Hitting the track with the Houston Roller Derby

HOUSTON The names are entertaining -- bordering on PG13-rated -- as are some of the costumes. There are extremely short shorts, a display of cleavage and more fishnet stockings than, well, anywhere. Announcers add a heavy dose of camp to their over-the-top, theatrical roles. The 'whistle girl' sets out to be eye candy.

But all of these theatrical trappings only add to the audience's entertainment value. At the heart of the derby is a serious sporting event. The athletes in the Houston Roller Derby train hard and play hard, and pour their hearts and souls into the sport. Case in point...

High-drama and skating action
On Sunday, June 8, 2008, roller derby action filled the Verizon Wireless Theater with plenty of energy. Houston's Burlesque Brawlers took on the Bombshell Brigade out of Dallas. Although Houston's hometown heroes took the night with a final score of 123 to 100, the Bombshells did their best to leave their mark on our fair Brawlers. At one point, an uncommon - but not unheard of - fist fight broke out during the action on the track.

But for Houston fans the even bigger match-up was the dramatic bout between two local teams - the Machete Betties and the Psych Ward Sirens. To catch you up to speed, the Sirens are a fiery bunch - an undefeated team with a reputation to uphold. The Betties, who play with plenty of heart, have faced a more struggling season and had yet to find their first win. A close match included mystery points being added on and taken back off the official scoreboard as the referees bickered amongst themselves. But in the end, the Betties came out victorious, with a single point victory of 77 to 76.

Looking back... and looking ahead
Roller Derby was conceptualized on a restaurant napkin in the mid-1930's by Leo Seltzer. Taking the premise from the great bicycle races in the Depression Era, Seltzer developed the Transcontinental Roller Derby. Between 1935 and 1950, physical contact and scoring system were introduced to the game. From the 1950's to the mid 1970's, Roller Derby became incredibly popular with the American public due to televised broadcasts, playing to huge crowds all over the nation.

After the initial excitement around Roller Derby died down, there were many reincarnations of the game that eventually proved unsuccessful until two women in Austin started a Roller Derby league that gained credibility with locals in that city. Eventually, another league, the Texas Roller Girls (TXRG) formed in Austin, starting the grassroots, "by the skaters, for the skaters" trend that many forming leagues around the United States are following.

There are currently more than 40 all-girl roller derby leagues around the United States. Thirty of these leagues are members of the first ever "for the skaters, by the skaters" national flat-track roller derby association, the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA).

January 2005 saw the rise in Houston of women's genuine flat track roller derby. Houston Roller Derby was inspired by the nation-wide revival of roller derby as an athletic sport. The women of HRD spent the year of 2005 training hard and participating in public events. Their dedication culminated in their first public exhibition bout, Derby de Las Muertas on October 22nd, 2005.

The Houston Roller Derby includes four teams -- the Burlesque Brawlers, the Psych Ward Sirens, the Machete Betties and the Bayou City Bosse$. The HaRD Knocks all-star travel team consists of the finest and most dedicated skaters from the league. These are the women tough enough to compete against other leagues across the nation. HRD is now in the midst of its second season in its new home at the Verizon Wireless Theater in downtown Houston. There are several matches on the league's schedule this summer for fans to check out.

Get your drama on
What's with the theatrics? It's all part of the camp associated with roller derby - and it's fun for the fans. Not only are the skaters' names unique, most of their official 'numbers' are part of the joke. For example, Dixie Cupps 'number' is DD. Vanna Rockin' - 1970s, Panty Raider - XXX, Tex Offender - 6Gun, Tilly Timebomb - 3-2-1, Claire Voyant - 1-900, and Sloane Gunman - 38 SPL are just a few examples.

But besides a wink-wink way to add some fun to the game, there is a strategy behind the nicknames. Some of the women keep their daily lives a bit of a secret, since some might not understand why lawyers, teachers and moms feel the need to hit the track with the derby.

(Insider's secret: One high-profile member of the Houston Roller Derby family doesn't mind if you know what he does for a living. The Colonel, who takes the mic and whips the crowd into a frenzy with his antics, is also a city council member of Marfa - a far west Texas town with a population of just over 2,000.)

But there's an added edge, as well. For instance, Scarlet O'Hurtya - a sweet, energetic, mild-mannered grad student by day - tells me taking on an alter ego allows the players to become a bit more aggressive when their step into that role on the track.

What's the point? Learning the game
So how does roller derby work? There are three types of positions played -- pivot, blocker and jammer.

  • Pivot - Sets the pace for the pack and acts as the last line of defense. Not only does she wear the helmet cover with the stripe, she is the brains of the pack. In football terms, she can be compared to the quarterback, calling the plays.
  • Blocker - Makes life difficult for the jammer as she knocks around the opposing blockers and keeps her from getting through the piles of bodies she leaves laying around on the track.
  • Jammer - The skater with the star on her helmet, she is the speed demon extraordinaire. She rips through the pack with the greatest of ease and scores points by passing members of the opposing team while remaining inbounds.
  • Lead Jammer - The first jammer who passes opposing skaters in bounds, legally, without committing fouls against them.
  • The pack begins with a pivot from each team in front, three blockers from each team in the middle and a jammer from each team in the back. When the first whistle blows, the pack takes off, and on a second whistle, the jammers blast off and fight their way through the pack in an attempt to become lead jammer.

    The blockers are playing offense and defense while they assist their jammer through the pack and block the opponent's jammer. This is where you'll see the fancy whips and booty blocks by walls of blockers. Keep in mind that all blockers must stay within 20 feet of the pack to be 'in play.' The pack is defined as the largest group of blockers/pivots containing members of both teams.

    The jammers lap the pack and when they re-enter the pack, they receive one point for each member of the opposing team they pass. A jam lasts a maximum of two minutes, but the lead jammer has the right to call off the jam at her discretion.

    Lace up, and hit the track!
    So now that you've got the bug, you can join up and gain some experience on your own wheels. Houston Roller Derby has an official recreational league. This league is for retired skaters, ladies who don't have the time to train with the big-dogs, ladies who need to learn how to skate and want basic skills, or just someone who wants to play for the fun of it. You never know - you could become the next roller derby star! Training is held every Tuesday from 7:30pm-9:30pm at Dairy Ashford Roller Rink. Email Chewcifer at recruitment@houstonrollerderby.com for more details.

    Thanks to Houston Roller Derby for background information.

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