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For the fifth-graders who competed in this year’s double-Dutch world championship, jumping rope is not a game. It’s a mission. Even when they’re giggling.
By Laura Lang
Photographs by Pilar Vergara
May 20, Calvin Coolidge High School
Only a few hundred spectators have turned out for the District’s 26th Annual Double Dutch City Championship. But the competition is fierce nonetheless.
The competitors stand shoulder to shoulder in the middle of the gym floor at Calvin Coolidge High School in Northwest D.C.—most of them under 5 feet tall, almost all of them female. They wear T-shirts, gym shorts, sneakers, and brightly colored barrettes. In their hands, they grip the only tools they’ll need: a pair of jump-ropes. Long, thick, pliant, an off-color of white, like strands of spaghetti. About 150 girls—and a handful of boys—stand facing each other in pairs, about 6 feet apart, twirling the ropes in both hands, moving them inward in smooth, deft motions. A teammate (or sometimes two) leaps in fearlessly, jumping and weaving between the blur of spinning ropes.
There are other signs that this is a sporting event unlike most that take place in high school gyms. Before each timed competition begins, stern-faced judges take the floor, giving the teams a once-over, checking for illegal jewelry, and making sure all T-shirts are tucked in. They’ll offer one suggestion before the timer starts: “Jumpers, make sure your shoes are tied.”
Down on the floor, Latreaviette Stewart, Apiphany Bailey, and Shantae Myles, all age 10 and fifth-graders at Garrison Elementary School, try to stay focused on their mission. Last year, they swept the fourth-grade division at the city’s double-Dutch competition, taking home the first-place trophy. They did the same the year before. This year, they’re back to defend their title. And, if their score is high enough—and it wasn’t the last two years—they’ll go on to the world competition in New York.
They have more to defend than their own reputation. They’re also upholding the legacy of their predecessors: D.C. Destiny, a group of girls who started jumping together when they were fourth-graders at Garrison. They won the world competition in 1992—and again in 1995. Although one of the original team members moved to Baltimore soon after, the remaining three—Jennifer Cole, Latrell Myles, and Eboni McPherson, all 17—have been jumping together most years since. They insist this year is their last. “But we say that every year,” admits Jennifer.
Jennifer and her teammates have had one of the longest runs in town. But even their tenure amounts to only an instant in the centuries-old history of double Dutch. Once a leisure activity for young urban girls, double Dutch has grown into much more than a simple game of jump-rope. It is now a sport, complete with rules, regulations, and heated competitions. The young athletes who take part have created a new type of legacy, passing lessons and discipline on to still younger girls, many of whom aren’t yet big enough to go on some amusement park rides alone but who already understand that competitive double Dutch requires strength, rhythm, and plenty of practice.
Jennifer and her teammates have been through it, and they’re doing their best to help the younger girls. The ties are strong. The three—especially Latrell, who is Shantae’s older sister—spent scores of hours this spring training the younger girls. Now, as a final act of transition, the older girls have bestowed on the younger a version of their own good name: They have allowed the fifth-graders to call themselves D.C. Destiny Jr.
And so far in this competition, the junior squad has earned the honor. The younger girls had no mistakes in the compulsory section—a series of standard jumping skills that must be completed in 30 seconds. And Latreaviette managed a solid 237 steps in the speed portion—a figure determined by the number of times her left foot hit the ground in two minutes. The freestyle section—the portion in which the girls demonstrate their own routines, created out of a series of tricks—also had very few mistakes.
The original D.C. Destiny team hasn’t been as successful in this city competition. Jennifer says the three had little time to practice, and it shows. Their freestyle routine was rife with errors. And although Jennifer usually manages about 350 in the speed portion, this time she barely broke 275. “I think we can do better,” she says.
They’re not hopeful by the time the officials start announcing the winners. The younger girls, however, squirm with nervous delight. “When do we get our trophies?” squeals one. There are four teams in their division, Fifth Grade Singles. (Singles teams have one jumper; doubles teams have two.) Starting with fourth place, the announcer reads off each team until there are only two left—a team from Stuart-Hobson Middle School and the girls from Garrison.
Garrison Coach Rebecca Herndon, who trains both generations of D.C. Destiny, whispers a final quick lesson in sportsmanship: “If you all get second, don’t pout—or you won’t be jumping next year,” she says.
But the younger girls’ confidence is borne out. The official announces the second-place team: Stuart-Hobson. The Garrison girls wriggle and clap their hands. They’ve won, but there’s a breathless pause as they wait to see if their score is high enough to get them into the world competition. And then the announcement: “In first place, with a score of 423 points and going to world….”
You don’t need to hear the rest. You can’t, anyway, at least not from where I’m sitting. The members of D.C. Destiny—Sr. and Jr.—are on their feet, along with Herndon, jumping and clapping. They head to the front of the room for trophies and pictures—and more jumping and clapping.
The joy is almost enough to take the sting out of the outcome of the older girls’ performance, which is announced minutes later. They win their division—there were only two other high school teams competing—but fall 9 points short of continuing on to the next level. (Their doubles team misses by only 7.5 points.)
They’re disappointed—but then, maybe there’s next year. “If I do jump again next year, it will really be the last year,” says Jennifer.
And even if they don’t, there are the younger girls to think about. “You’re going on the double-Dutch bus,” Herndon laughs.
May and June, Streets of D.C.
Tonya Stewart first started teaching Latreaviette and two other daughters how to jump when they were little more than toddlers. A veteran jumper herself—she grew up doing double Dutch on the streets of D.C.—Stewart began by laying a single rope down on a bedroom floor and teaching her girls to jump over it. When they got used to that, she boosted the challenge—moving outdoors, swinging the rope, and then adding another.
Latreaviette had a hard time at first. She and her sisters were pretty young and had trouble following the rope when it was moving. Their mother would stick blue tape in the middle, so the girls could see it even when it was in full motion. But still they’d miss jumps or get tangled in the long strands. Even at a young age, no more than 6 or 7, Latreaviette didn’t give up. “She was determined to get it,” says Stewart. “I saw the determination. I said, ‘You’ll get it.’”
She did, and Latreaviette hasn’t really stopped jumping since. Her sisters lost interest and drifted toward basketball and other sports, but Latreaviette was hooked on double Dutch.
A sweet, funny, outgoing girl, Latreaviette says that some of her friends have trouble with her long name, inspired by an opera, and call her by her middle name instead: Koya. “Like Goya beans, only with a K,” she says.
Latreaviette has plenty of interests. She likes to sing and read, but only books with lots of chapters. She’s also very athletic: swims and plays basketball and kickball.
But all of that is really just filler for her downtime, away from double Dutch. When she’s not at school or practice, Latreaviette spends most of her time on the sidewalk outside her Rhode Island Avenue NW house, jumping with neighbors.
She’s only gotten more determined since qualifying for the world competition, her mother says. “She’s doing double Dutch every day until the street lights come on. I have never seen her jump so much,” says Stewart.
Not that Stewart’s complaining. She’s thrilled that her daughter is so dedicated to a hobby that’s safe and physically active, and teaches her about setting goals. “I always tell her, ‘Everything you want you have to work for,’” says Stewart. “[With double Dutch], every year, it’s a new level for her.”
Make that an emphasis on “her.” Herndon says double Dutch can be an effective way for girls like Latreaviette, fourth in a family of seven kids, to shine. “It’s a time for her to exhale, relax,” says Herndon. “It’s a time for her to be her own individual, without her siblings asking questions.”
The same goes for Shantae, who also comes from a large family. Quiet and tough one minute, singing and goofing around the next, Shantae has a tendency to sulk, especially when Herndon corrects her during practice. Herndon says she thinks that’s partly because Shantae is the youngest of six kids—five of them girls. She has to compete for attention.
Shantae’s mother, Jeannette Myles, agrees. A cafeteria cashier at Gonzaga College High School, Myles is raising the kids on her own in a row house on S Street NW. She loves them all but says that sometimes she doesn’t have enough hours in the day to give them each the attention they crave. “I’m the mom, and I’m the dad,” says Myles. “I try to show them all the love when I can.”
Shantae saw the attention that her older sister Latrell received from family members every time she brought home a double-Dutch trophy, and decided she wanted the same. “She liked the idea of trophies,” says Myles. “She figured she’d be ahead with Latrell teaching her.”
She’s not the only one. Latreaviette and Apiphany also talk up the potential for trophy-winning when they mention jumping. Apiphany adds that she likes double Dutch “because you get to go to New York, and it gives you good exercise.” A shy girl, Apiphany says that someday she wants to be an obstetrician, or maybe a pediatrician—or anyway someone who definitely works with kids. She first learned most of her moves from an older cousin who used to jump; now she shares her own expertise with some of her younger cousins, says her mother, Elgin Speight.
Speight is pleased that her daughter has a good time and is willing to teach what she knows. A full-time secretary for the Internal Revenue Service, Speight says she’s most concerned with finding constructive activities for Apiphany and her 8-year-old brother—especially to fill the time after they get out of school and before she gets home from work. She doesn’t have to worry when Apiphany is at school practicing double Dutch, which she’s been doing most afternoons this spring.
“It’s something to keep her mind off other things,” says Speight. “There’s a lot of peer pressure. I try to keep [my kids] involved in things.”
Latreaviette, Apiphany, and Shantae aren’t interested in any of those collateral safety benefits. For them, double Dutch is mostly about winning—especially this year. The three have been jumping together since they were third-graders, brought together by Herndon. Although they’ve aced the citywide championship, this is the first year they’ll get a crack at the worldwide competition. For them, it’s huge.
Stewart says that when she moved to a new house outside the boundaries for Garrison, about seven months ago, she considered moving her kids to the neighborhood elementary school. Latreaviette wouldn’t have it, persuading her mom to apply for out-of-boundary status so she could stay at Garrison. She wanted to finish out this year and next jumping—and winning—with her teammates on D.C. Destiny Jr.
“She thinks she can bring it home for Garrison,” says Stewart.
June 12, Garrison Elementary School
It’s four days before the world competition, and the would-be world champions—Latreaviette, Apiphany, and Shantae—have a case of the giggles. They’re gathered for practice in the gymnasium of Garrison Elementary on a Monday afternoon. Maybe it’s the heat, or the changing air pressure caused by an oncoming storm, or the fact that they’re only 10, but they’re having a hard time staying focused. They laugh every time one of them flubs in the ropes.
Latrell, who’s leading practice for the day, tries to hold them all together. “You’re doing good if you just concentrate,” she tells them. But even when she manages to put a lid on their goofiness temporarily, she has to compete with other distractions. One woman, a mother who has come to the school to pick up her daughters, apparently doesn’t understand the seriousness of the girls’ training. When she sees the ropes, she approaches with her two squirmy girls. “My little girl wants to know if she can jump,” she says, not really asking.
Latrell is busy working with Latreaviette on the “mule kick,” a new move they hope to put into the freestyle routine. They need to add points to their score to compete with the reigning championship team, Mrs. Bobo’s Babies from Ohio. They won the world championship last year with a total of 523 points—100 more than D.C. Destiny Jr. scored in the city competition. The mule kick, a move that requires Latreaviette to do a handstand and kick her legs up into an arch, could add 9 points to their score if performed correctly.
Latrell, a stylish, quiet teen who’s tough on the girls when she needs to be, has time only to give the woman a blank stare. The woman decides to take the opportunity and motions a daughter into the ropes. Apiphany and Shantae turn automatically, but the little girl doesn’t last long. She manages only one jump before getting tangled.
The girls have endured other obstacles to their training. After-school practice can be canceled anytime someone needs the gymnasium, which also serves as the school theater and the cafeteria. And lately, Herndon has been busy prepping for her upcoming stint as principal of the Garrison summer-school program. She tries to get Latrell or Jennifer to come and lead practices when she can’t, but the older girls are busy with finals and often can’t make it to Garrison until late in the day.
Even when they do manage to convene for practice, the younger girls have to fight against the natural vices of 10-year-olds: silliness and fidgeting, not to mention the tendency to bicker. This afternoon, Latreaviette and Apiphany are getting into it. It’s near the end of practice, and Latrell wants them to run through the speed portion of the competition. Latreaviette is already exhausted when Latrell motions her into the ropes. “I’m tired,” Latreaviette pouts, her shoulders sagging. “You always making me jump.”
Latrell finally coaxes her in, and the ropes start turning. Latreaviette lasts only a few seconds, though, before she messes up. She turns and blames the mistake on Apiphany, saying Apiphany was turning too fast and told Latreaviette to shift her body when she shouldn’t. There’s some playful shoving. “Oooh, don’t wipe your sweat on me,” Latreaviette squeals when Apiphany touches her.
Shantae eggs it on: “That was a booger.”
More shoving. Latreaviette calls Apiphany fat.
“You’re ugly,” counters Apiphany.
Latrell tries to keep them in check: “I don’t want to hear it when y’all come back from world….I know you don’t want to get on the bus for six hours—it’s going to be hot—just to get eliminated.”
The ropes start again, but once again Latreaviette gets tangled. Once again, she blames it on Apiphany. Still more shoving. Shantae is amused and starts to giggle. Soon, she is sitting on the floor, laughing harder. A minute later, she’s lying back on the gym’s linoleum, spread-eagle, shaking with each guffaw.
Practice is pretty much over for the day.
Before there were double-Dutch competitions, there was just double Dutch—or “street jumping,” as it was called decades ago. In the ’40s and ’50s, young girls would gather friends, neighbors, and family members and head to the sidewalk with any ropes they could find—often their mothers’ clotheslines, wet if they could manage it, because then the ropes would be heavy enough to hit the ground just right.
They’d do it for fun, mostly—conjuring moves and rhymes, then changing and sharing them with fellow jumpers. A popular one went like this:
I wish I had a nickel,
I wish I had a dime,
I wish I had a sweetheart who loved me
all the time.
I’d make him do the dishes,
I’d make him sweep the floor,
And when he got all finished, I’d kick him out the door.
Street jumping was most popular in inner cities, where homes were close together, pavement was the only playing field, and rope was affordable.
But before it was “street jumping,” the pastime was a hobby brought to the New World by Dutch settlers, who moved into New Amsterdam along the Hudson River in the 1600s. It was the English who also settled the area who dubbed the game “double Dutch,” a derogatory term they used to describe anything Dutch that was strange to them—including everything from the language to the food.
Before that, it was probably a game that was developed almost accidentally by rope-makers in ancient Phoenicia, Egypt, and China, according to a history included in the rule book for the American Double Dutch League (ADDL).
In 1973, a couple of New York city police officers decided that jumping rope could be a good way to keep some kids, especially girls, out of trouble: Better to have them jumping than getting into drugs, or gangs, or sex. So the police organized a league and held the first citywide competition in 1974. The ADDL was founded the next year—which encouraged other cities and states to start up their own teams, all with the mission of providing kids with fun, safe activities. The league’s motto is “Rope, Not Dope.”
A couple of 5th District D.C. police officers started the District league in 1975. By the late ’80s, the local league had 1,500 jumpers, police officers assigned to coordinate double-Dutch teams in local schools, and a sponsorship from McDonald’s, says Montgomery Gardner, ADDL vice president and a former D.C. police officer.
But the good run didn’t last. In the late ’90s, a push to put more cops on the streets meant that there were fewer to keep the double-Dutch teams going in schools. McDonald’s dropped its sponsorship. In 1996, one of the city’s double-Dutch co-coordinators, Janice Roddy, retired from the police force. Gardner, the other co-coordinator, tried to pick up the slack. But he had already retired from the police force and was working two other jobs, which left him little time to devote to double Dutch.
Then, in 1998, Sterling Robinson Sr., a retired officer, returned to the force and took over the program full time. The league has rebounded somewhat since then, Gardner says. Only 250 jumpers competed the year Robinson came on board; that number has doubled to 500 this year.
But Gardner and others worry about the future of double Dutch in the District. League organizers raised only $50,000 this year, says Robinson. Money comes from fundraisers and donations from organizations such as the Washington Post Co. and the United Black Fund Inc., a local nonprofit, says Robinson. League officials have sought sponsorships from all the major sports-equipment companies, but double Dutch is a hard sell.
“It’s not something that Nike is going to use to sell products,” explains Gardner.
Nor has the sport caught on in a bigger way, involving more people nationally or—the ultimate recognition—making an appearance in the Olympics lineup. “It’s a girls’ sport. It doesn’t make headlines. It’s a cheap commodity that no one can make money off of,” says Gardner. “We’re talking about a $10 rope and young ladies.”
But don’t try to tell Jennifer Cole and her teammates from the original D.C. Destiny team that double Dutch isn’t a big deal. They’ve continued to jump, even though they know plenty of other girls who have dropped out.
It was hard to stick it out once the girls graduated from Garrison and went on to separate schools, says Jennifer. And as they got older, there were other distractions. Last year, Eboni had little time for jumping because she was busy with a part-time job at Foot Locker. She needed to save money to attend the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) this fall. “Double Dutch wasn’t going to pay for that,” she says.
Jennifer had to take a break from jumping last year, too, when she found out she was pregnant with Kareem, now 10 months old. Unplanned teen pregnancies are the sort of thing the ADDL was created to avoid. Herndon attributes Jennifer’s pregnancy to the fact that Jennifer had decided to take a break from jumping the summer before. “I really feel, 90 percent, if she was jumping, it would not have happened,” says Herndon.
Jennifer doesn’t see any such connection. She says she made the same resolution—to stop jumping—every summer. And jumping wasn’t feasible after she found out she was pregnant. “It was just something that came up, so double Dutch had to be put on hold,” she says.
But motherhood didn’t stop Jennifer from getting back inside the ropes or making plans for her future. Aside from jumping, her other passion in life is dead people. After she graduates from Coolidge later this summer (she has to finish some summer school classes first), she plans to go to UDC and intends to take classes to become a mortician. She has a hard time explaining her career choice. “It might have been like, one morning I woke up and I realized I wanted to be a mortician, I don’t know,” she says.
If the mortician thing doesn’t pan out, she continues, she might want to be a crime-scene technician. Or maybe a coroner. “Anything to do with when people die,” she says.
Jennifer is really not morbid. She’s soft-spoken and easygoing, with a ready smile. Today, a Thursday, she wears a hot-pink-and-black outfit. Her fingernails are painted black to match her shirt. Her toenails match her hot-pink pants.
Jennifer talks excitedly about her past double-Dutch triumphs, flitting among the 23 trophies she has gathered in the living room of the Shaw apartment she shares with her parents, her infant son, and a 15-year-old cousin.
But from her jumbled teenage perspective, the drab details of the competitions are as memorable as the victories. “Ohio was the worst,” she says, talking about one of the many world competitions she’s attended. “We stayed at [a college campus], and we didn’t have our own rooms. We stayed in one real long room….The food was nasty. Every time we talk about it, we say, ‘Ohio food was nasty.’”
She’s disappointed about her own team’s most recent performance, but she’s hopeful about the future for the D.C. Destiny Jr. team. “They were trying to think of a name. We let ’em use ours. We said, ‘Don’t mess up our name,’” she says. Then she shakes her head. “We messed up our own name.”
June 15, Herndon’s Van,
a Little After 5 a.m.
The girls are sluggish and bleary-eyed when Herndon picks them up Thursday morning before dawn. They’re supposed to be at the Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Club in Northeast D.C. in time to board the bus for New York by 7 a.m. Herndon has been through this drill many times and knows that if you want good seats, you have to get there early.
Her head topped with curlers and a scarf, Herndon gathers the sleepy girls in her burgundy minivan. We get to the club a little after 5:30 a.m.—long before the bus, or anyone else. The prospect of the trip has roused the girls. They talk excitedly about the outfits they’ve brought to wear and the snacks they’ll eat on the bus. Latreaviette in particular is eager to get to New York: “I want to see if it’s as dirty as everyone says it is.”
Shantae can’t wait for the competition: “I’m going to have 50 trophies. My mother won’t know what to do with them.”
Impromptu practice starts by 6 a.m. It’s too early in the morning for most people to get anything accomplished, but turning ropes is second nature for the girls. It’s never too early to jump.
Or to goof off.
Practice stops temporarily, for instance, when Shantae notices that the scab from a wart on her finger has come off during the night. “My wart just came off. It came off,” she says.
“Oooh,” the other girls squeal in disgust.
Shantae touches the open wound with her other hand. “It feels gooey….It feels nasty,” she says, running around the pavement as she, too, squeals.
About 6:15, the other 27 jumpers from D.C. schools and their coaches start to arrive. They greet each other with hugs and smiles. The hired bus pulls in a little before 6:30, and Robinson, the head of the D.C. Double Dutch league, starts to motion everyone on board. Seven a.m. comes and goes. The coach from Holy Redeemer Catholic School hired her own bus to carry the school’s jumpers and supporting family members to the competition, but that bus is late, and Robinson wants to wait so everyone can drive together.
The fact that families of other competitors are going on the trip, but not their own parents, doesn’t seem to bother Latreaviette, Shantae, and Apiphany; their folks all have work or kids to tend to. Apiphany’s mom was going to come, but she was told that the bus was nearly full.
Inside the bus, the girls giggle and talk and have tickling fights and munch on a bag of candy that Latreaviette has brought along. The coaches try to maintain control but already look exhausted. By 8 a.m., we’re finally ready to leave.
Robinson, who will be driving a couple of double-Dutch officials in another van, comes in to issue rules and a prayer. “I’ve got to get to know all these faces because I have a feeling you’re going to be going with us in the years to come,” he says to the jumpers. He asks for a count to make sure everyone’s on board. “No sleeping on the bus,” he yells as he exits, a sly grin on his face.
“What he say?” a couple of the kids ask.
“He said, ‘Go to sleep right now,’” fibs one of the tired-looking coaches.
June 15, Somewhere in Delaware,
The Garrison girls, and most of the other jumpers along with them, say they took up double Dutch because it’s fun, because they can win trophies, and because, for some of them—although they don’t say it in so many words—it’s tradition.
For the kids who make it to the world competitions, which are held in a different city along the East Coast every year, jumping can also mean a rare vacation outside of the District. That’s the case for the girls from Garrison. Shantae says she’s never been outside of D.C. and Maryland. And except for a couple of visits to family in North Carolina and a trip to Orlando, Fla., Apiphany hasn’t left the city much, either. Latreaviette’s the closest to a world traveler among the girls. She says she’s been to—in this order—Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, D.C., and Maryland. “And Baltimore,” she adds.
Maybe because of her previous travels,
Latreaviette seems the most interested in the current adventure and keeps a running log of every new state we enter. She knows we get to New York when we pass through the “place where they ask for passports—only they don’t ask for ours because we’re from here,” she says. She’s talking about tollbooths.
We’re only minutes into New Jersey before
Latreaviette becomes anxious for the next state. She leans forward every 10 or 15 minutes to ask: “Are we in New York yet?” More than an hour and at least five inquiries later, we finally pass through New York City, on the way to Long Island, where the competition is being held. For most of the kids on the bus, this is a first encounter. They scan the skyline for landmarks. “I see the Statue of Liberty!” yells one kid, the first to find it, and they all squeal with delight.
But their interests are fickle. As thrilled as they are by the city skyline, they’re even more fascinated by the red Mustang convertible traveling next to us and a huge graveyard right outside of the city—so big that Latreaviette insists it must hold “millions” of tombstones.
Maybe a graveyard isn’t exactly what they had in mind, but league officials say double Dutch has succeeded in exposing kids to new places—not to mention new people. The league includes competitors from 26 states, says Gardner. Canada was the first foreign country to send teams to the competition, in 1985. Japan started sending competitors to the yearly event in 1990; France followed a couple of years later.
As it happens, the Japanese competitors are the first ones we spot when we finally pull onto the campus of the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook. They’re pulling their suitcases through the parking lot when we arrive. “Japanese people!” squeals one of the kids. They stare and point through the glass windows of the bus, as if we were traveling on safari and we’d just spotted a rare specimen.
An unusual cross-cultural exchange follows. Some of the kids on the bus can only stare. A few others wave. The Japanese jumpers respond with what seems to be the first American form of communication they can think of: One raises two fingers and spreads them into the V of a peace sign. A few others raise their arms, flatten their palms, and start pumping them up and down; they’re raising the roof. A couple of the kids in the bus respond with the same gestures. Everyone laughs and smiles.
June 16, SUNY Stony Brook
Gymnasium, 7:30 a.m.
Only a little after dawn and after a quick breakfast, Herndon gathers D.C. Destiny Jr. in the college gymnasium, where the 27th Annual ADDL World Invitational Championship will be held, for an early practice. They have the place almost to themselves. The practice is a solid one, and the girls seem confident—until the other teams start to show up.
By 8:30, the floor is crowded with teams prepping for the day. Herndon and the girls take their place in the stands. The three peer wide-eyed at the other teams practicing: they seem so big and so fast. Latreaviette, usually the first to whine when practice is too long and too taxing, tries to get them out on the floor for one more run-through, but they can’t find the space. Apiphany cuddles up to Herndon, buries her face in the coach’s shoulder, and makes a mock sobbing sound. Herndon offers them soothing back rubs and encouraging comments.
The competition is supposed to start at 9 a.m. and last most of the day. Judges will post the scores sometime in the evening. Only the five top-scoring teams in each division will return for the second day of competition. There are 15 teams in the Fifth Grade Singles. Aside from Mrs. Bobo’s Babies, D.C. Destiny Jr. will compete against teams with names like Lucky Leapers (from Canada) and Junior Snazzy Steppers (from New York).
At 9:27, Gardner starts the competition. The younger grades will begin with the compulsory and speed portions, and then move to a smaller gymnasium to perform their freestyle routines. Compulsory is a giveaway, an “official warmup,” as Herndon calls it. But the speed segment is crucial. Those teams that win repeatedly usually do so because they have the highest speed scores.
Latreaviette, who jumps for the team during the speed portion, can be fairly fast for her division but makes the occasional mistake, like missing a jump or breaking body position, which costs points from the final score. Herndon used to have another of the girls’ classmates jumping speed; she was slower but didn’t make as many mistakes. Latreaviette is a gamble. “You can have a fast speed jumper, but if she gets in and makes four or five mistakes, you might as well have a slow one in there,” Herndon says.
An enthusiastic second-grade teacher at Garrison, Herndon is sensitive and caring with the girls. But she can also be tough. She uses the wait during the first few rounds to reinforce some of her lessons and teach the girls some new things about the world competition: “All those people across over there are your judges, and they’ve been trained to watch you for every little mistake,” she tells the girls, who stare in silence.
“If you mess up the speed, you better not mess up the freestyle, ’cause you’re out the door,” Herndon says. The girls nod. They look scared.
A half-hour later, they’re called to compete. They take their spots in the middle of the gym floor, squeamish looks on their faces. They look to Herndon. She gives them a hopeful nod.
The clock starts. Shantae jumps through the compulsory moves. She takes her time, maybe a little more than she should. The clock counts down: 6, 5, 4. Finally, she’s done. No mistakes. A perfect score.
Latreaviette’s up. The girls are looking a little more comfortable but still stare nervously at the other teams all around them. The official announces the start. The ropes turn. Latreaviette jumps. The clock reads 1:50, 1:40, 1:30. Thirty seconds in and no mistakes—which is better than she’s been doing in practices. Then, with just one slight false move, Latreaviette catches her foot on a rope. She jumps out and pauses for only a second before jumping back in—jumpers have five seconds to re-enter the ropes after they mess up, or they’ll lose more points.
Latreaviette looks a little flustered when she misses the jump. But back in the ropes, she jumps smoothly, in proper form—as if she were riding a bicycle, eyes focused on one of the turners’ chests. One mistake isn’t so bad. She settles into a groove, her feet steadily pounding the floor: 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2. The clock ticks down, and she’s still going: 30, 20, 10 seconds to go.
Then, with only seven seconds left on the clock, she flubs again. Out and in again with two seconds left. The buzzer sounds.
The girls ask the judges for the official count of Latreaviette’s strides: 215, not counting the points they’ll lose for two misses and any other flaws the judges have spotted. The figure is less than the number Latreaviette clocked at the citywide competition, but it’s not bad. They squeal excitedly and run to Herndon, who greets them with a hug. She congratulates them—but reminds them again that they need to be extra careful on the freestyle routine. Latreaviette is confident. “We already know we made it,” she says.
June 16, SUNY Stony Brook
Gymnasium, 1 p.m.
Latreaviette, Apiphany, and Shantae are still psyched
from their solid performance in the speed competition, so they bounce along into the second gym to continue the contest with their freestyle routine.
But the wait proves to be a long one. Five teams at a time can compete during the speed and compulsory sections. But teams have to go one by one during the freestyle segment. The officials are still on third-graders when we enter. Herndon and the girls grab seats in the stands and wait.
At about 1:30, a fourth-grade team from New Jersey takes the floor. The turners take their positions at the ropes. The jumper backs up to the side, right near the bleachers. When the officials start the clock, she takes a running start and tries jumping over the head of one of the turners and into the ropes. Only she doesn’t quite get the height she expected. Instead, she gets a foot stuck on the turners’ arm and stumbles into the ropes. Sprawled on the floor, she looks up at the judges and doesn’t move. The slow-moving competition comes to a complete stop.
The New Jersey girl’s coaches come running out. So do a couple of officials. They crouch and talk to the girl, who has a dazed look on her face. Heads moving side to side, they look at her knee, then at her face, then at her knee again. Then they stand and put their hands on their hips. More officials, a security guard, and Herndon all eventually trickle onto the floor. Apparently the girl is injured, but no one knows how badly, and they don’t want to move her until they do. Someone sends for an emergency medical crew.
Officials decide they can’t delay the competition, already behind schedule, any longer. They stand, link their fingers under the edges of the judges’ table, and move it to the corner of the floor, away from the sprawling girl and her entourage of confused, concerned adults. They reposition the ropes, too, and call the next team. The show must go on.
About 1:45, officials call all fifth-graders to the floor to wait until their teams are called to perform. And there they will stay—for another 45 minutes. In that time, several teams—the rest of the fourth-graders and the first fifth-graders—perform. A stretcher arrives, and the New Jersey girl is finally transported from the floor. The judges move their table back to the middle. The New Jersey team goes again, this time with an alternate. The girls sit.
The delay, along with the fact that the room is a sweat box—un-air-conditioned, hot, with no circulation—has started to make the girls a little sluggish. They recline along the sidelines. Herndon rests her head against the back of the bleachers, and her eyelids drop. The day has lost a bit of its momentum.
Finally, a little before 2:30, D.C. Destiny Jr. is called to perform. They head to the floor and grab the ropes, looking a little dazed. The clock starts. Apiphany jumps first, moving steadily through her tricks: She cartwheels into the ropes, kicks high in the air, crouches to the ground, touches the floor in between jumps, and then links her arms around her legs and does a low jumping trick, the “Boston crab.” Then she’s out. Perfect. No mistakes. The girls look a bit more enthusiastic.
Shantae is next. She passes one rope off to Apiphany and holds the other in her own hand. She’s supposed to do a somersault into the ropes while they’re still moving. She usually does this trick with no mistakes. But this time, she rolls over one of the ropes. They stop. The girls glance nervously at each other but keep going.
Next is Latreaviette, who hands the ropes to Shantae and backs up to do the same running leap that injured the New Jersey girl. Latreaviette is a bit more successful: She makes it in without falling—but she just barely touches the ropes. They stop again. She jumps out, then in. She moves through the rest of the routine. Her leg gets caught in one of the ropes during her splits, but not enough to make them stop a third time. She finishes. The other girls drop the ropes. Then the three do the chant that ends their routine. “We are D.C. Destiny Jr.,” they say sweetly, clapping their hands and stomping their feet. Latreaviette does one final flip. They throw the judges a kiss.
Finally finished, they head quickly out of the gym—relieved to be done but also simply glad to escape the hot room. They head to their dorm to take showers, change into the cute outfits they brought, and dance around their room, listening to the radio they’ve propped up on one of the dressers. The competition has already grown old for them.
June 16, SUNY Stony Brook Pool,
About the time the girls qualified for the world competition and started talking excitedly about going to New York, they also began anticipating the other big draw of the tournament: swimming. League officials usually try to plan some kind of recreational activity for the jumpers during downtime over the competition weekend—like shopping or going to a water park. For this year’s event, they reserved time in the campus pool. It’s not a terribly exciting or unusual activity, but for the girls from Garrison and most of the others, it feels almost like Disney World.
The lifeguard has had to rope off the already small pool, because one half is too deep for most of the kids. This means there is even less room for the hundred or so squealing kids. But they don’t seem to mind too much; they splash around happily.
In the gymnasium, the ADDL officials are adding up the final scores, which will determine who will compete the following day. They’ll post the scores at about 9 p.m., in the hallway at the dorm where most of the teams are staying. But already news is starting to leak out.
One official stops by to tell some of the D.C. judges, gathered outside the pool building, that at least one D.C. team will return: a seventh-grade team from Holy Redeemer. Another woman, probably a coach, motions one of her jumpers out of the pool. She has managed to sneak a peek at some of the score sheets and tells him—one of the handful of boys jumping at this year’s competition—that his team will return to compete the next day. He makes a fist and yells, “Yes!” with a smile and extra emphasis on the final S.
Most of the jumpers, however, are oblivious to the impending drama. Herndon, splashing around in the deep end, also seems in no rush to learn the day’s results. Even when she gets out of the pool and learns that the judges are posting the scores, she lets her team swim a little longer. She’s not optimistic. “I think the freestyle messed them up,” she admits.
Herndon prepares to break the news to the girls. “Latreaviette may cry. Apiphany will probably say, ‘It’s OK, we’ll do better next year.’ Shantae may have a slight attitude, but she’ll get over it,” she reasons.
The coach doesn’t even tell the girls about the postings when they head back to the dorm rooms. As the girls goof around with some of the other jumpers, wrapping their towels on their heads and giggling as they walk through a parking lot, Herndon sneaks in the building through a side door, hoping to see the results before the girls do.
But even the veteran coach is shocked when she gets a look at the scores. “We came in 10th?” she says in disbelief when she spots the paper listing the fifth-grade results. “I thought sixth or seventh, but 10th?”
Just then, Latreaviette and Apiphany round the corner, startled by the crowd. Shantae has already headed up to her room. Herndon scoops the other two teammates into her arms and starts pointing at the scores. She tries to break it to them gently: “We’ve got a lot of work to do before next year,” she says. But Latreaviette and Apiphany don’t quite seem to understand what she’s trying to say. Besides, they’re more interested in deciphering the score sheets. So Herndon walks them through the postings.
Finally, the loss sinks in. Apiphany’s the first to realize it. When she does, she looks nervously for Herndon, who has stepped to the back of the crowd. Apiphany wears an uncertain but pained look, as if she’s not sure how to respond. Herndon gives her a quick hug. “It’s OK. You’re still a champion to me,” she says.
Latreaviette, who has never considered the possibility that her team wouldn’t win, doesn’t want to believe the results. “You made it this far,” Herndon says.
“And that’s all?” responds Latreaviette, a pout on her face. Herndon nods with sympathy, but Latreaviette storms off around the corner. She crosses her arms, leans against a wall, and sulks.
“Go get Latreaviette and tell her to come here and get some love,” Herndon tells Apiphany.
Apiphany obeys. She joins Latreaviette, folds her arms, and leans against a wall, sharing a commiserating sulk before the two return to Herndon for hugs. The coach sends them off to bed.
“They didn’t take it so bad,” she says after they go. “I guess we did something this year.”
June 17, SUNY Stony Brook
Gymnasium, 9 a.m.
The final day starts with a rather rote celebration that feels compulsory for the kids whose teams didn’t make the cut. Officials blare a scratchy recording of music with loud drumbeats as the teams shuffle into the gymnasium, lined up behind signs that announce their home states. The D.C. teams march in behind an ancient red banner, still marked with a McDonald’s logo. Latreaviette holds a smaller black-and-white sign that says, “Washington, D.C.” She does not look happy, nor do Apiphany and Shantae. They are tired, hot, and disappointed, having learned one of the most unpleasant lessons of competition: losing.
Jennifer and Latrell show up for the final day of competition. They’ve driven up with Jennifer’s mother and three younger cousins. Jennifer runs into Latreaviette in the lobby of the gym building before the ceremony and learns the bad news. She and Latrell are disappointed, but they see the loss as an inevitable, important step for the girls. A beginning place, not the end.
“They know they can’t play around now,” says Latrell.
“I still think they did good,” adds Jennifer. “They might not have thought it was going to be this hard.” She checks the scores, also posted on one of the gym walls, for the third- and sixth-graders. She’ll need them next year when she works with a new batch of third-graders at Garrison and when she helps D.C. Destiny Jr.
Double Dutch is like that. It goes on, no matter who wins or loses, an invincible, if sometimes invisible, part of American culture.
Jennifer and Latrell return to the stands and the three young cousins. Jennifer has already tutored them in double Dutch. She plans to help coach them when they are old enough to join teams. “We’re going to call them Destiny’s Babies,” she tells Herndon.
One cousin, 8-year-old Raven, talkative and short for her age, has been jumping for two years. Those two years qualify her as an expert, she says. We’re near the snack stand right outside the gymnasium. Kids of all ages swirl around us, munching on junk food, messing around with spare jump-ropes.
“You know what’s wrong with people?” she says. It’s not a question you hear from many 8-year-olds. I play along.
“They act like they never been to a double-Dutch competition before. They just running all over, like it’s Burger King or a playground or something.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Pilar Vergara.