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Dan Jordan’s Wild World: Flat Track Roller Derby

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Action photos, learn the rules of this wild sport

By Dan Jordan, Jordan Photography and Consulting

What?  You’re thinking this series of articles was all about wildlife, not sports?  Well, to me, Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby is WILD, so, in my mind, it qualifies for a special edition of Wild World.  It’s up to you to determine, once you’ve read this article.

We are fortunate to have a team in Olean, whose home bouts are played at the William O. Smith Recreation Center. They’re exciting!  Lots of action, hits, tumbles, and strategy.

Being almost as old as dirt, I recall watching roller derby on Friday nights (or was it Saturday nights?).  It was on right before (or after) Big Time Wrestling.  It wasn’t flat track, the corners were steeply banked. There was a lot acting going on, kind of like the wrestlers who followed derby action on channel 7 (I believe).  I didn’t care much for wrestling, but I was mesmerized by the action of the roller derby.  The teams had both men and women, and they took turns on the track.  That experience from my youth left me an indelible memory.

Fast forward a whole lot of years to around 2014.  I got asked to photograph a derby bout when their then photographer couldn’t attend.  I was hooked.  When an opening came up to be their “official phtographer”, of course I jumped on the chance.  Still doin’ it!

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So, what’s this roller derby about, you ask?  Well, I have the rules for flat track roller derby and surprisingly, there are 74 pages long.  But don’t let that deter you.  There are only a few basic rules you need to know in order to understand derby and become a big fan like I am.  Following is a simplfication (some might say a gross oversimplication, but I beg to differ):

  • A “Jam” is up to 2 minutes in duration and consists of each team trying to score points while skating around the flat, oval track.
    • Jams can be cut short by the “Lead Jammer” if she desires to do so.  She does this by gesturing in a specified manner to the referees.
  • Unless one or more skaters are in the penalty box for rules infractions, each team starts the Jam with 5 skaters.
    • Four skaters are designated as blockers, who try to clear a path for their Jammer to score points.
    • One skater wears a star on her helmet which designates her as the Jammer.  Jammers are the only skaters who can score points.
  • Blockers line up behind the Pivot line but in front of the Jammer Line and wait for the whistle to start the jam.
  • Jammers line up behind the Jammer line on the track.
    • Jammers have a star on their helmets to identify them as the potential scorers.  They might as well have a target on their backs, as they become the targets of the opposition blockers, in mass.
  • When the whistle sounds to start the Jam, the opposing Jammers work their way through the pack, if they can.  The opposing blockers do everything in their power (and within the rules) to prevent that.
  • The first Jammer out of the pack is designated as the Lead Jammer.  The Lead Jammer is the only skater who can call off a Jam prior to the 2-minutes elapsing, which automatically stops the Jam.
  • Jammers must traverse the entire oval to catch back up with the pack in order to score points.  They score a single point for every opposing blocker they pass on their second pass(and all subsequent passes) through the pack.  There is no limit to how many times a Jammer may circle the track and score points, other than the 2-minute end of each Jam.
  • The second Jammer (opposition team) out of the pack has no ability to call off a Jam, so being the Lead Jammer can be a big advantage.  Even if the second Jammer were to pass the Lead Jammer during a Jam, the title of Lead Jammer does not move to the second jammer.  Once a Lead Jammer, always a Lead Jammer for that particular Jam.
  • There are penalties for infractions which must be served in a penalty box area by the offenders. Penalties last 30 seconds.
    • Skaters may not use their heads, elbows, forearms, hands, knees, lower legs, or feet to initiate contact with an opponent. (Basically body checks are allowed-and they do ever throw their bodies around!)  Skaters may not make contact to an opponent’s head, back, knees, lower legs, or feet.
  • There is one other helmet covering, which has a stripe on it.  This is worn by one of the blockers which designates her as a “Pivot”.   The Pivot may become the team’s Jammer within a given Jam by exchanging or picking up the Jammer’s helmet cover.  Although this does happen, I don’t find it to be an key part of the bouts.

Given that the rules are 74 pages long, you can imagine that the referees, coaches, and players need to understand a lot more than my summary above.  But, I’m telling you, to enjoy a bout, you are now qualified!

The Olean derby team is known as the Hellbilly Heartbreakers.  They are part of the organization called Enchanted Mountain Roller Derby, which is a not-for-profit organization.  Their contributions to local charities is something to marvel at.  They donate a percentage of their gate to a chosen charitable organisation. For as long as I’ve been photographing them, they have presented a check to a charity at each home bout. 

Their bouts are well attended, some are complete sell outs and believe me, the building is rocking when the action starts.  The 2023 schedule has yet to be released, but I will share it with you when I have it.  I personally invite you to come join the fun.

And, if you are of a mind to try a little contact-skating, the team is always looking for skaters and referees.  They are recruiting NonSkating Officials (NSO’s) too.  These are the score keepers, the book keepers, the penalty box attendants, etc. who are the glue that keeps the bouts together while the skaters and the referees have their “fun”.  (Yes, the referees are skaters as well!)

What would a Wild World edition be without photos?  Here are some photos from over the years for your enjoyment. 

This first photo is from 2014.  It shows the EMRD Jammer on the floor after a big hit, but it appears that the opposing blocker got the worst of that one.

The next photo, also from 2014, shows an EMRD Jammer (current team member, Dali Dagger) being triple teamed by oppositoin blockers.  That’s a tight squeeze, Dali.  But if I know her, she made it through that mass of blockers and scored some points.

The next photo is from 2015.  If you’re familiar with the expression, “that’s gonna leave a mark”, well I’m pretty sure that left a mark.  Bodies flying, helmets askew, this is what you can expect to see at a roller derby bout.

It takes a lot of stripes and whistles to referee a flat track roller derby bout.  Have I mentioned that the organization is recruiting referees?  Can you skate?  Skate on down to Olean and apply!

The following photos are from 2018, showing action from a bout against a tough team from Pittsburgh, PA.  That’s right, our local derby team competes against big-market teams from all over the northeast!

If it looks like fun, it is.  Be it participating or spectating (or, in my case, photographing); Saturday night bout nights are something to look forward to and to enjoy once they arrive.

Source for rules:

The Rules of Flat Track Roller Derby, January 1, 2022.  WFTDA

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