Controlled Mayhem: UVA Students Learn Many Lessons From Roller Derby

May 8, 2023 By Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu

What has 10 legs, 40 wheels and one goal?

A roller derby team. And University of Virginia students are part of a team in training.

Roller derby is a fast-paced, competitive, five-member team sport on roller skates, contested on an oval track, that relies on a combination of physical contact and strategy. Each team has four blockers and a jammer, who scores points by passing opposing blockers, on the track at one time.

“Jammers are usually very fast and agile skaters,” said Whitney Richardson, coach of Roller Derby at UVA, an independent student organization that trains skaters. “Blockers are working offense and defense at the same time. They are trying to block the other jammer, but also let their jammer through. It is a delicate dance of getting around people.”

Roller derby was invented in the 1930s by an entrepreneur who turned marathon roller skating into a combative game, and teams sprang up around the country. The sport’s popularity ebbed for a few decades, but experienced a revival in the early 2000s. But more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered several teams including the local one, Charlottesville’s Derby Dames. That program is in the process of rebuilding and rebranding.

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Skater lacing up skate boot in preparation for practice
Skaters sit on the asphalt parking lot practice field to pull on their protective gear. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

Richardson, the fiscal administrator in UVA’s astronomy department, spent about 10 years with the Derby Dames, but no longer competes. Now she is training University students to play flat-track roller derby. The students practice evenings in a large, flat parking lot behind the astronomy building, after the astronomers and Facilities Management employees have left, developing skills they can later use to join roller derby teams.

Second-year psychology major Helena Nguyen, from Springfield, knew how to skate, but said learning roller derby carried other lessons for her.

“Roller derby is more than just roller skating because it also requires teamwork, control and courage,” Nguyen said. “You really have to leave your comfort zone in order to play positions that might be intimidating. You also have to make sure you and all of your teammates are communicating properly. Whether you are a part of the ‘wall’ that blocks off the jammers, or you are a jammer yourself, every teammate is valuable.”

Skater doing some agility drills around small orange cones
Squat orange cones mark off the playing lanes for the roller derby practice. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

Through roller derby, Nguyen learned to be more assertive.

“Sometimes you have to shove your way through obstacles and maneuver your way through to get to where you want,” Nguyen said. “I would consider myself a pretty timid person prior to roller derby, but it has allowed me to embrace my assertive side, which is something I’m grateful to take away from the sport.”

One evening in early spring, Nguyen was among eight students swirling around the parking lot, demonstrating different skill levels and confidence on skates. Initially, the skaters, most of whom walked to practice, sat on the macadam and pulled on their gear – knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, four-wheeled roller skates and helmets – while Richardson set up drill patterns with squat orange cones. Once they were warmed up, the students skated patterns around the cones, practicing their individual skills.

Skater observing fellow skater's skating techniques
Brennan Stewart studies the maneuvers of teammates during a roller derby practice. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

Richardson unfurled a small ladder made from duct tape and paint stirrers and laid it down on the asphalt. She instructed the skaters how to practice their footwork with it, stepping through the squares on their toe stops, large rubber buttons underneath the toes of the skates, or go through the squares with a side-step motion. Some of the skaters scoffed at the ladder drill until they tried it and found it much more difficult than they imagined.

After the individual exercises, the students shifted to team drills. Richardson laid out the cones in two lines to mark the playing surface and coached blockers and jammers on their respective roles. Richardson fitted cloth covers over the skater’s helmets – one an orange star on a blue field, the other a blue star on an orange field – to designate the jammers, who score by passing the opponent’s blockers.

The skaters separated, with the blockers forming a wall to prevent the opposing jammers from getting through. After the jammers practiced various techniques to foil the blockers, the roles reversed and the jammers were reborn as blockers.

Two skaters in motion during a roller derby drill
Madison Cannon and Reese Robers skate together during a roller derby practice session. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

“The jams can go up to two minutes, but they don’t have to,” Richardson said. “The lead jammer can call off the jam if they want to, depending on their strategy, and they can go around the track, get their point and then call it off before the other team can get its point. It is one of the first strategies that jammers learn.”

While Richardson is serious about the sport, she wants her students to have fun skating and reminds them that it is not a priority in their lives.

“I tell them on the very first practice ‘Do not come to practice if you have something due that night or if you have a test the next day, unless you are using it as a stress-reliever, because you are here to go to school, you are not here to play roller derby,’” she said. “This is supposed to be a fun, social thing that gets you out of your dorm room for a little while.”

Final Exercises 2024, Learn More
Final Exercises 2024, Learn More

Richardson says the sport includes a level of controlled aggression that can be new to some participants.

Brennan Stewart, a chemistry graduate student who had been looking for a place to skate, agreed.

“Derby is a lot more physical than I thought it would be,” Stewart said. “I knew it would have some elements of that when I saw it previously, but being on a makeshift track blocking jammers really does put it all in perspective. Skating on asphalt is much harder than I thought it would be. I never had more of an appreciation for the waxed wooden floors of roller rinks than after Wednesday practices.”

For Stewart, roller derby helps socially.

Blurred motion image following Reese Robers during derby practice
Reese Robers free skates during a roller derby practice session. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

“I often feel difficulty in integrating with different groups, but after getting to be friendly and chatting with members of the team, I feel more comfortable chatting with other people in other groups,” Stewart said. “We already have something in common, or else why would we get together? So why not use that as a starting point for a conversation?”

Roller derby skaters are part of a large, diverse community, Richardson said.

“For me, a really big part is the community,” she said. “You meet people from all over the world. For players, it attracts literally everyone. The people I have skated with have all been so different – stay-at-home moms; there was a Ph.D. in neuroscience; students; nonprofit organizers. We had people who didn’t know what they wanted to do next, but they saw this as a place where they could come and be and work on what they wanted. And I think it brings people who just want to be a part of something.”

Skater practicing a specific movement
Brennan Stewart practices a maneuver during a practice session. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

While paying attention to skaters and critiquing blocking and jamming moves, Richardson also minded the time, telling the skaters when it was running out.

“When I skated in roller derby, we had three-hour practices,” she said. “Now I have to cram all of this into a one-hour session.”  

Richardson keeps a sharp eye on the skaters as they move through the exercises, but she also relies on the more experienced skaters to advise and direct the neophytes on skating techniques and tactics.

First-year student Reese Robers, who has been skating since she was very young, showed off her skills, skating backwards, skating through the patterns squatting on one skate and twirling around during the exercises.

Brennan and Madison smiling as they watch their teammates
Brennan Stewart and Madison Cannon watch other skaters go through their moves. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

“I was looking for any chance to find a roller-skating community here at UVA,” said Robers, a Roanoke resident who hopes to major in either global sustainability or media studies. “I came across the UVA Roller Derby booth at the activities fair earlier in the year and I have been hooked ever since.”

While Robers took figure skating lessons at a roller rink while in elementary school, she is new to roller derby.

“Roller derby is different from roller skating because it is a team sport,” Robers said. “It requires awareness, endurance and above all, communication. When I skate alone, it’s usually about learning new tricks or practicing speed endurance. With derby, those do not matter as much as how we work as a unit.”

Skaters crowded together practicing pack tactics
Blockers and jammers scramble on a makeshift track in a parking lot. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

For Richardson, the attraction is focus.

“It is a very physical sport,” she said. “When you are on the track, when you are blocking, you have to be in the moment. You cannot be wondering about what is happening tomorrow or what happened yesterday. You have to be there. And I don’t have that in a lot of places in my life.”

Robers, who has been a spectator at Star City Rollergirls matches in her hometown, said she hopes to join a derby team at some point.

Skaters high-five
Jordan Baker and Reese Robers high-five after a successful practice session. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

“Roller derby is my main stress relief outlet,” she said. “I love roller skating, and I love my team members. I can always count on the derby team for a good time.”

Richardson trains the students to be able to compete in roller derby after they graduate, if they move to a city that has a team. And while Richardson teaches her skaters, she has learned her own lessons from her time in derby.

Skaters and coach gathered for a team photo with two dogs joining in
The skating team: Coach Whitney Richardson (from left), Brennan Stewart, Aleyna Loughran-Pierce, Amanda Magen, Reese Robers, Madison Cannon and Jordan Baker. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

“I’ve learned how to set boundaries and not let people cross them, because some people will,” Richardson said. “I have learned how to manage my time a lot better and also to figure out what I actually enjoy and to do that and just do the things that need to be done.”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications