Abilene Roller Girls

This summer I wrote about Jana and I going to our first roller derby match and how much we liked it. We went to that match in Pennsylvania while we were visiting my family. The roller derby revival has been centered in Austin, TX so upon getting back to Texas Jana and I checked around to see where we might catch some roller derby action in our home state.

And we discovered, to our surprise, that our very own city, Abilene, TX, has a roller derby! The Abilene Sugarbombs.

I recently got to check out the Sugarbombs when they had a match with the Cowboy Capital Rollergirls. Saw one of my females students at the match. And I really enjoyed sitting by a Hispanic family, two parents watching their daughter compete along with her little boy.

It was pretty neat watching Mom skate over to her son at halftime. You could see in the face of that little boy how cool he thought his Mom was. Again, as I mentioned in my initial post, beyond my love of all things '50s and '60s, my theological interest in roller derby is in its cultural expression of feminism.

The Sugarbomb match being the second roller derby bout I've attended I enjoyed, this time, having more of a clue. Thinking about that, I thought I'd share a few observations for those of you who have never been to a roller derby match but would like some insight about what to watch for the first time you go. You'd like to be prepared from the very first whistle.

Let's start with those whistles. That's the first thing that throws you off. There is a lot of whistle blowing in a roller derby, and a lot of it is good whistling. Which is weird as most of the time when you here a whistle in a sporting event it's a bad thing. But not always so in roller derby.

To be clear, there are fouls in roller derby and those fouls are whistled. But unlike, say, in football or basketball a whistled foul doesn't stop the action. When a foul is whistled on a roller derby player the player has to exit the track and sit in a penalty box. But the action keeps going. Fouls can be whistled all over the place but nothing stops because of those whistles.

So you have to get used to that. All sorts of whistles blowing and nothing stopping.

And like I said, not all the whistles are bad. For example, when a jammer is the first to break through the pack an official will blow the whistle and point at her. The first time I saw this I thought a foul had been called. In any other sport when a whistle blows and the official points at you a foul has just been called on you. But not in this case. When you're pointed and whistled at as a jammer upon breaking through the pack this isn't a bad thing. It's a very good thing. You've just been declared the lead jammer.

Which brings us to roller derby strategy and tactics.

To enjoy a sport it helps to know a bit about strategy and tactics. Otherwise you can't appreciate what you're watching. So, a bit about strategy and tactics before you go to your first bout.

A half of roller derby consists of many "jams." Each jam can last no more that two minutes. But more often than not jams are much shorter, called off by the lead jammer. And that ability, to call off a jam, is at the heart of roller derby strategy.

Each team in roller derby has a designated jammer. They will have star on their helmets. At the start of a jam the two jammers have to fight through the pack. Your team in the pack is trying to block the other team's jammer, preventing her from getting through or passing you.

The first jammer to fight through the pack is whistled and pointed at, declaring her as the lead jammer. That lead jammer now has the power to call off the jam (prior to the maximum time of two minutes) at any point. The lead jammer does this by moving her hands up and down, toward and away from her hips. This hip-chopping movement is sort of like making a T sign with your hands to call a timeout in football or basketball.

That ability, calling off the jam at any point, sits at the heart of roller derby strategy.

Here's how it works. Once the jammers fight through the pack they score points for their team by racing around the track, re-approaching the pack and trying to fight back through it again. Everyone the jammer passes on the opposite team gets the jammer's team a point. Basically, the jammer is trying to "lap" everyone on the other team as much as possible. So, for example, given that each team has four blockers if the jammer gets through the pack a second time that would get the team four points. But if the jammer only passes one blocker from the opposing team before the jam is called off that would get the team only one point. And if you pass no one you get zero points on that jam.

With that in mind here's the power and strategy of the lead jammer.

A jammer fights her way quickly through the blockers and is declared the lead jammer. If things go well, this lead jammer will have a good head start on the other jammer who might be, perhaps, caught up in the pack and still trying to fight through. Having broken free the lead jammer races around to fight back through the pack, this time passing opposing blockers to score points. Meanwhile, the other jammer gets through and sets off in pursuit.

This is where strategy, tactics and decision-making come into play.

If the lead jammer has a big enough lead she can reach the pack before the other jammer and begin passing people, begin scoring points. The lead jammer might, in fact, have such a big lead that she can get through the pack (scoring four points) before the other jammer has even broken through for the first time. That's the ideal situation, a "shut out" situation. The lead jammer breaks free, with a big head start, races around, fights through the pack and then, before the following jammer even gets to the pack, calls off the jam. In that instance, the lead jammer's team gets four points (for lapping the other team) while the following jammer's team gets zero points because the lead jammer called off the jam (by making that hip-chopping motion) before the other jammer had a chance to pass anyone in the pack to score.

That's the power of the lead jammer, the ability to score first and then call off the jam to limit or prevent the other team from scoring.

Of course, things don't always go so well. You need a good sized head start to do what I described above. Often, the two jammers break into the open very close together. In that instance the lead jammer won't be able to get back to the pack before the other jammer. Because of this you'll often see the jam called off, ending just a few seconds after it started. Without a strategic advantage--a good head start on the other jammer--the lead jammer calls off the jam to see if a head start can be created in the next jam.

The situations are endless here. Lead jammers have to make decisions about when to call off the jam to give themselves the chance to score points while keeping an eye on the following jammer to limit her opportunities. And given all the chaos involved that can be hard to do. That lead jammer might come around to the pack with a good head start to slam into a wall of blockers. And before the lead jammer knows it the following jammer has caught up and flown through the pack, passing people and scoring points. And as you might expect, it can be quite hard to notice when this is happening and to gather yourself to make the hip-chopping motion to call off the jam when you've just been body-blocked to the ground.

So this is a bit of a guide for your first roller derby match. First, there will be lots of whistles. Don't get distracted by those. Second, watch for the lead jammer to emerge in each jam (she'll get whistled at--a good whistle!--and pointed at) and then watch when she decides to call of the jam in relation to the following jammer. The lead jammer's general strategy will be to score points--lap the pack--and then call off the jam to limit or prevent the other jammer from scoring points. That often means that jams can start and end quickly. So when you see that don't get confused, that the jam started and then stopped suddenly. It just means that the lead jammer saw no advantage (no head start) on the other jammer and quickly called the jam off. The jam will reset and the action will start back up. Over and over until the half ends.

Enjoy your first roller derby!

Abilene Sugarbomb Bout at the Abilene Civic Center

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5 thoughts on “Abilene Roller Girls”

  1. Much obliged, Richard. It's been an education. I remember watching roller derby on telly as a kid -- and being utterly discombobulated, and rather embarrassed, by the spectacle

    3 things:

    (1) So you have to get used to that. All sorts of whistles blowing and nothing stopping.

    That shouldn't be hard: it happens all the time within the military-industrial complex!

    (2) Despite your clear, informative, helpful explanation, the jammer-pack complex makes the dark arts of the the rugby scrum look luminous, even ballet-like, by comparison.

    (3) Finally, does the Church of Christ have a team called (you guessed it!) The Holy Rollers?

  2. And just like that, I google [dallas roller derby] and see there is a match October 11 in Mesquite. Any fellow Experimental Theology folks want to meetup?

  3. The beauty of all this is that it directly connects to other “Spirit Filled Activities” such as “Figure 8 Demolition Derby”, “Kaninhop” (Bunny Jumping) – this one is seriously intense! And “Bog Snorkeling”. For other sports where Christians compete see –

    The 25 Most Obscure
    Sports In The World - List25


    Of course there is “Pole Dancing for Jesus” as well –

    'Pole Dancing for Jesus' taking off among churchgoing ...

  4. My mom was a roller girl in the late 40's early to mid 50's. As a kid in the early 60's I loved watching roller derby on the B & W boobtube.

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