Until the movie Whip It came out in 2009, I had no idea the sport of roller derby existed. Like figure skaters, the women of roller derby wear cute, dainty outfits. Much unlike figure skating, however, these sweet outfits are juxtaposed by blocks and tackles that would typically be seen on a football field.
After watching Whip It, I wanted in on the roller derby world. What frustrated college student wouldn’t want to lead a double-life and be a ruthless roller girl by night? After some research, I found that Houston has had its own derby league since 2005, so I decided to check out a match and see what I would have to prepare for. Taking my seat as close as possible to the track in order to get the full experience, I knew to expect the lots of contact and tenacity, but there were two important facets the cute Ellen Page movie didn't emphasize enough: how much thought and how much athleticism it takes to compete in roller derby.
"Compared to other sports, roller derby is a fast-paced full contact sport," says Bullet Sucker, co-captain of the Valkyries, one of the four Houston derby home teams. "Skaters must play both offense and defense at the same time, and are constantly having to change strategy."
After actually experiencing a roller derby bout, I not only thought that the sport was fast, tough, and cool, but I had a newfound respect for how skillful the game is. The strength to play derby is no joke, though. When I asked Bullet Sucker about the hardest hit she'd ever taken, her response was that she'd once suffered a concussion that left her unable to drive and work for a week. With my 5'1" frame and little-to-no upper body strength in mind, I decided it would be best to stick with cheering from the sidelines instead of competing in the derby itself.
Every third Saturday of each month during roller derby season about 1,400 fans—some attending from the Whip It craze, many of them having supported their derby girls since 2005—fill downtown's Bayou Music Center to watch the ladies of Houston Roller Derby duke it out. The league consists of four home teams: the Bayou City Bosses, the Brawlers, Psych Ward Sirens, and the Valkyries, as well as two travel teams, the Knockouts and the Houston All-Stars (an internationally ranked team). Collectively, the teams comprise over 120 skaters—each with their own tongue-in-cheek derby nicknames, a roller derby staple. Fans and announcers roar names like Mary Choppins, AcuPunchHer, Mommy Fearest, Goldie Bloxx, and Sprint Eastwood throughout play.
If you're new to roller derby, here’s how the game works: there are two 30-minute periods where two teams compete with five girls each: four "blockers" and one "jammer" (jammers are distinguished by a star on their helmet). The goal is for each team’s blockers to assist their jammer in breaking through the pack. At that point, the jammer must lap the entire pack in order to gain points. While blockers are not allowed to grab, pull, or trip their opponents, they are still very crafty in getting their jammer to the front, packing powerful blows with their arms and elbows. I’m talking cringe-worthy hits, but the roller girls are practically superhuman and usually bounce back fairly quickly. The rules can be a lot to remember at first, but luckily there are announcers who keep the audience entertained and informed throughout the bout.
The sport is action-packed from beginning to end and encourages fan involvement during the game, allowing audience members to sit on the floor next to the track itself and line up along the edge of the track after a game, where players will skate by giving out high fives. The May bout this Saturday will be a double-header featuring Bayou City Bosses versus The Valkyries and The Brawlers versus the Psych Ward Sirens. General admission tickets for the bout are $15 and can be purchased at houstonrollerderby.com. Game time is from 6 to 10:30 p.m. We recommend that you take a folding chair to sit near the track without having to sit on the floor, which could result in a roller girl landing in your lap!