Roller Derby at the Shrine

November 22, 2012 @ 11:34 pm by James Reuss

For all those that have never attended a roller derby bout before, I can attest that it is an event not to be missed. It has everything a good sport needs: action, drama, successes and failures, and a good cause to benefit (at least this particular one did). Saturday, November 17th saw a roller derby doubleheader at the Shrine Auditorium, hosting derby girls from all over Montana and Wyoming. Tickets were ten bucks at the door, with proceeds going to the Road Dog’s Toy Run. Billings, Montana’s own Billings Roller Derby Dames were there, with teams from Great Falls, Kalispell, Casper, WY, and more!

This isn't a great representation, but it's a good little slice.

I’ve seen the Shrine’s basketball court used for so many things—dances, concerts, maybe even a basketball game—but this is the first time I’d ever seen it used for flat-track roller derby. Tape had been laid down in lines on the floor, creating a track about eight feet wide, running in an oval in the center of the floor. Further out was a line of yellow caution tape creating an outer loop. The refs skate around the outer loop and cover the inside oval as well—I could see from my place up in the bleachers just how important the refs were to the game.

Roller derby is something of a different world. The skaters are all women; if a man’s anywhere near the track, he’s a ref, not a competitor. This tradition goes back to roller derby’s roots in the 1930s. Since then, the sport has changed continually, eventually evolving into a sort of “professional wrestling on wheels,” with predetermined winners and a loose event script. However, it’s recently been subject to a full-on renaissance; competitors take the sport seriously, and do everything they can to have the audience do the same. Gone are the event scripts and all-consuming pageantry, leaving behind teams of committed, athletic skaters out to win, and have a great time doing it.

The roller derby girl is a singular breed; there is no one physical type, personal style, or background among them. All roller derby requires is the stamina to skate for long periods and a certain…cutthroat attitude. A derby girl needn’t be anything other than tough and scrappy. Teams dress similarly, but there’s no one outfit for everybody. Skaters are required to wear safety gear (helmets, pads, mouthguards), but other than that, they’re free to make themselves up however they see fit. Helmets are layered with stickers, and pads often display striped or animal-print trim. Many girls wear facepaint; tattoos large and small run down biceps and peek out from under shorts and above tall socks. Quite a few wear tights or leggings under their shorts, in myriad colors and styles, from utilitarian black, to screaming neon, to lacy fishnet. Team t-shirts are chopped, sliced, and re-stitched into all manner of shapes and styles. Most skaters have their stage names, or more appropriately, French Foreign Legion-style noms de guerre, screenprinted across the backs of their shirts. The practice is all but required in roller derby; even the refs have their own stage names. Among those present at the show were skaters Slim Hitman, Brutal Bombshell, and Britt-Knee Basher, along with refs Jack’s Jill and John F. Penalty.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on the rules of the game, though I learn more with each event I attend. Fortunately, the refs stage an explanation of the game’s rules, as well as how the game is played, before the bout begins. On top of that, there’s a nice breakdown of the positions, maneuvers, and how teams score points written up in the event’s program. Once the teams take the floor, the party begins.

Watching roller derby teams compete is always a good time. Girls throw elbows, knock each other down, skate the loop with the speed and grace of true athletes, and in the case of at least a few that night, foul each other constantly. Just like hockey, the penalty box never stays empty very long. Music plays during the bouts—not just little snippets between puck drops like at a hockey game or between downs at a football game, but the whole time. It’s quite an event. Whatever description I could apply to it wouldn’t do it justice.

Roller derby bouts aren’t as common as other sports, and the season looks to be winding down, but I’m excited for the next one. Find out more at, or find the local team on Facebook at

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