The Art and Artistry of Double Dutch

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The main ingredients? A pair of swirling ropes, two turners to maneuver them and at least one jumper to feel out the rhythm, slip seamlessly in between the ropes and bounce in perfect time. Double Dutch may sound like child’s play, but it’s more than just skipping rope. This game that came to life in the streets of New York City — practiced mainly by girls — is an integral piece of African-American culture.

Double Dutch has been a competitive sport since the 1970s, its popularity in cities intertwined with the birth of hip-hop. While just about anyone can do it, the best practitioners use athleticism, finesse and musicality to transform it from a game into a choreographic feat. Yes, double Dutch is very much an art form. And who knew? It even has roots at Lincoln Center.

Jill Sternheimer, the director of public programming at Lincoln Center, had no idea herself until she stumbled upon a video circulating on Facebook. The footage, from Skip Blumberg’s 1981 documentary “Pick Up Your Feet: The Double Dutch Show,” chronicled a competition held on the plaza.

“It blew my mind,” she said. “I realized that I had to go back and find this history. It’s a story that I wanted to make sure was told from the viewpoint of an African-American woman.”

Zev Troxler shows off his fancy footwork at a Double Dutch Empire pop-up event held in Union Square on Monday night.

For ’Til the Street Lights Come On: Celebrating Double Dutch in New York City, which is part of Lincoln Center Out of Doors on Saturday and Sunday, Ms. Sternheimer reached out to Kaisha S. Johnson, a founder of Women of Color in the Arts, who has produced events at Lincoln Center for the past 11 years. What moved Ms. Johnson about the video went beyond jumping.

“I saw all of the black and brown faces on the plaza of Lincoln Center,” she said. “In my lifetime, I haven’t seen that happen ever again. I thought, we have to revitalize this competition, but it has to be more than just a competition.”

A jump-in at a street festival in Manhattan in 2005. National Double Dutch League
Along with the return of the tournament, which was held on the plaza from 1974 to 1984, ’Til the Street Lights Come On will have jumping stations for all levels, demonstrations, panel discussions and a screening of Mr. Blumberg’s film to place the artistry and impact of double Dutch in a greater context.

“This is about preserving the legacy and the history of double Dutch,” Ms. Johnson said. “It kind of fell off the scene, people would say, but it’s really been a thriving form. It just found its feet outside of the urban communities in and outside of the United States.”

For the Double Dutch Summer Classic, the national competition overseen by the National Double Dutch League, teams will include competitors as young as fourth graders. Lauren Walker, who leads the national league, is expecting 50 teams. (The organization will hold the 26th annual Double Dutch Holiday Classic, in international competition, in December at the Apollo Theater.)

Ms. Walker took over the league from her father, David A. Walker, a New York City police detective who, along with his partner, Ulysses Williams, saw double Dutch’s potential and helped it become a competitive sport. In 2009, it became a varsity sport in New York City public schools.

But double Dutch is also related to aspects of dance. In 1983, it was part of Dance Black America, a festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music produced by Mikki Shepard. Ms. Johnson said, “When I think about its living legacy, I think about choreographers and dancers like Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Camille A. Brown, who both integrated double Dutch into their work.”

Ms. Brown, who was raised in Queens, attended the competition at Lincoln Center, as well as neighborhood ones, as a child. “I never competed,” she said in a phone interview. “I could never jam like they did. That was on another level.”

For her, double Dutch is about identity and African-American culture. “It speaks to the African rhythms and African traditions that continue to be within African-American culture,” she said. “It’s not just about the game play, it’s also about traditions — you can hear those rhythms and the complexity of the double Dutch games.”

Team Bizzy from Jersey City at the NDDL Double Dutch Holiday Classic at the Apollo Theater in 2016. via NDDL
As with dance, double Dutch is an oral tradition in which information is passed down from one generation to the next. And within the technique, there is room for individuality. “True, there’s athleticism that’s involved, but the way the jumpers move their body — their timing, their rhythm, their steps,” Ms. Johnson said. “That’s dance!”

There are three components of the Summer Classic competition: speed, a two-minute drill in which every left step is counted; compulsory, or specific steps that a jumper must execute, like two turns to the left followed by two turns to the right; and freestyle, a showcase of artistry and acrobatic ingenuity.

Delores Finlayson, a member of the Fantastic Four — the champion team featured in “Pick Up Your Feet” — will be a judge. “We would actually dream of tricks,” Ms. Finlayson said. “If someone said something couldn’t be done in the ropes, it almost became our job to prove them wrong.”

Ms. Finlayson will participate in a discussion, along with members of three teams, after a screening of “Pick Up Your Feet.” While the Fantastic Four had to stop competing after being featured in a memorable McDonald’s commercial in the 1980s (it changed their amateur status), the group toured, performing with Fab Five Freddy, Afrika Bambaataa, the Rock Steady Crew and others.

“We were dedicated,” Ms. Finlayson said. “We were competitive. And I must say, we had a certain discipline that I have yet to see with a lot of our young people. I think the younger people today just have so many more distractions with technology.”

Their desire, as kids, she said, was to go outside and play. “We wanted to jump, we wanted to be creative,” she said.

The artistry behind double Dutch is not lost on Ms. Finlayson. “It requires balance, resilience, coordination, timing, and there’s a lot of gymnastics involved as well — especially nowadays. I see it as poetry in motion.”

Fittingly, this weekend such poetry — involving daredevil flips and breathtaking rhythmic coordinations — will return to Lincoln Center. “It will be right there at the fountain where it originally was,” Ms. Johnson said. “That was central to the idea of this program: To reclaim that cultural space.”

by Gia Kourlas/ NYTimes

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