As the lights dim, wrestler Hulk Hogan’s theme song will rise and Betsy Boss will strut onstage in her American flag bikini. Her biceps flexed, and with a sewing kit tucked under her arm, the newest St. Louis Lady Arm Wrestler will be ready to rumble.
Her motto: She leaves you red, white and boo hoo.
Betsy Boss — local fitness instructor Karen Downey — makes her debut tonight at the group’s latest Grease-themed bout — “Summer Shovin.”
The St. Louis Lady Arm Wrestlers — also known as SLLAW — describe themselves as "a philanthropic conglomerate of awesome," with a mission to “empower women and strengthen the community through theatre, philanthropy and the pure power of ladyhood.”
The women of SLLAW put their muscles into supporting the community.
Three times a year, the club stages drama-infused arm wrestling bout at a St. Louis dive bar. Each time the ladies raise at least $1,000 for local female-powered non-profits. They’re not the only ones. More than 20 similar lady arm wrestling clubs are part of a national league.
“Every local chapter has its own character,” said SLLAW member Elena Pahl, who on stage is known as mad scientist Rosalind Shanklin. “We are a group of women-identified folks that want to get together and do something that showcases women’s strength.”
ALL FOR A CAUSE
Tonight's event benefits Sistahs Talkin’ Back, a feminist organization for women of color. All proceeds from the bout will help send a local female leader infected with HIV to a pan-African women’s summit on HIV/AIDS and reproductive justice.
Feminism is at the center of SLLAW’s work. The group embraces “queer politics and feminist values.” Non-profits applying to be wrestling match beneficiaries must state in their applications that they do work that benefits women and are inclusive of trans-identitified people.
While raising thousands for women’s organizations, the lady arm wrestlers also try to create a fun night for their crowd of supporters. The bouts fuse pro wrestling and burlesque with competitive sport. Lady arm wrestling also is performance art.
THE ART OF ARM WRESTLING
Every lady arm wrestler is a character, complete with a costume and a dark and pun-filled backstory. This weekend’s lineup features the likes of emcee Lucille Brawl and wrestlers Lucky Slamrock, Tammy Guns and Sugar Plum Scary.
Crafting a character is an artistic process. New wrestlers have to go through character development boot camp. Downey mistakenly thought that meant she’d be getting out her dumbbells.
“When they first told me it was a requirement, I first thought, ‘Oh I have to go do a bunch of workout drills,’” Downey said.
It’s actually a writing workshop. The wrestlers sit down with notepads to talk about women who have inspired them and to consider their character’s traits and backstory.
“Shunned by colonial reenactors, Betsy Boss, refusing to don the hoop skirt and bonnet …” Downey improvised during the boot camp.
Downey said she relates to the historical Betsy Ross, whose marriage caused a split in her family and Quaker community. Downey experienced a similar family rift after her divorce.
“This is therapeutic,” said Sonia Slankard, who plays the villain La Diabla, “Everyone should work out their own alter ego and let her get out and play sometimes.”
For the wrestlers, boot camp also is a time for spinning puns and zingers and planning their smack talk. All of it comes out during the bout.
“I’ll bust your blarney stones,” RahRah Booom! taunted Lucky Slamrock.
IT’S GOING DOWN
Dozens of audience members typically pack in to watch the wrestlers compete while the characters who are sitting the match out walk through the crowds collecting donations — and bribes.
Audience members who favor one wrestler can pay money to have her opponent spin hula hoops on her arms or bounce bedazzled shake weights for a minute before going in to the match. The bribes add to the beneficiary’s take-home check.
In matches, the women come in character, prepared to perform. But the competition is real. More than one wrestler said she’s started to work weight lifting into her regular exercise regimen.
Tonight's event will be at the Heavy Anchor, 5226 Gravois Avenue, St. Louis. Doors open at 8 p.m.