Multiple jump ropes whirred in perfect rhythm as competitors—fourth graders to adults— bounced skillfully between the oscillating cords. Their friends kept count of the steps. The audience sat hushed, hypnotized by the precise movements.
It was a celebration of Double Dutch at its finest with teams taking the stage Sunday at Harlem’s Apollo Theater for the David A. Walker Memorial Double Dutch Holiday Classic. The sport may have started as a school yard game, but these weren’t casual jumpers. The event featured some of the best Double Dutch competitors in the nation and the world. Thirty-eight teams participated in the event’s 27th annual competition, representing neighborhoods from Brooklyn to Tennessee to Japan.
Teams prepared for months leading up to the competition. Honey Bees coach Tyeshia Clark, 33, said nothing—“rain, sleet, snow, hell”—stops her Jersey City team from practicing every single day. It’s hard work. Two participants, the “twirlers,” spin two jump ropes between them. A third—and sometimes a fourth or fifth—participant jumps between the ropes and tries not to get caught in them.
Growing up, she and her friends would sing songs to count the beat of the ropes. “Back in my time, we were just trying to get through a riddle,” Clark said. “If you could get through a riddle, you were the best. Up here, they’re trying to break records.”
She commends her team’s hard work and patience. “They’re hungry.” Clark said. “They’re world champs. They’re the best.” The Honey Bees organization is made up of seven competitive teams with 20 members and several smaller teams for young jumpers to learn the basics. Participants range in age from 3 to 17. Clark’s sixth-grade competitors, Team Honey, won first place in both singles and doubles events.
Sunday’s competition kicked off with compulsory tricks, a series of predetermined moves including turns and high kicks, and speed events, where competitors try to jump the most times in two minutes without making a mistake. Team members either participated as single jumpers or as doubles, with two twirlers manning the ropes.
Leanne Dowd’s 10-year-old daughter, Kelsy McClain, jumped the singles speed event for the Forbes Flyers of Torrington, Connecticut. Dowd, 47, a medical receptionist, said McClain jumped 206 times in two minutes during her final practice before the event.
“She just takes it in stride,” Dowd said. “I’m very proud.” McClain’s team came in fourth in her age group out of nine teams.
Every detail of these early events was painstakingly precise. During doubles compulsory tricks, competitors used 14-foot ropes that allow both team members to fit underneath the oscillating lines at the same time. But during the doubles speed event, only one jumper bounced between the ropes at a time, and the teams used 12-foot ropes, standard for any singles event.
This strictness melted away when it came to the real display of showmanship: the fusion freestyle competition—a mix of dance, gymnastics and, of course, jump rope.
During this event, team members did flips between the moving ropes, dropped into the splits and performed acrobatic stunts in tandem. Competitors seamlessly rotated between running the ropes and jumping, all part of a choreographed routine where skill, synchronicity and style reigned supreme.
Dwayne Johnson, 21, who competed with last year’s championship team, the CP Dutch Squad from Brooklyn, said he was shocked to win because his team had only put the pieces of their routine together that morning.
“We wasn’t thinking we were gonna win,” Johnson said. But his teammates are so in sync, he said, they can move easily with one another. This year, they gave themselves a month to practice, and it all led up to the moment when the stage lights hit them.
“You get tunnel vision,” Johnson said. “You hear the music, you know what’s next. You work so hard for so long.”
This year, CP Dutch Squad earned fourth place in the Advanced Best in Show category, but Johnson said it’s not really about the awards for him.
“I don’t even see trophies when I’m jumping,” Johnson said. “Everyone is a winner.”
Participants at this year’s event took a moment to remember a young jumper, 8-year-old Jeremiah Grant, who loved the sport, but died in a hit-and-run crash earlier this year.
Jeremiah’s mother, Kim Prince started the team Jump 4 Jerry in his memory, according to the team website. His cousin, 29-year-old Michaela Wiggins of Jersey City, coaches the team and said her family wanted to continue his legacy and love for the sport.
“He was a world champion jumper,” Wiggins said of her cousin.
“His mother turned a tragedy into a promise,” said host Richard Cox from the stage, gesturing to Prince. “This is a true testimony standing right here.”
In addition to young Jerry, the afternoon memorialized David A. Walker, a founder of Double Dutch, according to the National Double Dutch League website. In 1973, Walker, a former New York City Police Department detective, and his partner developed the street game into an international athletic event. Walker died in 2008 at age 66.
His daughter, Lauren Walker, is the president of the National Double Dutch League and organized the day’s events. She recognized the importance of her late father’s legacy.
“He wanted something for young women in New York City to do,” Walker said in an interview. “He made it into a sport and it blew up internationally.”
Participants were reminded of that international reach today. First and second place in Advanced Best in Show went to two Japanese teams: Grief and Kujaku. The Bouncing Bulldogs Orange, part of the Bouncing Bulldogs team from North Carolina, won the novice competition for first time free-stylists.
Winning is exciting, but participants like Johnson said the event is about the fun of competition, and the enjoyment of the sport.
“Everyone gets nervous, but you always want to have a clear mind,” Johnson said. “We’re here to have fun and do what we love.”
Header photo: Four teams take the stage at a time for the compulsory and speed events. (The Ink/Maggie Green)