When I knelt alongside the flat track constructed in the Roy Wilkins Auditorium on Friday, I was still, by all accounts, a roller derby virgin. Despite having seen Drew Barrymore’s 2009 derby opus Whip It, compared to the deeply dedicated fanbase, I didn’t know a lick. Yet, after three days and more than a dozen bouts, I went from naive to in-the-know.
The Omnipresent Alias
If Whip It taught me anything, it's that there's an art to roller derby nicknames; how serious that art was, however, was something it took experiencing the derby first hand to figure out. The unwritten rule seems to be: less kitschy, more catchy; and Minnesota’s team are no moniker slouches with names like Shiver Me Kimbers, Hurtrude Stein, Scarmen Hellectra, and, perhaps my favorite, Winona Collider. However, nicknames don’t stop at the players. The trend persists into team names. Portland calls themselves the Rose City Wheels of Justice. Meanwhile, coaches have names like Shreddy Mercury and Magnum P.I.M.P. and even the refs (think DJ Jazzy Reff and Umpire Strikes Back) partake.
Discovering the Dialect
By the second day, the lingo finally started to stick. The terms "beaver cleaver" (a chop to the you-know-where) and "can opener" (a squat and stand move meant to know your open over) stuck quickly. Though, to be frank, it takes more than a weekend to recall every bit of slang. Thankfully, Google is an extraordinary tutor. Without it, I may not have understood the chest-painted man who exclaimed, “What a disco!” or the rainbow-haired mother who referred to herself and her grade school daughter as “a couple of stickyfoots.” It’s as if every fan (preferably called a "fearleader") was a walking glossary.
Much More Than Fun and Games
In its most elementary sense, roller derby, like every other sport, is about scoring more points than your opponent. Yet, with a sense of physicality not unlike rugby, the challenge of scoring can turn turbulent and, at times, bloody. Jammers are the sole point scorers on each team and it’s their job to out-maneuver the enemy blockers as everyone circles the track. Most often, the nimblest of jammers dominate a match, whereas a single jammer and blocker lineup can rack up the majority of a team’s score. Much like hockey, the coach’s duty of pairing up a formidable lineup can literally make or break a team. To witness roller derby at its peak, there is no better example than the WFTDA 2015 Championship bout. Over the two 30-minute halves, a dizzying total of 10 lead changes occurred. In the end, fearleaders roared, tears muddied players’ facepaint, and one thing became clear: roller derby is an experience in a league of its own.