At the Home of Double Dutch, New Yorkers Look to Reclaim their Place

Just before he took the stage at the Apollo, standing just out of view of the sold-out house, Brooklyn-born Dwayne Johnson closed his eyes and took a deep, nervous breath. As the music started, his eyes still closed, he dropped into a four-point crouch, like a sprinter setting into the starting blocks. The 28-year-old had been thinking about this moment since elementary school. He was planning on a dramatic entrance but if he made one mistake, the famously hostile crowd was likely to tear him apart.

Just to be clear: this was not Amateur Night, but the 26th annual National Double Dutch League Holiday Classic, held Sunday afternoon at the famed Harlem theater. It is the oldest and most prestigious event in competitive Double Dutch, a sport that emerged from New York recreation centers in the early 1970s and has since developed a cult following around the world. A combination of modern dance, gymnastics, and jump rope, it is a far cry from the child’s playground game.

Hearing his cue, Johnson sprinted onto the stage. He launched, leapfrog-style, over the back of a teammate, who spun two ropes in time with the music. With gymnast-like agility, Johnson somersaulted between the two ropes, then popped off the floor into a handspring as they snapped beneath him. The crowd leaped to its feet. Johnson’s six-member team, “Dutch Squad,” completed its routine without any major mistakes.  Sweaty and out of breath, he beamed as the judges marked their scores.

“Jumping at the Apollo is a right of passage,” he said. “I’ve been wanting to be a part of this for a long time. “

Dwayne Johnson flips between ropes manned by his Jump Squad teammates at the 2017 National Double Dutch League Holiday Classic. (The Ink/ Dan Rabb)

The Holiday Classic holds unique status in the niche world of competitive Double Dutch. Even as other tournaments have offered prize money or billed themselves as the “World Championship,” the yearly event at the Apollo remains the sport’s most cherished institution. Its “Best in Show” award is considered by many jumpers to be the pinnacle of the sport. The raucous atmosphere at the Apollo contributes to the tournament’s popularity but the allure of the Holiday Classic stems from its connection to the origins of Double Dutch as a competitive sport.

While the fundamentals of Double Dutch – jumping over two ropes spun in opposite directions –  likely trace to 19th century Europe, the game was popularized by New York’s African-American community in the 1950s. David Walker, a New York police detective who wanted to develop a new after-school program in Harlem, created competitive Double Dutch in 1973. The early competitions were purely athletic affairs, centering around how quickly a competitor jumped or how well they executed a specific sequence of moves.

In the early 1990s, Walker developed a version of the sport known as “Freestyle Fusion.” Drawing on hip hop, Freestyle Fusion combined technical skill with the creativity and athleticism of hip hop choreography and break dancing. As in figure skating, jumpers were judged both on how they executed certain moves and artistry. Walker created the Holiday Classic in 1992 as the first competition to feature this new version of the sport, which has since become the most popular form of Double Dutch.

While competitive Double Dutch is inextricably linked with New York’s African-American community, the demographics of the sport have changed dramatically. Both the crowd and performers at the Apollo on Sunday were an eclectic mix. Predominantly white teams from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Torrington, Connecticut, took home a number of awards, and some of the most popular groups hail from France and Japan.

This globalization of Double Dutch has led to a certain degree of tension and resentment from New York’s community of jumpers.  Many see themselves as increasingly marginalized from a game they helped create. Overseas teams, particularly from Japan, now dominate most competitions. Until last year, Japanese teams had won the Holiday Classic’s “Best in Show” for nine consecutive years.

At the heart of local jumpers’ frustrations with Japanese dominance of the sport is the Japanese style of Double Dutch, which many say puts showmanship ahead of technical skill. While the crowd oohed and aahed at the aerial backflips and spinning leaps of the Japanese teams, many of the local competitors rolled their eyes.

“I’ll never criticize creativity, but this is a different thing than what we’ve always been about,” said Stephone Webb, 45, of Brooklyn, a local legend of Double Dutch known among New York jumpers simply as “Master.” “It’s about putting on a show, not about the craft.”

Adding to these frustrations is the fact that while the sport is growing globally, interest is waning in New York. Webb and others worry about the evolution of the sport away from its roots.

“We created this sport,” he said, “but we’re just a tiny piece of this scene now.”

On Sunday, however, New York jumpers regained at least a moment back in the center of the jumping world. Dutch Squad, Dwayne Johnson’s team, was awarded Best in Show. It was the first time a New York team had won the event in more than a decade.

Johnson and his teammates, some of them tearful, shared an embrace on the Apollo stage before collecting their trophies and donning the prized red velour robes awarded to the champion.

Latoya Harris, a long-time New York jumper who emceed the competition, couldn’t contain her glee.

“Harlem!” she yelled to the crowd. “Can I get an amen?”