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Roller derby, a national sport that has experienced several cycles of growth and decline, began increasing in popularity in Arkansas in the mid-2000s. Although a co-ed sport when it originated, roller derby’s current status is that of a women’s sport.
Roller derby’s roots date back to the 1930s when dance marathons and bike races were popular. Leo Seltzer conceived the sport in 1933. For what was initially a no-contact sport, twenty-five teams made up of one male and one female skated for twelve to fourteen hours a day, with the men competing with the men and the women competing with the women. The goal was to cover the distance between New York City and Los Angeles, or about 3,000 miles. A large, lighted map tracked each team’s “progress” across the country. Roller derby attracted an estimated 20,000 spectators at its debut on August 12, 1935, at the Chicago Coliseum under the name Transcontinental Roller Derby.
Roller derby evolved from a marathon race to a full-contact sport after Damon Runyon, a sportswriter, witnessed a race in 1937 and suggested that Seltzer add more contact and rules to the game. A banked track was soon created to boost the speed of skaters. The teams consisted of ten members, with two teams skating at a time. Points were scored when the skater designated as the “jammer” passed and lapped members of the other team. Seltzer billed one team as the “home” team and one team the “visitor” team in an effort to increase the fan base.
As roller derby increased in popularity, sportswriters began to feature the sport and gave the players nicknames, such as Wes “Casanova” Aronson and Josephine “Ma” Bogash, the latter being the first woman inducted into the Roller Derby Hall of Fame. The first television broadcast of the sport was on November 29, 1948, live from New York City. The sport peaked in the early 1950s but was almost over by 1953, when the original Roller Derby left the United States for Europe. In 1958, Leo Selter’s son Jerry took over the business and moved to northern California.
However, the sport still maintained some popularity with teams all over the United States, and Herb Roberts, a former Roller Derby skater, founded a rival league in the early 1960s called Roller Games. Teams were established in places such as Hawaii, Australia, Canada, Mexico, and Japan. However, saturation on television and campy theatrics caused a loss in popularity of the sport.
Attempts to revive the sport persisted. The television show RollerGames, which was broadcast for only one year starting in 1989, again focused less on sports and more on theatrics and included a figure-eight track around an alligator pit, a “wall of death,” and rock bands. RollerJam on The Nashville Network (TNN) featured skaters on inline skates instead of “quad” roller skates; a pilot episode aired in December 1998. A regular-season show then ran from January 1999 to January 2001 and was popular among young men.
The most recent revival of roller derby began in Austin, Texas, in the early 2000s when the Texas Rollergirls formed a flat-track league. Although the skaters had no guide to playing the game, they formed a rules committee and adapted the older rules for flat-track derby. Soon, the sport began gaining popularity, and women’s leagues appeared all over the United States. By 2004, the United Leagues Coalition was formed to standardize flat-track roller derby rules, changing its name to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) in 2005. In 2010, there were an estimated 470 flat-track leagues all over the world.
The current game is played for two thirty-minute periods consisting of two-minute “jams.” Each team has a jammer whose job it is to skate through the pack, which is made of three blockers and one pivot from each team. The pivot sets the pace of the pack and can assume the role of the jammer under certain circumstances. The first pass through the pack determines who is lead jammer, a position obtained by skating through the pack first without any penalties. The importance of obtaining lead jammer position is that the lead jammer can call off the jam at any time and prevent the other jammer from scoring points. Points are scored on the second and each subsequent pass—one point for each opposing blocker passed. The rules for the current game of roller derby have undergone several revisions, most of which change or define what constitutes a penalty. Contrary to popular belief, throwing an elbow constitutes a penalty and can send a skater to the penalty box.
Three Arkansas leagues were founded in 2006: Central Arkansas Roller Derby (CARD) (later renamed Rock Town Roller Derby), Northwest Arkansas Roller Derby (NWA), and River Valley Rollergirls (RVRG). NWA, a Fayetteville (Washington County) league, became a WFTDA member on May 26, 2007. NWA started with two teams, the Killbillies and the Backwoods Betties; the league added a men’s team in 2009 and later adopted a four-team system before returning to two teams. RVRG was founded in April 2006 and plays in Fort Smith (Sebastian County). CARD was formed in the summer of 2006 and played its first bout against RVRG on August 25, 2007. A fourth league, Little Rock Derby Girls (LRDG), was formed in the spring of 2007 but dissolved in December 2008, with some league members joining CARD. CARD and RVRG both became members of WFTDA in 2014. Girls Rollin’ in the South (GRITS) was founded in Cabot (Lonoke County) in 2010. Other leagues have included the Quad State Derby Dames of Texarkana (Miller County) and Benton County Roller Derby, a co-ed league.
On June 19, 2010, all the Arkansas teams competed in the Backwoods Betties Tournament, participating alongside teams from Missouri and Oklahoma in a single-elimination event; this was the first time all of the Arkansas leagues competed in the same tournament. In 2014, the first ever state roller derby tournament, State Wars, was played in Tampa Bay, Florida, with skaters from leagues all over Arkansas participating.
For additional information:
Girls Rollin’ in the South (GRITS). http://www.gritsrollerderby.com/ (accessed December 27, 2017).
Joulwan, Melissa. Roller Girl: Totally True Tales from the Track. New York: Touchtone, 2007.
Mabe, Catherine. Roller Derby: The History and All-Girl Revival of the Greatest Sport on Wheels. Golden, CO: Speck Press, 2008.
Northwest Arkansas Roller Derby. http://nwarollerderby.com/ (accessed December 27, 2017).
Storey, Celia. “Head over Wheels.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 18, 2010, 1E.
Thornton, Stephen B. “Women on the Fast Track.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 21, 2008, pp. 1E, 6E.
Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 1/22/2018
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