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For Los Angeles Lady Arm Wrestlers, joy and protest go hand in hand

The Bootleg Theater plays host to the empowerment-charity fest by the Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers, whose L.A. chapter revels in outrageous shows of force.

March 24, 2013|By Taffy Brodesser-Akner

On Valentine's Day, a young woman wearing a button-down shirt, bicycle shorts and a Soviet-era Budenovka hat, along with an adhesive mustache, stood on the stage of the Bootleg Theater.

Her name was Russky Business. Her father's Fabergé egg had been stolen, so she was doing arm-wrestling bouts to make money for the repurchase of the egg, always hoping that the right people would see her skills and she would earn that arm-wrestling scholarship to the prestigious Moscow State University.

Business and her entourage — two men dressed in Russian hats and similarly pasted-on mustaches — stood stoically as the competition entered.

FULL COVERAGE: 2013 Spring arts preview

The audience danced in front of the stage to the Village People's "Macho Man" as a young woman dressed in a black tutu, hard hat and a construction vest with small traffic cones attached at the torso danced up the ramp to the stage followed by a team of burly and enthusiastic construction men.

This was Dirt Diggler, a wayward construction worker who, the emcees announced, was "from the depths of the down-and-dirtiest damn places you have ever seen."

The two settled down and met face to face. All that stood between them was a high table and a professional arm-wrestling referee. They set their right elbows on the table, clasped hands and got to work.

Campier than World Wrestling Entertainment. More self-aware than that 1980s mainstay, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Way more over the top than the 1987 Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling movie "Over The Top." Meet the Los Angeles Lady Arm Wrestlers (LA LAW), the Los Angeles chapter of the Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers (CLAW), arm-wrestling theater as performance art, fundraiser, women's empowerment vehicle and outrageous entertainment.

It began in Charlottesville, Va., in 2008 after Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell, a recent widow and mother of a young child, felt the need to get out of her house. She organized an arm-wrestling meet for women in the nonsmoking room of a diner. Seventy people came.

"It brought out something in them that they liked, that they hadn't really known about before," says Tidwell, now 40.

Women in other cities heard about it, and CLAW began to grow — first Chicago, then the Hudson Valley. Tidwell lent her wisdom, her support and her website (http://www.clawusa.org. There are now 23 chapters, dues-paying members of the league, which organizes tournaments and regional finals and the ultimate championship, SuperCLAW, which will be held in Washington, D.C., in October.

The matches are designed to bring in an audience that both pays a cover charge and bets on the wrestlers, with the entire till going to a nonprofit of the chapter's choice.

"In some cities, these women take it so seriously that they're known around town by their personae," Tidwell says. She clarifies: "I don't mean really seriously, seriously. I mean they take the joy seriously. The women who show up and just wrestle once, they don't really get what's great about it. The people who come and make it part of themselves, they have a transformative experience."

LA LAW is one of the more recent chapters to form. It was started by Amanda McRaven, a theater director and college instructor who knew Tidwell in Charlottesville and founded a chapter when she arrived in L.A. in 2010. She reached out to theater companies and to women who had wrestled independently.

"The goal is to create community in Los Angeles without any pressure or expectation," McRaven says. "They enjoy being with other theater people without having to be at a conference or at work. And this empowers women to get out of their box and do something new."

She also liked the idea of marrying artists with nonprofit awareness. The Valentine's Day Massacre benefited Homegirl Cafe & Catering as part of Eve Ensler's One Billion Rising anti-violence initiative. The next event is June 17 (for more information, go to facebook.com/Laladyarmwrestlers.

Diggler's real name is Christina Estrada, 26, and her real job is in accounts receivable at Pacific National Transportation. She took to heart McRaven's request that once there is a winner and a loser, they must begin to vie for worst sportsmanship.

Diggler pranced around the stage with her entourage, all of whom took turns spraying whipped cream on her, er, highway cones and licking it off.

The first time Estrada arm-wrestled for LA LAW, it was a benefit for the theater group Opera Del Espacio. It needed to raise money and this seemed like a good way.

"I'd never been in anything like this," she says. "It was so fun. Who doesn't want to get dressed up and act crazy for a good cause?"

But Tidwell warns not to get distracted by the event's weirdness and dismiss its importance. "It's part of a social and feminist movement that's as much about joy as it is about protest," she says. "We're living out and exploding stereotypes. It's safe to go as far as you want to go."

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