As it turns out, Double Dutch jump roping is not for the indecisive. However, indecision, right after timidity, has come to dictate my adult relationship to activities that involve contact with fast implements and hard surfaces. There are certain sports, like dodge ball and high diving, that demand a decisive moment of action, and so are best enjoyed at an early age, before the equation between harmless pain and just reward becomes irrevocably tipped. Double Dutch is one of those sports.
Childhood, as I remember it, stings. In fact, on my way to the fourth session of the Double Dutch jump-roping class at the South City YMCA, the only memory I seemed able to conjure was the smack of long, beaded ropes against my hunched shoulder. As I drove down Arsenal St. and turned the corner of Sublette Ave. into the South City Y parking lot, I pictured my nine-year-old self simultaneously flinching and heedlessly throwing my body into the swinging ropes with the faint hope that a miracle of coordination would occur. I must admit, the image made me nervous. Although as soon as I pulled up to the Y I felt waves of a distant but nonetheless familiar anticipation.
The new South City Y opened in 1999 and is unlike any YMCA I remember. There are no rusty chin-up bars, no tumbling mats that smell of sweat and dust, no over-chlorinated pool in some windowless, clammy basement. The state-of-the-art gym is beautiful, and at 11 on a Saturday morning it was bustling. The boys' basketball league was in mid-scrimmage, miniature cheerleaders roamed around after practice in their bright blue uniforms, two dozen weekend yogis sprawled out on mats in the dance room, every machine in the workout area was in motion. Through the glass wall that overlooked the pool I saw the fluid strokes of swimmers breaking the surface of the water. I immediately felt calmed.
My Double Dutch class was to meet in the front classroom and owing to fact that I was early, I waited in the quiet of the white-walled room. As I looked around, I could not put my finger on what was off, but slowly I realized that the room was empty aside from three blue chairs stacked neatly in the corner. This is one of the beauties of Double Dutch there is no equipment to haul, no mitts to forget, no bathing caps to misplace. You don't need anything but three people and a rope.
In actuality there were seven people, one boom box and at first, no rope. But as my fellow classmates streamed through the door, the last girl to enter, Bridget, the teenage daughter of the instructor, removed what appeared to be a stylish belt slung around the loops of her jeans. She proceeded to unravel it and handed one end to her mother, whom everyone else referred to as Coach Nee-Cee. The jump rope, it appeared, was also a belt, a concept I was immediately attracted to. Needless to say, the absence of the offending beads came as a relief, and so I stood, emboldened by progress.
The beginning of Coach Nee-Cee's Double Dutch class is entirely free of technique demonstrations, rules and safety lectures. It commenced quietly. Coach Nee-Cee and Bridget moved towards the center of the room, each holding on to the rope on one side, Bridget with the two loose ends and Coach Nee-Cee with the tight loop. As soon as the swinging began, the room grew quiet except for the rhythmic pats of the rope against the wood floor. Everyone formed a polite semi-circle and looked at each other intently. With a quiet authority Coach Nee-Cee called out, "Ok, now who's goin' first?" I looked sheepishly to my right and left. At first everyone just stood there. I was relieved when the smallest girl, Brittany, approached Coach Nee-Cee and boldly put her right foot forward, following the arch of the rope with her eyes in intense concentration. Only her little hands betrayed nervousness, clasped behind her back. She flicked the inside of her palm with her thumb and began rocking back and forth as though acclimating herself to the motion. Coach Nee-Cee called out, "Ready. Set. Go." Brittany hesitated. "Ready. Set. Go," she repeated. Then, in determination, Brittany scrunched her face, furrowed her brow, rocked once more, and pushed off with a gallop into the tangle of rope. Suddenly, as though diffused of energy, the ropes slagged and gathered around her sneaker. "Ok, one more time," Coach Nee-Cee offered patiently, as Brittany liberated her foot. Coach Nee-Cee nodded to Bridget and calmly began turning the rope again. More swinging, more rocking, another gallop, another tangle. Brittany made it in on the fourth try and the excitement in the room was palpable. Her feet pattered quickly in step, as she lifted to let the ropes pass beneath her, and with each successful tap the tension increased as everyone began to giggle.
Laughing is a major component of Double Dutch. Passing the first hurdle with successful entry into the vortex of the ropes, the question becomes how long one can stay inside the little whirlwind, the pressure increasing as the rope rapidly slaps the floor, and the longer the run, the louder the laughing. It is the type of laughing that borders on nervousness. Cheering is the natural inclination, but the pressure of the inevitable misstep is so present that everyone is sensitive to it. Instead the laughter stands in as a hybrid of encouragement and friendly goading.
"Ok, who's next?" Coach Nee-Cee called out after Brittany finished and hopped contentedly over to her mother, who was watching from one of the blue chairs. I looked around the room, thought again about trying, thought against it and headed over to a clutch of girls waiting coolly along the wall. When I glanced back over at Brittany she was still rocking gently. Double Dutch is the kind of movement that stays in you after you've stopped, leaving you anxious to try again.
Coach Nee-Cee is an avid Double Dutcher herself and believes firmly that the only way to get better is to do it. "I already told my family, if I was gonna die today, I'd want to be buried with a Double Dutch rope." She grew up Double Dutching with her cousins and friends in her neighborhood, though she was careful to inform me, they only played on a one-way street so they could see the cars coming.
In the intervening years, Double Dutch, like many street sports, has become professionalized. There are leagues, for kids, women and even men, websites devoted to regional and international competitions, broadcasts on ESPN and special ropes designed to take weight and ergonomics into consideration. As a side effect, Double Dutch has in part moved from the street to the classroom. The burgeoning Double Dutch scene excites Coach Nee-Cee, and although she admits that her goal is to form a South City team someday or at least get the girls into this year's May Day Parade, she's clearly just thrilled to be able to pass on her passion and "facilitate a new generation" of Double Dutchers. "Gotta keep 'em busy," she added as an afterthought, smiling proudly as she looked around the room at her little charges.
"Facilitate" actually seems the operative word, and Coach Nee-Cee concedes that there is really no way to formally teach Double Dutch. Her sister Teyonda, who was there watching her daughter Kayla, agrees, "I guess it's like one of those things that you really can't say, and, you know, teach, you have to just watch and try to pick it up." And it appeared to be working. The girls not only had gotten better over the course of the six-week session, which they were quick to inform me, but they had gotten better in the forty-five minutes I had been sitting there watching.
Double Dutch has an element of the performative to it. Throughout the class, a stream of on-lookers wandered in and out of the room. As the girls rotated turns, the atmosphere relaxed, someone flicked on the boom box, and the little white room was transformed into a magnetic street corner. A small boy in a basketball jersey sat on the floor, transfixed. Coach Nee-Cee and Bridget chanted, "It's your birthday, it's your birthday..." as Kayla, a dexterously gifted fifth-grader in a gray sweat suit, had a particularly long and spectacular run. She jumped with both feet, she bounced up and down on one, she twirled around in the air, and miraculously was able to land and resume seamlessly. When she finished I complimented her. She shrugged humbly and informed me that she knows a girl who can do a flip. A flip. I couldn't quite wrap my head around it and as I tried to imagine the logistics, Kayla drifted over to the boom box to adjust the volume on the Umidee song. It had a good tempo for Double Dutch, consistent and repetitive. I still hadn't tried; it was too enjoyable to watch. Whatever I remembered of the stings of childhood, I felt a quiet yearning to be nine again, which is no small indication of the contagious power of Double Dutch.
Kristen Naiman is a writer living in University City; she's just two pals and a rope shy of forming her own Double Dutch exhibition team.