‘Black girl magic’: D.C. Retro Jumpers bring back the double Dutch

‘It was something we could call our own’

The D.C. Retro Jumpers help Beatrice Barnes, 10, left, and Janiya Barnes, 12, play double Dutch together. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Adapted from a story by The Washington Post’s Justin Wm. Moyer.

Before smartphones and Snapchat, the click-click of double Dutch jump-ropes could be heard in the streets and alleys of Washington and other urban areas.

While the uninitiated might marvel at its intricacies, it often involves two children, usually African American girls, reciting songs and turning ropes while one (or more) leap between them, jumping as fast as they can for as long as they can. But in the age of the glowing screen, it takes a squad of wise veterans to help kids relearn the game.

“These computers have gotten kids so rotten,” said Robbin Ebb, 52. “It’s a lost art. I’m bringing it back.”
Da’Moni Kelly, 5, jumps up and down while waiting her turn as the D.C. Retro Jumpers teach double Dutch to children during the Open Door Baptist Church community day in Washington. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

D.C. Retro Jumpers

Ebb is the force behind D.C. Retro Jumpers, a group operated by women working to bring double Dutch back to D.C. streets.

Another stakeholder is founder Joy Jones, the author of a play about double Dutch. She said was inspired to create the group to feed an “intra-generational exercise obsession.”

“My vision for the group was to have adult women jump-rope for fitness and fun,” Jones said. “One of the things that really inspires me, still, is seeing women on the edge of a demonstration and see the longing — almost lust — to get in the rope.”

What started in 2005 as an event at the Turkey Thicket Recreation Center in Northeast Washington has now led to invitations from schools, churches, block parties and homeless shelters. The jumpers have been busy ever since.

The origin of double Dutch

Kyra Gaunt, an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Albany and author of “The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes From Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop,” said that based on her research, double Dutch was created by African American girls in large cities after World War II, despite rumors of its Egyptian or Chinese origins. These girls, now grandmothers, and their daughters know the game, she said — but their granddaughters may not.

“Double Dutch was black girl magic that we had in our communities,” said Gaunt, a Rockville native. “It was something we could call our own — a way we could create our own spaces where we excelled.”

Double Dutch eventually found its way into public schools, and a competitive league was created in 1973 in New York. A spokeswoman for D.C. schools said the game is part of the physical education curriculum from third to fifth grade.

The D.C. Retro Jumpers help Beatrice Barnes, 10, left, and Janiya Barnes, 12, play double Dutch. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Cultural appropriation

But as the sport became “institutionalized,” Gaunt said, it lost its connection to the neighborhood. Casual interest in a game that had evolved organically dwindled as neighborhoods began to gentrify, physical education programs were cut nationwide and social media platforms such as Instagram became ascendant.

Gaunt said she doesn’t see its appeal to a broader audience — including teams in Holland and Japan — as a positive, but evidence of “cultural appropriation.” If double Dutch dies in neighborhoods, she said, that’s bad news for black culture.

“Black girls and double Dutch are like the canary in the coal mine for us,” she said. “You can tell the vibrancy of a community by how vibrant our games are.”

At Open Door Baptist Church’s community day in Washington, Ebb and her sister, 63-year-old Carlyle “C.C.” Prince, coaxed two girls into the ropes, jumping together, hand in hand, as the ropes turned faster and faster.

“You can double Dutch forever,” Prince said.