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Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Philly Girls Jump: How mothers are working to keep Double Dutch alive

Double dutch can be tough to learn. Some girls get the swing of it on school blacktops. Others, the sidewalks on their blocks or the streets in their neighborhoods. Some women say they’d seek out open gaps between parked cars and find room to get a game going. Philly is replete with concrete spaces where ropes can clack.

It was the favorite game of Philly Girls Jump co-founders Tanisha Rinehardt and Della Burns when they were coming up. They wanted to recapture the fun, the bonding, and now as women, Rinehardt explains, the fitness benefits. The longtime friends selected Awbury Park in Germantown because both live Uptown. They were only expecting their friends to show — maybe “five to 10” women. But their Facebook event went viral, and roughly 1,000 people signed up for the first Philly Girls Jump in April on Facebook. Hundreds came out for the inaugural meetup. They took up two courts.

“We grew with the event,” says Burns. Their Facebook interest reached that 1,000 mark in a week. “People started to ask for t-shirts, so we put our heads together and said, ‘Okay, let’s actually make this an event… And then the emails started rolling in. It was only us, so we would [go to] work during the day and spend the majority of our nights answering emails and questions and placing orders,” she continues. “We’ve been managing it. It has been taking up a lot of time. But it’s worth it.”

Since then, Burns and Rinehardt have set up an events schedule: the larger meetups happen monthly with regular practice sessions in between. The group holds practices each Wednesday at Awbury. In addition to this, PGJ is planning pop-ups at landmark locations. Billy Penn caught up with them at the Art Museum one Thursday. Burns says she hopes to hold a Girls Jump around Independence Mall one day. A friend noticed them after looking out a window, peering down some weeks back: “One day I was [at the office] late, and I looked down there, and I was like oh snap, there’s black people jumping rope,” she says. “I went right over there.”

At the second official installment, the weather dropped. Fewer people have arrived than expected. But hundreds are still present, perusing the vendor tables, checking out the Moonbounce for kids, and of course, jumping.

Courtney Davenport, 51, tells us what it was like to return to the game: “It took me a long time to get into the rope, but I once I got in, it felt just like I was 10 again.” This is a common sentiment. Double dutch brings back memories for many participants, of climbing fences, of good summers, of keeping an eye on the porchlight, a mother’s signal for if it was okay to stay outside, or in Davenport’s case, hollering parents. She remembers staying out until midnight. Davenport can be seen in a photo on the group’s Facebook page, smiling and holding a bag of Homegirls chips. It’s like seeing your Philadelphia childhood come back and wave hello right quick.

Okella Paige Trice, 72, is back from Cali visiting family. Her sister told her about the double dutch event, and her mother would’ve attended had the weather been warmer. Paige Trice’s parents moved the family from Virginia during the Great Migration when Paige was 3, in the late 1940s. They lived in the Richard Allen Homes, the historic public housing complex near 12th and Poplar, which, according to the Library of Congress, was the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s first project to combine slum clearance with the building of new homes.”  

I’ve been told been / When a boy meets a girl / You take a trip around the world / Shabadooba dop one, Shabadooba two, two, Shababooda three— and your aim was to get up to 100…

“I remember good things. You hear people say other things,” she says of the complex’s reputation. She remembers walking plenty, taking art classes and dance classes in the community, and jumping rope pretty much daily.  “We lived in the part of projects that was right near Spring Garden elementary school, she explains. “In retrospect now, [how we lived] was similar to the suburbs in most cities. Suburban communities have swimming pools, and game rooms, and all those things. We had many activities.”

In the absence of meticulous documentation on the development of jump rope games in American cities, accounts vary on how Double Dutch began and spread. A commonly held belief is that it was popularized in white ethnic enclaves in New York City, later reaching the city’s neighborhoods across races. The earliest mention of Double Dutch in the New York Times is from 1941. Five years later, a Philadelphia woman described jumping it as a child in a Letter to the Editor. Her writing is one of many sources that suggests the game predates the ’40s. Anna Beresin, a folklore professor at the University of the Arts and children’s play expert, refers to the accounts of Double Dutch’s early years as “tales.”

“I don’t know if we have the full true origin story, but sometimes the unofficial ones are more fun,” says Beresin, the author of Recess Battles. One tale she shares is that the Dutch brought the game with them to New Amsterdam centuries ago, but there is reason to believe, again, that the game could be older. “Rope games themselves have been around as long as there’s been rope,” she explains. “The origins of twine, rope or hemp being turned probably go back to the ancient Mid East, or ancient Asia, when folks were first using ropes for bridges or military purposes.”

Double Dutch was a boys’ game; girls didn’t embrace the game until dresses were sewn shorter in the early 20th century, she notes— they could jump more that way. As to how Double Dutch became a hallmark of urban blackness, Beresin says, “There’s a very rich heritage of rhythm games in African American heritage. As the rhythm games spread, double dutch lent itself very easily.”

Eedie Idie Odie / Now, here come [name] with the big fat stick / I wonder what she got for arithmetic / 1+1, 2; 2+2, 4 / Now, it’s time for spelling / Spell cat, C-A-T, and rat, R-A-T / Now it’s time for history / George Washington never told a lie / ’Til he went around the corner and stole the cherry pie / Now, it’s time for gym / Hands up, shake shake, shake shake / Hands up, shake shake, shake shake / Turn round, shake shake, shake shake / Touch the ground, shake shake, shake shake / Now, it’s time for singing / Yankee Doodle went to town / Riding on a pony / He stuck a feather in his hat / And called it macaroni.

For Double Dutch, the jumper has to be attuned to the rhythm of the ropes, the rhythm of their feet and the rhythm of the chant.

“You don’t want to speed up, slow down. Some people do like a galloping thing in the rope, and you mess up,” Burns offers advice. “It helps to focus on the person that’s turning. You can watch the rhythm of their hands to help keep your pace.”

The process, according to ethnomusicologist Kyra Gaunt, the author of the The Games Black Girls Play, shapes one’s approach to musicmaking. But more than this, she sees it as parallel to the place basketball has in urban culture for boys, a comparison that’s often made. In the way a basketball court can be a means for boys to learn fair play and self-expression within the rules, the same lessons occur with Double Dutch. “You can’t jump Double Dutch by yourself. You need two enders, at least, and one jumper,” Rinehardt points out.

Cynthia Malachi-White, 59, grew up in Mount Airy. She learned to jump comparatively late, as a teen. “I didn’t have any sisters. So I learned how to jump in high school,” she says. “I just enjoyed it. I wasn’t good. As they say, when I turned, I was flickdid. But I like to jump.”

All in together / This is the type of weather / January / February / March / April / May / June / July / August / September / October / November / December

She went to high school in the ’70s. “I was different, because my mother had died when I was in junior high school, so high school was a strange time for me. But at the time, you had gang wars going on. You kind of stayed inside. You came out when you wanted to, needed to, had some fun and went back inside.” She remembers her routine from back then: “I went outside to go to music school… I was like inside, in the car, go to music school, come home, go home. So that was about the limit to my outside activities— jump roping.”

Several women in Philly Girls Jump told Billy Penn that street safety poses an obstacle to girls jumping these days. So does technology: The ropes have to compete with iPads.

“Nobody’s done any data collection on this, but it does seem to adults that it’s less of a phenomenon [today],” says Gaunt. “What I perceive is that if I go to the arbitrary African American girl who I meet who’s 8 to 13 years old many of them will not be Double Dutching.”

Girl Scout, Girl Scout, do your duty / ‘Cause these are the rules you must obey / Salute to the captain, bow to the king / Turn all around like submarine / Oh, [I, she or he] can do the oochie coochie, [I, she or he] can do the split / Bet ya five dollars you can’t do this / Lady on one foot / Lady on two foot…

Beresin says the tradition in Philly continues in after-school programs and rec centers. Read: safe spaces. “Kids are playing outside less and less,” she acknowledges. “A lot of the young girls said to me – that work with us in the neighborhood engagement program — they don’t ever play outside.”

Nymirah Marshall, 18, grew up jumping in Wynnefield and loves it, but thinks younger girls  might opt to go shopping or skating rather than playing outside.

Colleen Lee, 31, lives in Willingboro. She drove in for the meetup. “It’s worth the trip, in my opinion,” she says. “I wouldn’t have had [my daughter] miss it.” She likes that her daughter can see women having fun together, no pretense, no nastiness.

“You’re only there to have a good time,” she says. “It’s no expectation. It’s so easy.”

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