By MATT MOFFETT
MADRID—When Clara Colome's small business failed in Spain's grinding recession, she picked up the pieces with a little help from her friends, "Pandemonium" and "Hell on Wheels."
Those are the nicknames of her teammates on the Black Thunders Derby Dames, a local roller derby team that is part of a global boom in the full-contact skating sport. Ms. Colome, who skates as "Heidi Maiden," says that roller derby lifted her out of the doldrums by giving her renewed self-confidence as well as a sense of camaraderie.
But what Ms. Colome really needed in a recent exhibition bout against the camouflage-wearing Murcia City Bombers was some extra body armor. On a curve on the oval track, Ms. Colome got sandwiched between two Bombers, who dug in their shoulders and sent Ms. Colome's helmet swiveling sideways on her head. Ms. Colome took it in stride. "You learn to keep skating even when you've been knocked around," she says.
Roller derby, the tough as nails sport that emerged in the U.S. during the Depression of the 1930s and ultimately faded, is in the midst of an unlikely global resurgence that has seen it catch on everywhere from Dubai to Tasmania.
Now female-dominated, roller derby is played by five-member teams. One skater on each team, known as the jammer and sporting a star on her helmet, tries to lap the other team's skaters. Starting with the jammer's second pass through the opposition, her team gets a point for each opponent she laps.
The other skaters wield their hips, rear ends and shoulders to block the opposing jammer, while trying to propel their own jammer onward.
When derbyroster.com started compiling its list of amateur women's leagues in 2006, there were 50, all from the U.S. Now, there are about 1,250 leagues, nearly half of them abroad. (There are also more than 100 men's or coed leagues.)
The sun never sets on roller derby. In Belem, Brazil, on the edge of the Amazon jungle, a team called the Vixens From Jungle Hell is encamped. In the Netherlands, the Hague is the seat of the Parliament of Pain. Japanese derby fans are feasting on the Yokosuka Sushi Rollers.
Roller derby's rise is a small fable of globalization that demonstrates the speed with which pop culture is now transported by highly mobile expatriates and social media, while also highlighting the changing role of women in many societies.
"It is kind of the sports version of a room of one's own," says Susan Nour, who skates for Egypt's CaiRollers. In Egypt's patriarchal society, the CaiRollers, composed of a mix of expatriates and Egyptians, initially attracted incredulous stares from men who saw them practicing at a park. But now men are coming by and trying to get their sisters spots on the team, Ms. Nour says. Harder to deal with are sand storms that play havoc with skate bearings.
Roller derby was introduced by a Chicago dance-marathon promoter named Leo Seltzer during the bleakest days of the 1930s. Madison Square Garden played host to derby bouts, staged on a distinctive banked track.
Derby became a mainstay of the early days of television. But by the 1970s, spectators had become turned off by an overemphasis on theatrics.
The derby renaissance started about a decade ago in the Lone Star State, led by a "hilarious mix of misfits and weirdos" who formed the Texas Rollergirls, according to Christina Pocaressi, or "Voodoo Doll," an early skater.
The derby revivalists played on flat tracks rather than the costly banked ones. And aside from the playfully punned derby names, the nouveau rollers eschewed stagecraft and took the sport seriously.
"Women are innately competitive," says Ms. Pocaressi, who says she is about 40 years old. "It's changing now, but my generation was taught to 'play nice' when we really wanted to play hard."
Courtney Welch, a digital project manager who skated in Los Angeles as Bette Noir, spearheaded the trans-Atlantic expansion of the sport in 2006 by helping found the London Rollergirls. "No one had ever heard of this sport, and there are maybe only three skating rinks in the U.K.," says Ms. Welch.
But the British quickly embraced derby and about 90 women's leagues have sprung up on the islands. Even Ms. Welch's future British husband, whom she describes as "somewhat conservative and a bit posh," came around. After one of Ms. Welch's bouts, he dropped to one knee on the track and used the public-address microphone to propose to her.
Far-flung U.S. military personnel and family members have been instrumental in starting a host of teams, including the Reckless Bandidas Rollergirls in Puerto Rico and the ROKettes in the Republic of Korea.
South America's avid Hollywood fans were introduced to the sport through the 2009 derby comedy-drama, "Whip It," starring Ellen Page and Drew Barrymore. The movie fired the imagination of Fefi Barth, who helped organize one of Argentina's first teams, the Buenos Aires Cougars.
When her disapproving boyfriend told her she had to choose between derby and their relationship, she didn't hesitate. "I kept my skates on and said goodbye," says Ms. Barth, whose alter ego is "Hell-of-a-Kitty."
In an echo of derby's depression roots, the tough sport has enjoyed a resurgence during tough economic times. More than 20 leagues have emerged in recession-racked Spain.
The Dames—whose lineup includes struggling students, a patent lawyer, a tattoo artist and a ketchup marketer—operate on a shoestring, vying with volleyball players for practice time on blacktop at a park.
Going into their bout with the Bombers, the Dames probably should have taken it as an ominous sign that their opponent was named for the rowdy squad in "Kansas City Bomber," a 1972 skating film starring Raquel Welch.
One Dame was executing a "booty block," using her rear end to obstruct the Bombers' jammer, when another Bomber simply kicked her out of the way. Other Dames complained of being stepped on, kneed, tripped and grabbed by Bombers.
Ines Ojeda, a Dame known as "Rolling Storm 4U," says bruises only make skaters stronger. She says derby gave her the confidence to surmount recession-related stresses in her administrative job. "The office can be a pretty rough place, too," she says.
Write to Matt Moffett at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared February 4, 2013, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: As the World Turns, So Do the Wheels of Roller Derby.