Double Dutch Is Back and It Is Breathtaking

For the first time in more than three decades, double dutch has returned to New York City's Lincoln Center to celebrate women of color and expose a new generation to the art of turning ropes.

|
Aug 4 2017, 1:30pm

"We are going to be practicing all day," said Raina Mustapher, the head coach of the Bronx-based double dutch team the RainMakerz. It was 11 AM, and the girls, dressed in coordinating pink and purple striped socks, were already turning their ropes, taking turns hopping in and out. "We've all been up since eight o'clock trying to get them dressed and ready on a Saturday."

The RainMakerz were just one of nearly 50 teams from around the country who gathered on the front plaza of the Lincoln Center Saturday morning in anticipation for the Double Dutch Summer Classic. The competition was organized by the National Double Dutch League, which took place on July 30. It was the first time the event had returned to the iconic performing arts space in 33 years.

"I don't think they understand how big this is because they are still new to it, but for me, an old timer, it's an honor," Mustapher explained to me. Mustapher is a native New Yorker, who grew up doing double dutch back when David Walker brought the first ever American Double Dutch League championship to Lincoln Center in the 1970s.

Walker, along with fellow policeman Ulysses "Mike the Cop" Williams, elevated the urban sport, which was traditionally practiced on the streets of New York City, into a competitive art for young girls. By the 1980s, it had become an integral but often forgotten part of hip-hop culture thanks to history-making crews like the Fantastic Four, who took the sport even further by adding their own skills and tricks. Those early teams were able to showcase their talents at Lincoln Center from 1974 until 1984.


WATCH: Brooklyn's Best Step Team


"We are revitalizing a competition that really held the heart of many New Yorkers for ten years. It was an integral part of people's growing up and childhood," explained Kaisha Johnson, the founding director of Women of Color in the Arts (WOCA), the organization that co-presented the event. "We are bringing back the black and brown communities to the Lincoln Center in a way that hasn't necessarily been seen there in 33 years, and so the emphasis is in making sure that we are reclaiming this space that we once housed."

In honor of its return, the National Double Dutch League and WOCA organized two days of events devoted to the sport and the women of color who pioneered it. First up was the Open Jump, which is where I found the RainMakerz practicing. Stations had been set up around the plaza where people off the street could try their hand at jumping between the long white ropes.

The women turning the ropes instructed jumpers of all ages on how to find their rhythm, first by just jumping straight up and down and then attempting tricks like jumping jacks and alternating their feet. Mothers were there encouraging their daughters to give it a go before jumping in themselves, only to return back in line and give it another shot.

The open jump event also attracted new double dutch teams, like New Faces 4 Life, a girls empowerment group that traveled from Long Island, not to compete but to give their members an introduction to the sport.

"It keeps them busy, it keeps them off the streets," said their coach Tamika Cox, about starting the team. "That's what we are looking for. Something different."

In recent decades, double dutch has grown abroad in countries like France and Japan, while declining in popularity around the United States. Johnson attributes this to our culture's fascination with the internet and video games, not to mention the reality that it's become dangerous to play outside in some areas around the nation. But this weekend's events were about reversing that trend by bringing double dutch back to its New York roots and hopefully igniting the interest of a new generation.

"Women of color are the pioneers [of double dutch], they are the people who were in the streets," Johnson told me. "The two founders of the American Double Dutch League (now known as the National Double Dutch League), who brought the competition to Lincoln Center, were very intentional in making this a competitive sport for young girls of color. At that time, there was no other recreational outlet or athletic outlet that was organized for them, it just didn't exist."

Ahead of the competition on Sunday morning, Lincoln Center plaza was filled with double dutch competitors in colorful T-shirts screen printed with team names like Extreme Air, Swagga Jumpers, and Honey Bees. One by one, groups of young girls and a few boys approached the stage according to their grade level, starting with third grade, and took their place in front of a panel of judges. The jumpers participated in skills and speed tests, hopping between the ropes with an unbelievable quickness, despite the scorching July heat.

Mustapher watched anxiously from the sidelines as her team took the stage. The RainMakerz have only been together since March. While some girls had already participated in competitions, one member, Tianna, said she only started jumping a week prior to the event.

"I felt really nervous, but I was really proud of myself because I've accomplished so much in such a short time," the 12-year-old shared with me. She was born into a family that does double dutch, but she never wanted to jump in until recently. "The hardest part is not getting upset with myself when I mess up and just keep going."

Despite Mustapher's plan to work on her team's nerves moving forward, from my spot in the crowd, each performer looked fearless. By the time the freestyle portion came around, the jumpers were doing cartwheels, flips, jumps, and splits, seemingly suspending themselves in air as the ropes swept the ground beneath them.

"It looks easy, but it's really hard," said ten-year-old Inazia, a member of the Jazzy Jumpers, a world champion team out of Brooklyn that has been competing since the 1980s. "I always say I can try [when attempting a new trick], I never say I can't do it."

While double dutch is often referred to as a sport, part of bringing it back to Lincoln Center was about highlighting it as an art, which was clearly showcased in the fusion round, where the girls flawlessly transitioned their routines from hip-hop dancing to double dutch.

"We want to position double dutch as an art form, which it is at the very least. So placing it at the center of an institution of high arts is really critical to enforce the message that this is an artistic and cultural tradition that is worthy of being revered, documented, studied, and performed on the plaza," Johnson explained.

As the competition continued throughout the afternoon, the seats were filled by fans and curious folks who wandered off the streets. At one point, the seats, along with the balconies of the surrounding buildings were filled with onlookers trying to get a view of the stage. I watched as young girls and their moms filtered through the crowd to ask the coaches how they could get involved.

"I am glad they brought it back here because Lincoln Center is so popular," said Everly Jones, an assistant coach for the Jazzy Jumpers, who started doing double dutch at age nine. "People who don't even know about double dutch are just standing here watching. I am glad more people are learning about the sport."

Before the awards ceremony, members of pioneering double dutch teams like the Fantastic Four and Double Dutch Dynamos were brought to the stage, bringing the historical event full-circle. "I hope people really start thinking of the contributions of women of color especially black American women who elevated the sport and took it to the next level," said Johnson, when I asked what she hoped people would take away from the weekend's events.

Despite their impressive performance, the RainMakerz weren't able to take home any first place trophies this time around. But coach Raina assured me this was only the beginning.

"We are still growing our team, but we are going to keep showing up," she said. "Because every time, we are going to get better and better."

Follow Erica Euse on Twitter.

See more photos by Meron below and on his Instagram.

More VICE
Vice Channels