New Orleans Ladies Arm Wrestling showdown takes place Saturday
There are just three rules in New Orleans Ladies Arm Wrestling. Contestants’ elbows must not rise from the padded squares on the custom arm-wrestling table. Contestants must, in the words of co-founder and referee Maggie Calmes, “keep one cheek in the chair.” And wrestlers must keep both feet on the ground — even if they’re wearing high heels.
Each match lasts roughly 10 shaky, sweaty seconds — it takes much longer than that just to align the competitors shoulders, wrists and grips before the whistle blows.
Ties are settled with secondary contests, such as thumb wrestling or dance offs.
The “Matriarchal Mayhem Maytime Brawl” that takes place Saturday at The Howlin’ Wolf nightclub is the 11th in a series of all-woman arm-wrestling contests that combine elements of athleticism, pro-wrestling-style posturing and cabaret.
Volunteer contestants with stage names such as The Viper, Cry Baby, The Delivery Girl and The Harlem Hammer (who triumphed in the March 3 “Give Up, Don’t Give In Lenten Brawl”), appear in sometimes alluring, always satirical get-ups. A wrestler known as Swamp Thang wore a two-piece nutria fur ensemble.
Each contestant is accompanied by an enthusiastic entourage of costumed supporters who cavort ecstatically onstage in preparation for each match, while the combatants issue tongue-in-cheek taunts to one another.
Each brawl is dedicated to a new charity. A recent contest dedicated to the Birthmark Doula Collective raised $1,300 — enough for two birthing tubs. Saturday’s event benefits Covenant House, which proves shelter and services for troubled young people.
Stevie Long, aka Slamrock O’Hagan, has two brawls to her credit. Arriving in New Orleans in 2006 to help with the post-flood recovery, Long gutted and rebuilt homes with AmeriCorps and Habitat for Humanity construction crews. She says her moments in the NOLAW spotlight have been two of the best experiences in her 27 years. “I never felt more like a rock star,” she said.
With wrestlers’ theme songs blaring from speakers, guest judges issue amplified commentary from an onstage café table and the crowd howls with laughter and applause. The volume rises to a point that may rival a Saints game in the Superdome.
The addition of the Slow Danger brass band to Saturday’s proceedings could only amp up the sound. All the blare and muscle of a NOLAW brawl is a sort of feminist symbolism in action. As co-founder Angharad Hollingworth, a second-grade teacher, put it, New Orleans Ladies Arm Wrestling is “a strength-based performance” in a “woman-owned space” that “provides a platform for empowerment.”
Despite what one organizer called the “debaucherous” nature of the brawl gestalt, they draw the line between good bawdy fun and any sort of threatening or demeaning behavior.
“We encourage a kind of rowdy, raucous cheering on, but if it becomes really aggressive or disrespectful, then it’s not allowed,” said Calmes, who is the community producer for Nola.com.
Nina Feldman, who works in an affordable housing organization, brought the ember of women’s arm wrestling to New Orleans. While attending Bard College in upstate New York, Feldman explained, a friend discovered women’s arm wrestling in Charlottesville, Va., and asked her to help start a local arm wrestling chapter. When Feldman moved to New Orleans, she set out to transplant the activity.
“It struck me as a place where it would not be difficult to call attention to it,” she said.
Partnering with Hollingworth, Calmes and others, Feldman, who acts as brawl MC, presented the first matches at Finn McCool’s Irish Pub in Mid-City in January 2010, then at a series of other bars. The crowd grew with each incarnation.
Earlier this week, participants gathered at the Howlin’ Wolf to go over final brawl details. None of Saturday’s contestants has brawled before.
Professional gardener Lindsay Dennis, aka Second Wave, said she feels prepared for the competition because “I spend a decent amount of my time lugging around heavy bags of potting soil and buckets of water.”
Art teacher Tamar Toledano will appear as Pillar of Assault, with an entourage — “The Shakers” — dressed in flame-colored fabrics. Toledano said that, in a way, she’s a NOLAW natural because of her background in feminist performance art.
Seventh-grade math teacher Carli “Bingo” Raben said she plans to use her match “as a platform to release my passion on the world.” Rounding out the bill are Lan “Lanamal” Huynh, Sophie “Cosmic Crusher” Frank and Cynthia “Grandmaw” Foots.
Foots may be the long-shot. A Covenant House employee, Foots comically complained that she was entirely unsuited for the contest.
“I don’t have any strength, but they said, ‘You’ll be great.’ I’ll do anything for Covenant House,” she said.
More than one onlooker said they suspected Grandmaw of sandbagging.
“That’s what they think,” she said. “I got them scared at the beginning.”
Doug MacCash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3481. Read more art news at nola.com/arts. Follow him at twitter.com/DougMacCashTP.
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