in gold handed Fast Bettie what I came to discover as a zine. Once I saw the centerfold insert of Dumptruck and Valcapone, I ran back to find the girl and get one for myself. It's a hilariously snarky compilation of musings, opinions, jokes, and other tidbits written mostly by B.ay A.rea D.erby Girls. As issue number seven, the authors note states that it just upgraded to InDesign and left the old school style of zine, which seems like a poor choice to me. Shouldn't DIY derby have a DIY zine? Well, don't think you won't fall victim to their judgement. The internet is a small place and they will find you.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Frenemies 'til the End.

Ophelia Fracture and Sugar & Slice lineup.
I think at the beginning of Monster’s Brawl last Saturday, we were still riding our high from beating the Cedar Rapids Rollergirls the week prior. We were entering the track with the Quad City Rollers, a team we had played four times previously, skating away with three wins, so we walked into this one pretty confident. Speaking for myself, my head wasn’t in the game right away from the first whistle and I’m not quite sure why. I started in the second lineup jamming against Lady Gotcha and we were being chatty on the line until the whistle. Maybe we have just gotten too comfortable with our QC friends so our mental game wasn’t quite there at the beginning. Whatever it was, I sat down after the first jam feeling shaken and unsure.

A few jams later, and after the first of many official time outs, our score went down a few points and we watched the score climb for the QC Rollers, putting them in the lead. The next few jams went on like this, a little scattered on our part, and they kept control of the pack by getting lead jammer repeatedly. Recently I’ve realized the importance of the first pass, and strategizing within the pack to get your jammer through first. Once your jammer has lead, the pack can focus more on the opposing jammer and if yours is in trouble, she can just call it off.

About half way through the first half, I think we finally got our minds reset on the strategy and skills that we had practiced all month. The numerous time outs probably allowed for our brains to relax and finally sync up with each other. Since the bout was so messy, penalties were being called left and right, some of which were contested or required further discussion amongst the refs. We had done a good job of staying out of the box in Cedar Rapids, but it was not the case this time.

Animal Mother and Triple D. Zaster hold the jammer at the front as Bat R Up helps GLADi8HER through the pack.
In the last eight minutes of the first half we gained control of the pack and began working together more fluidly. I think the greatest accomplishment we have achieved out of our second season is our teamwork on the track. The most beneficial thing a team can do for itself is practice together and often. The more intimately you know everyone’s skating style, voice, derby stank and ability, the more your game comes second nature during a bout.

At half time we were feeling the surge of our comeback, but were still keeping our heads on and discussed what we could do better. It had become quite chaotic, but we knew we just had to keep our minds focused and not let certain ref calls or penalties on the track get to us. We like to pride ourselves on being an even-tempered team, so the all we could do was continue to play our best and fair game.

Captains Sugar and Animal talk to head ref D'shiz.
With the score at 105 to 51, we had pushed ahead into a comfortable lead, yet the bout was still leaving a sour taste in my mouth. The mood of the whole thing was weird and there were lots of timeouts and penalties that were just upsetting the flow of the bout. The excitement that roller derby gets from a crowd is the fast paced action, not the zebra huddle. (Although that does add breaks for dancing on the line.) I have to say Animal Mother deserves a pat on the back for all her work as an Alternate Captain for this bout. If a team has any qualms with a certain call or any general concerns, the Captain and Alternate Captains are the only ones who may address the refs. Bat R Up was often in the box for official reviews, requiring Animal to be assertive and decisive in between jams.

The second half began, and it was immediately evident that black was back, and dominating in the pack. I think we all saw Gigahurtz (who arrived bout day as an alternate and got put in last minute) kick in to gear with some explosive hits and smart skating in the pack. Zom B Blokr brought all our strategy practice to fruition by taking directing the control of the pack for a whole jam as she managed to put nearly all the QC blockers in the penalty box and stopped the pack to a crawl for a successful power jam. I also saw Benzo Bang execute two amazing hits in a row, rivaling the impact Bat R Up leaves on the memories of most skaters. I could care less when I was on the bench because watching the beautiful teamwork of my fellow skaters on the track left me ecstatic.

As we got deeper in the second half and our score began to jump, I could feel the skating on the track become a bit scrambled. QC was giving everything that had to try and rein us in, but we still kept our control and didn’t let up. I have to say, it wasn’t quite the bout I was expecting to wrap up the year with, as three of the Quad City girls and one of our own did not get to see the end of the bout due to ejection. In the recent version of the WFTDA rules, penalties carry over the half and you are only allowed seven total, whereas before you could receive five major penalties per period for a total of ten. After receiving your seventh penalty the head ref will ask that you leave the track and return to the locker room. That, along with gross misconduct ejects a player from the bout in order to keep the skating fair and safe. If you are coming to bouts expecting an all out brawl, you are mistaken; trips to the box, egregious acts and fighting is not tolerated.

Gigahurtz guards the line as Bat R Up takes out Sugar & Slice.
With three of Quad City’s heavy hitters gone, their pack was left weakened and their jammers tired. Our pack control and smart skating finished the bout 225-104. We may not have ended the year “undefeated,” but a 9-2 record for our second season is definitely something to write home about. Besides any numbers or stats, just watching us play is evidence enough of our progress as a team. My concept of roller derby and how the game is played has broadened extensively, enhancing my skill level all around. Seeing some of our fresher skaters finally click and become vital assets to the team is reassuring that we’re doing something right. It’s obvious that from here we have the potential to get even better as our team expands with recruitment and move forward with our apprenticeship.