The people milling about suddenly swallow their last bits of brownies and rivet their eyes on the display of jump roping at one end of the community hall in Manhattan.
Rat-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-tat. The crowd is fixated by Nicki Adams's feet. With the rapidity of machine-gun fire, her two sneakers batter the floor more than 300 times in one minute. During her "double dutch" (two ropes) speed show, Nicki calmly raises one finger to shoulder level, warning her turners to slow down. Any decrease in the ropes' slapping the floor is imperceptible. Nicki leaps out of the ropes into the applause, cheers, and gasps from the audience.
"That's fantastic!" people in the crowd always say, and the accolade makes the Fantastic Four grin when the serious business of jumping is over.
The reigning champions of American double-dutch competition, the "Fantastic Four" trip on the ropes now and then -- "messing up," they call it -- but more often the audiences explode into such clapping and shouting that the girls cannot hear one another counting and shouting encouragement and directions. Then the four instinctively float through their motions.
Sweating like a jogger but calmly gulping an iced drink after the show, 14 -year-old Nicki fields adulation like a pro. How can she jump like that?
"They make me do it," she grins, as if her teammates were victimizing her.
"She never holds up two fingers," Robin Oakes jeers. (Two fingers at shoulder level means speed up the ropes.)
Nicki may look like the star of the Fantastic Four, but double-dutch jump rope allows no prima donnas.
"What people don't realize is that the turners are the most important people, " Robin says. "Your arms can really ache after only 15 seconds of turning if you're not in shape."
"Double dutch is the purest team activity today," Ulysses Williams says. He is the police detective in community affairs who, with Detective David Walker, is responsible for the resurgence of double dutch and for its competitive structure.
"You can't do double dutch unless all the three or four members work together like a Swiss watch. When we set out the rules seven years ago, we cracked open the door. What poured through it was people's talent."
Seven years ago the best speed was 180 jumps in 2 minutes -- that's counting only the times the left foot hits the ground. Today the Fantastic Four hold the world speed record -- 339 jumps in 2 minutes. Nicki's two feet hit 678 times during that period. A rope strikes the floor 5 1/2 times each second.
"The Fantastic Four is a top team, but as an administrator, I can name three other teams as good as they are," Detective Walker proclaims.
"The Jumping Joints" from Brooklyn, the "Sweet Connection" from the Bronx, and the "Double Dutch Tigers" from the Lower East Side of Manhattan are all top rank in the high school division, otherwise known as the "glamour" division.
What's in a name? Mention the Double Dutch Tigers and the Fantastic Four explode into loud, simultaneous diatribes.
"They are named 'tigers,' right? Tigers are supposed to be vicious, you know what I mean? We had to prove we were fantastic," Robin explains.
The Fantastic Four are now in 10th grade, but way back in the seventh grade at Frederick Douglass Junior High School a gym teacher announced on the loudspeaker one day that a double-dutch competition was open. The Fantastic Four and the Tigers locked ropes then, even though the Tigers, from the same school, had a head start and, in fact, taught the basics to the Fantastic Four.
"Revennnnggge," Delores Ja'Net Brown says, pulling the word across her tongue like bubble gum. "That's what made us think of all our tricks.
"People put us down; they don't know it encourages us to work harder."
"A guy on the board of education said I was too fat," Robin recalls. "So i went home and sat in a chair and wrote up a lot of tricks."
"Tricks" are components of the free-style side of double- dutch competition, separate from the speed tesT. Team members do fancy steps while jumping and turning the ropes. Sometimes all four girls jump and turn at the same time; they leapfrog over each other, hold each others' legs horizontal to the floor, or turn the ropes while lying down.
Some of the tricks are "like breaking the sound barrier," according to Detective Williams. "We can't categorize the things they do, and have to shift the rules to accommodate their inventiveness. You think you can't describe it in words! I have to play back film of them and slow it down to figure it out."
Detectives Williams and Walker have devised an intricate set of rules to measure points for "tricks," based on what they call the "quadrant system," or the crossing of the body with arms and legs as if the body were dissected into four parts. In 1975, the American Double Dutch League was formed to oversee the growing sport.
At the national championships, held on a platform at Lincoln Center in New York in 1980, the Fantastic Four swept both the speed and the free-style sections. One hundred twenty finalists participated.
Their tricks also won the Fantastic Four their few seconds on a television ad for McDonald's hamburgers.
"At the auditions, they asked, 'What are you going to do?'" Nicki remembers. "I said, 'I'm going to turn a flip over Delores's back.' There wasn't much space , but we did it."
The Four concoct new tricks constantly, while drifting to sleep or while jumping. Delores even claims to have thought up a trick while she was kissing a boyfriend from California.
"What about Boys?" I asked.
Boys! The girls trilled an excited and unintelligible babble about boys being just fine, oh yes, terrific.
No, boys participating in double-dutch competition.
Ohhh -- letdown. "Well, there wasm a boy in the championship this year," Robin says. Sixth-grader Peter Jenkins is a member of the Jumping Joints from Brooklyn. His father, Larry, is a coach of the Joints and several other teams, and his mother, Jean, is a "double-dutch den mother" of the Fantastic Four and the Joints. She remembers jumping double dutch herself on the streets when she was a kid and her mother was at work.
As a street game, double dutch is more than 100 years old; the origins of its name are obscure.
"Double dutch is an English idiom for something unintelligible," says Detective Williams, who has helped research the history of the game. "Maybe someone saw girls jumping in the two ropes and decided it was incomprehensible, so they called it double dutch. Who knows? Maybe." Williams and Walker organized double dutch in 1973 during the fuel shortage in New York, when the winter was "blue-cold." Five women traveled around northern Manhattan teaching the rules of the sport to gymnasiums full of girls.
In their community work, the two men had decided to channel the energy of young inner-city girls because they saw that "women are loners, going from toys to boys at an early age." Double dutch does not have an image of being a "butch" game, Williams points out.
The idea was to produce a sport that is not a hand-me- down from men, so girls wouldn't feel second-class.
"When I watch women's basketball I get ghost vision: I see men superimposed over the women," Detective Williams says.
Double dutch has been a girls' sport, considered "sissy" by boys who insist on jumping boxer-style, single skip ropes. However, many boys who watch become enthralled. It's probably only a question of time before they move into the sport.
"What's missing," according to Williams, "is somebody to have the sense to fund a study that would analyze double dutch and put it in the language of eggheads, to show what a positive sociological impact it can have in urban areas. We need a controlled study to show the merits so that money will come to pay for clinics and expand the competition."
Double dutch as competition has existed seven years in New York, five in Washington, cosponsored in both cities by police units. The four sanctioned tournaments are held in the organization centers of New York; Washington; Hartford, Conn.; and Plainfield, N.J., but there are teams in Torrence, Calif., Richmond, Va., New Orleans, and Chicago.
For five years, the mobil Corporation has been sponsoring double dutch, but more financing is necessary to expand. Top teams sometimes have other corporate sponsors for uniform expenses.
"The problem is that there is no hardware involved that would lend a profit motive for a corporation to get interested," Williams explains. "You can't patent a jump rope. All you have to do to play is take down a clothesline, use it, and put it back up. There's no product like a hula hoop or a Frisbee."
But word spreads, anyway. This year, Richard Cendali, an elementary school teacher, brought a team to Lincoln Center from Boulder, Colo. -- "middle American, unurbanized, white kids trained in athletics." The "Skip It" team were slow jumpers because Cendali trained them from what he had read about double dutch in a book. But after seeing the Eastern brand, the Boulder team returned home and in only three weeks the jumper, a boy, increased his speed by 100 steps.
"That destroys the bugaboo that double dutch is a black sport," Williams points out.
The Fantastic Four, part of the first generation of organized double dutch, are thinking of retiring at the ripe ages of 14 and 15.
"We've got homework; it's hard to find a gym; and we all go to different schools," Nicki and Delores and Robin say. Nicki wants to be a nurse, Delores a computer programmer, De'Shone Adams (the fourth Four) a secretary, and Robin hopes to attend New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, although she hears that the entrance exam is "real bad."
If the Fantastic Four do retire, many teams lurk in the wings ready to grab the mantle of the best in double dutch -- maybe "Double Trouble" or the "Rope Rippers" or the "Jumping Joints."
All can whip up a good breeze with the ropes.