The universe of great theatrical sports is rather small. There's roller derby and wrestling, but that's about as far as it goes.
But there's a new addition to this little corner of the sports world: women's arm wrestling. Jayme Dyer didn't know what to expect when she signed up for her first event in Durham, N.C., two years ago.
The sport seems to combine all the right ingredients — promising empowering, women-centered bawdiness that raises money for good causes. Not to mention some suggestive outfits.
"The first time I competed in arm wrestling, I had no idea what I was doing," says Dyer, a woman in her mid-20s with short brown hair and a slight physique. "And I won."
"I won the first round. I won the second round. And I almost won the championship round," she says. "I was like, 'Holy cow, if this is how well I can do when I haven't even been training, then man, I gotta start lifting weights."
Sitting on a bed in a Charlottesville, Va., hotel room, you'd have no idea by looking at her that she was about to make a transformation into a lingerie-clad burlesque entertainer. She looks more like the person she is during her day-job: a genetics researcher at Duke University.
"It's theatrical, and it's crazy, and wild, and really, really fun," she says.
Dyer represented Durham at the very first national championships of the Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers — or CLAW — held in Charlottesville this summer. The competition, dubbed SuperCLAW, brought together eight women from around the nation for a DIY sport that's spreading from coast to coast — and may soon have leagues in Europe and South America.
Dyer's character is an invention named "Ze Dirty Butcher" — someone who wanted to be a burlesque dancer but couldn't make the cut. Dyer had a professional hair and make-up treatment before the bout, including a liberal splattering of fake blood on her minimally-clad body. For a woman who only wears makeup a few times a year, it was a dramatic transformation.
There are a range of women who compete — some with a better chance of winning than others. Dyer knew that with her slight stature she didn't have great odds for glory, but for her it was more about raising money for women's charities than taking home the title.
She grew up with a single mom in Colorado Springs, Co. At 16, she was removed from her home after witnessing her mom's suicide attempt. Her mother was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
"I felt like Pig-Pen," the shabby boy from the Peanuts comics, Dyer says. "I remember walking around with this cloud of dirt. I remember walking to work and thinking that everyone driving by could see this stain on my soul. And I had to survive either by shutting down or by looking at it. And I looked at it."
Ze Dirty Butcher, she says, is a big part of her growth.
"I want to be happy. I want to be more relaxed. Letting go is not easy for me whatsoever. I think the costume helps with it. I put on this costume, I put on this different character, and Jayme doesn't have to let go anymore. Because, it's 'Ze Dirty Butcher' and that's what she does."
Dyer wrestled two different women, and eventually lost to a bruiser of a woman who ended up taking home the crown.
Standing outside in front of the historic theater after the bout, she didn't look like she'd suffered defeat. In fact, she beamed.
"I didn't win the championship, I knew I wouldn't," Dyer said. "But the crowd loved me."
It was late, but the downtown pedestrian arcade was still full with the late-night crowd. Many people made double-takes at Dyer in her heels and red lingerie.
"What I love about women's arm wrestling is that it's about women being strong. And in our culture, what makes a woman sexy is being really skinny – and skinny women aren't strong," she said. "These arm wrestling events have women go up on stage and flex their muscles, and the crowd goes wild."
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
The list of great theatrical sports is a pretty short one. There's roller derby, there's wrestling, and, well, that's about it. So Jayme Dyer didn't know what to expect two years ago when she signed up for a women's arm wrestling event in Durham, North Carolina. But for her, it had all the right ingredients: it empowered women, it was bawdy, it was fun, and it raised money for causes like domestic violence shelters.
So this past summer, she found herself representing Durham at the very first National Championships of CLAW, the Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers. Producer Brad Horn followed Dyer through multiple costume changes as she set out to bring home the championship cape.
JAYME DYER: The first time I competed in arm wrestling, I had no idea what I was doing, and I'd never arm wrestled anybody before. And I won.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All performers are allowed two alcoholic drinks during the event.
DYER: I won the first round.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Wrestlers may not induce any messy substance...
DYER: I won the second round.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Performers may not reveal genitalia.
DYER: And I almost won the championship round. And I was like, holy cow, if this is how well I can do when I haven't even been training, then man, I got to start lifting weights.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HEADLEE: CLAW is a Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers, which is the overarching umbrella of many smaller leagues throughout the country. SuperCLAW is the first arm wrestling event with one representative from each league coming together and arm wrestling each other.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Let me bring out some special people for you. We got eight, eight, eight lovely beauties from all over the country here tonight.
DYER: I'm competing as Ze Dirty Butcher, somebody who wanted to be a burlesque dancer but couldn't make the cut. So she got a job, which happened to be at the local butcher shop. But she never gave up her dream of wanting to be a burlesque dancer.
The woman who's going to win tomorrow night, I'm fairly certain she's going to be a large woman. It's not going to be me.
DYER: But I am going to pull a T-bone steak out of my underwear. Look, I'm really excited to have a professional do my hair. I wear makeup about three times a year. OK. But not like, Mohawk. More like, bring it all up, and then maybe have some curls. So we're mixing Mohawk with burlesque.
I grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Single mom, single daughter. It was the two of us kind of against the world. And she has bipolar disorder, and we didn't know that until after I left. But when I was 16, she attempted suicide, and I saw it. And the police took me out of her home.
I felt like Pig-Pen. I was walking around with this cloud of dirt. And I remember walking to work and thinking everybody who's driving by could see this stain on my soul. They all know that I'm this horrible person. And I had to survive either by shutting down or by looking at it. And I looked at it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So where's that outfit from?
DYER: (as Ze Dirty Butcher) That is a good question. Sometimes it is from France, sometimes Jamaica and sometimes Germany.
DYER: I want to be happy. I want to be able to be more relaxed. Letting go is not easy for me, whatsoever. But I think the costume helps with it. I think I put on this costume, and I put on this different character, and Jayme doesn't have to let go anymore because it's Ze Dirty Butcher. And, you know, that's what she does.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She'll slice, dice and cut you. Eww. Gross. It's Ze Dirty Butcher.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: One, two, hey.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
DYER: I didn't win the championship. I wasn't strong enough. There were some very strong women. I knew there would be. But the crowd loved me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DYER: What I love about women's arm wrestling is that it is about women being strong. And in our culture, what makes a woman sexy is being really skinny. And skinny women aren't strong. These arm wrestling events have women go up on stage and flex their muscles, and the crowd goes wild.
HEADLEE: That's Jayme Dyer, professional arm wrestler. CLAW's next event will be Friday in Washington, D.C. To see photos of Jayme's vaudevillian run at the arm wrestling championship, visit npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.