Hop, skip, and a jump

Sabrina O'Garro speeds as though her feet are on fire, Temique Roach's knees scissor the air, and Alysha Williams does the splits right down the middle of the ropes.

But for every good jumper among the 229 competing teams at the Double Dutch World Invitational Tournament in Sumter, S.C., (June 13 to 15), there's an even better one. When the three girls have finished their routine and given hugs all around, they go back to watching their competition.

"Ooh, you see that little girl in the purple shirt?" asks Temique.

"She is tough," says Sabrina.

The girls – or Star Dazzlers, as their Double Dutch jump-rope team is called – traveled 24 hours by bus from Boston for this competition. They grew up in the city. They've never been this far south before, never seen houses spaced so far apart, or churches with graves around them.

"And the cows!" Sabrina says.

"They were all black. I never seen black cows before," says Alysha.

"Just standing around in that field," Temique says.

The Dazzlers are 12 this year, and when you're 12, you travel in a pack. You finish each other's sentences, keep a keen eye on the fickle world of fashion, and hold frequent, urgent conferences in the bathroom: What boy was checking which girl out, and was she looking back?

For a lot of girls, 12 is a tough year, and a pivotal one. That, says Dazzlers coach Crystal Brown, is what makes working with this age group so rewarding. "When you get them in high school, a lot of times it's a battle of wills – it's them against you, instead of them with you against everything else," she says. "It's better to get them involved in something before puberty, so you can sort of mold them as the change comes in."

When the Dazzlers arrive at the Sumter County Exhibition Center for their first day of competition, a sign outside blinks 102 degrees. Inside the crowded gym, ropes are whipping every tense inch of air. Teams are jostling for warm-up space, trying to land their hardest moves one last time before it counts. A high school boy from the South Carolina Ebony Force team throws a smaller girl over his shoulders and into a handstand as the ropes flick around them. Jumpers on the sidelines are holding hands and praying. A third-grade team arrives wearing pink feather boas; one girl trails behind, chewing anxiously on a feather.

No one can say for sure how Double Dutch – a jump-rope game in which two people whirl a pair of ropes eggbeater-style, and one or two others jump or flip into, over, around, and through them – began. Theories about its origins range widely: from ancient Egyptian, Phoenician, and Chinese ropemakers to a rope-weaving machine used by Dutch immigrants in 18th-century New York.

However it started, by the late 1940s Double Dutch was a popular pastime for American girls. Particularly in urban areas, it became a favorite street game: All it required was a pair of shoes, a piece of clothesline, spunk, and stamina.

Jump-rope technology hasn't evolved much since, but the rules of the game have changed. Free-form street-jumping is still popular in many communities, but it's quite distinct from today's competitive Double Dutch. Since 1973, when a pair of New York City police detectives started the American Double Dutch League (ADDL) to help reduce youth crime in Harlem, there have been strict rules and regulations for competitive jumping.

Performances are graded on a point scale according to the number of times a jumper lands on her left foot in a two-minute period (generally 200 to 300). In addition to 5- and 10-point penalties for missteps and poor posture, ADDL rules stipulate a 15-point deduction for any jumper who demonstrates an unsportsmanlike attitude – huffing, eye-rolling, or verbal criticism – toward a competitor or teammate.

Every team at the World Invitational performs three routines: the speed jump, which measures speed and endurance; the compulsory jump, which includes kicks, turns, and leg crosses; and the freestyle jump, which shows off a team's repertoire of splits, flips, switch-offs, and other tricks.

Securing a corner of the gym floor, the Dazzlerstry to run through their routines. But they're too nervous to concentrate: All around them bigger, stronger, speedier kids seem to be flying through the air. This is Alysha's first year at Worlds, and she's never seen feet move so fast. Temique and Sabrina are one-year veterans, but they, too, seem to pale as a buzzer sounds and the jumping gets under way.

This, says John Cheffers, professor of human movement at Boston University, is where a game becomes a sport. Most professional sports, explains the veteran Olympic track and field coach, started out the way young kids play: without any rules. As children mature, they make up rules, goals, and structure for their play – and it becomes a game. When those rules are institutionalized, the game is considered a sport.

The United States Amateur Jumprope Federation has set 2012 as its target date to make jump-rope an event at the Olympic Games. Today, 100,000 athletes worldwide compete annually for an invitation to the ADDL's World Invitational Tournament. They include many African-American girls from US cities, as well as increasing numbers of boys, competitors of other ethnicities, rural teams, and teams from abroad – including a Japanese Double Dutch league of 50 teams. The sport also doesn't discriminate by body type: Star jumpers come in every shape and size.

Double Dutch is different from other team sports in another way, says Patti Travers, coach of the Three Rope Angels, a Dorchester, Mass., third-grade team: There's something about the communication on a small team of jumpers that sets them apart. "The Celtics could play without Paul Pierce; they'd just find a player to take his spot," she says. "But in Double Dutch you don't just need a person. You need the team – you need the same team."

When a nervous jumper throws up on the gym floor, all three Dazzlers look as though they might follow suit. But when their turn comes, they pull together. Their gymnastic freestyle routine goes off with only a tiny hitch.

To qualify to compete in the second day of the tournament, a team must rank among the top five in its age category. The Dazzlers don't make it. Neither do any of the four other Boston teams they rode down with. Their scores are trumped by reigning champions from Ohio and South Carolina.

But on the bus ride home, no one seems upset. At a rest stop in Virginia, somebody pulls out a set of ropes, and kids from third grade to high school take turns jumping.

Alysha is turning the rope, another team's coach giving her pointers, when a little girl asks if she can have a turn. Alysha politely refuses. "I want to learn how to do this right," she says, "for next year."

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