- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2007

It starts at the center of my spine, a tingle that feels like a primordial bug buried deep in my vertebrae has awakened and begun skittering across my back, sending an electric tickle gradually outward through my fingers, my feet and my face, over which a broad, glowing smile spreads. For more than a dozen years, I have been a hip-hop performer and dance floor fiend, and this is the endorphin-fueled effect that unrestrained dancing has on me. It’s the result of having discovered an outlet into which I can pour every ounce of my frustration and tension, one in which my aggression is not only completely acceptable, but also fun for spectators to watch.

Around town, other women are discovering that D.C.’s night life and entertainment scene boasts plenty of activities, both organized and informal, that let them have their cake and throw it in someone’s face, too.

Where’s the evidence? How about the sound of an arm slamming against a table at Showbar Palace of Wonder’s female arm-wrestling night, the crash of helmets at a DC Rollergirls scrimmage, the cool air flying off a b-girl (female break dancer) as she clears out a space on the dance floor for herself then rules its three dimensions for a few minutes.

Each of these instances illustrates a woman using her body in a nonsexual, non-dangerous way, but one that allows her to commune with a side of herself that is often repressed and ignored. Thus, something as simple as clenching fists with another broad for 30 seconds might result in much more than a few amusing moments in the spotlight; it might provide release, some inner reconciliation, and if she’s really lucky, one heck of a rush.

Virginia Arrisueno, a quiet 26-year-old who runs her own fashion company, has found one such outlet. She’s been frequenting the sideshow-themed Showbar (1210 H St. NE) since its July opening, and has become something of a legend on arm-wrestling night (most Tuesdays).

“At first, I didn’t want to participate, since the majority [of competitors] were quite built, and although I’m athletic, I’m far from being built,” she says. “After a couple of drinks, though, I really didn’t care, and I decided to have some fun and compete.”

The thin-framed woman who calls herself “the underdog” not only dominated that evening’s proceedings, but has yet to lose a bout.

“She’s beat Marines, Army girls; she’s beat people with her [weaker] left hand against left-handed women,” says Priscilla Jerez, a friend of Miss Arrisueno’s as well as Showbar’s “princess of events and promotions.”

Despite the fact that it’s encouraged, “I’ve never heard her talk smack to anyone,” the staff member adds. “She just usually sits at the bar and smiles, then gets up there and does her thing, apologizes and goes back to the bar and buys everyone drinks with the $50 bar tab she just won.”

The displays of aggression during the contest can be intense, with yelling and screaming coming from every direction — including the bartenders and any boyfriends in the audience — and tense deadlocks that have lasted as long as 4 1/2 minutes.

“It’s nothing personal,” Miss Jerez explains. “A lot of friendships have been forged over it.”

She’s proud to have helped the bar organize the event (one of their busiest weeknights). While she’s unwilling to outright condemn wet T-shirt contests and other tarted-up bar games, she says, “It’s not that hard to figure out something better to put together for women up there onstage. When you’re done [with arm wrestling] here, guys will slap fives and pat you on the back, instead of treating you skanky.” (This emphasis on keeping it clean is something of a hallmark at Showbar, which features burlesque acts most weekend nights that pride themselves on being suggestive rather than explicit, feminine without being slutty.)

The champ herself, Miss Arrisueno, agrees that events like this are a positive way for women to blow off some steam. “It’s just like exercising,” she says. “It’s an avenue to relieve some stress and have some fun.”

Cathy Price and Emilia Formoso stumbled onto a different but equally satisfying diversion: roller derby. They’re part of the year-old, 60-plus member organization DC Rollergirls, currently gearing up for its first season of competition this spring. (They launch their inaugural season with a “Peep Show” expo boutMarch 24 at the Dulles Sportsplex, then graduate to “real” public bouts between the Rollergirls’ four subdivided groups on April 21.)

In case you missed A&E;’s “Rollergirls,” the game is essentially two opposing teams who try to help the woman in their “jammer” position lap the pack as many times as possible within the alloted time while blocking the other team’s. (Unlike the TV show, local derby uses flat rather than banked tracks.)

There are gentler moments when helping hands reach out, and (as witnessed in a recent practice) more violent ones when a woman’s strong hip positioning causes another to fly into a wall (ouch) or thrusts her to the unforgiving wood floor (double-ouch).

There’s crying, blood and bruises — but also a whole lot of sweaty glow and smiles. Oh yeah, and socks — they wear really, really cool socks.

Skating is much more than a hobby for Miss Formoso, a 24-year-old graduate student whose derby alter ego is Guantanamo Babe. “I’ve found that skating has helped me feel more self-assured and confident,” she says.

DC Rollergirls is “a safe place for women to be aggressive, and be around other women who are also not afraid to express that,” she adds.

“Even the shyest of us has to let a part of them loose when they strap on skates,” says Miss Price, a married 32-year-old also known as Demabrat. “[Roller derby] could be looked at as a cheaper version of anger management therapy.”

While these women are skating around a ring in a gymnasium, Marie-Noelle Nguyen is doing footwork in a different kind of circle: a break dancing cipher (hip-hop culture’s name for the circular space afforded to dancers).

Since she started dancing her junior year of high school in Silver Spring, the handsome 23-year-old (whose b-girl name is Dskco) has competed in dozens of events and broken it down on many area dance floors. She is the only female in her 10-or-so member dance crew, Counter Attack Breakers (also called CAB Cru), a serious curio shop of talent.

“I think when I started it was just for fun, like ‘Let me try and do what you’re doing,’ ” Miss Nguyen says.

Now, the girl who says she disliked public speaking and raising her hand in class uses break dance as a powerful means to one-up people and earn respect in nightlife and hip-hop circles. She wages a visual assault on competitors and onlookers through fast footwork and floor work, spins and pretzel-like freezes.

“It’s a male-dominated activity … and it’s cool to walk into a place and be the only one that does the same thing the guys do,” she says.

Given that the art form (along with other hip-hop elements) was devised by blacks and Latinos during the ‘70s in the volatile Bronx as a means of channeling energy, contesting space and creating an alternate means for advancement outside the traditional economy, it makes sense that women have adopted it for similar reasons.

Miss Jerez sees promise in women’s ability to co-opt and adopt playfully aggressive activities. “When you’re 14 you get all into ‘girl power,’ but you don’t even know what that really means,” she says. “Then, hopefully, when you’re older and smarter, you figure out ways to channel that energy in a healthy way.”

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