Photo of a crowd gathered to see teens double dutch jump roping

GOING STRONG: Double Dutch at a 2022 block party in New York City.

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NGSS: Core Idea: PS2.A, PS2.B

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Jumping for Joy!

Double Dutch started as a sidewalk game. Now the sport is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT the physical forces at work when a person jumps rope.

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TAKING OFF: A trio competes in double Dutch at Lincoln Center in New York City in the 1970s.

In the early 1970s, kids didn’t have cell phones, video games, or YouTube to keep them entertained. Instead, they played hopscotch on sidewalks, tossed a football on their lawns, or spilled onto city streets to play stickball—a variation on baseball, played with a bouncy rubber ball and broom handle. But the sound of one game enticed kids outside like no other: the TAP, TAP, TAP of jump ropes hitting the pavement in a game of double Dutch. The activity was especially popular among Black girls.

Double Dutch requires two players to hold the end of a rope in each hand and swing the ropes inward one after the other in an eggbeater fashion. Then a third person leaps into the whirling ropes, jumping in the center for as long as possible. The rope turners often chant a rhyme to the beat of the jumper, like “Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around. Teddy bear, teddy bear, touch the ground.”

David Walker had seen this game played countless times in Harlem, the New York City neighborhood where he grew up and worked. But in 1973, after spotting a group of young Black girls playing double Dutch there, inspiration struck. As a community affairs officer with the city’s police department, Walker had been looking for ways to get local girls involved with fitness activities. He realized that double Dutch could become a competitive sport.

In the early 1970s, kids didn’t have cell phones, video games, or YouTube for entertainment. Instead, they played hopscotch on sidewalks or football on their lawns. They also played stickball on city streets. This game is like baseball, but with a bouncy rubber ball and a broom handle. But the sound of one game drew kids outside like no other. It was the TAP, TAP, TAP of jump ropes hitting the pavement. The game was double Dutch. It was especially popular among Black girls.

In double Dutch, two players hold the end of a rope in each hand. They swing the ropes inward one after the other, like an eggbeater. Then a third person leaps into the turning ropes. This player jumps in the center for as long as possible. The rope turners keep the beat for the jumper. Often, they chant a rhyme, like “Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around. Teddy bear, teddy bear, touch the ground.”

David Walker had seen this game played countless times in Harlem. He grew up and worked in this New York City neighborhood. But in 1973, an idea struck him. He spotted some young girls playing double Dutch in Harlem. Walker was a community affairs officer with the city’s police department. He had been looking for ways to get local girls involved with fitness activities. Walker realized that double Dutch could become a competitive sport.

 Peter Aaron/OTTO 

THE FANTASTIC FOUR: These double Dutch world champions captivated the nation in the 1980s.

Friendly Competition

Walker and fellow officer Ulysses Williams wrote up rules for how competitions would work. With help from neighborhood schoolteachers, they organized the first double Dutch tournament. Hundreds of fifth- through eighth-grade girls in New York City participated. As double Dutch grew as a sport, competitors came up with increasingly difficult tricks to perform as they jumped— from kicks and spins to flips.

Today double Dutch is an international sport, with people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds jumping in. “This year, we’re celebrating our 50th anniversary of the sport being in existence, and it’s grown throughout the world,” says Laila Little-Omosawe. She’s a world-champion jumper, coach, and founder of the National Association for Double Dutch Orgs. While double Dutch has evolved over time, one thing has stayed constant: its participants’ reliance on the principles of physics.

Walker teamed up with fellow officer Ulysses Williams. Together, they wrote rules for competitions. Neighborhood schoolteachers helped them organize the first double Dutch tournament. Hundreds of fifth- through eighth-grade girls in New York City took part. The sport of double Dutch continued to grow, and competitors came up with more difficult tricks. As they jumped, they performed kicks, spins, and flips.

Today double Dutch is an international sport. People of all ages, genders, and backgrounds are jumping in. “This year, we’re celebrating our 50th anniversary of the sport being in existence, and it’s grown throughout the world,” says Laila Little-Omosawe. She’s a world-champion jumper, coach, and founder of the National Association for Double Dutch Orgs. Double Dutch has changed over time, but one thing has stayed constant: Its players rely on the principles of physics.

Roots of the Sport

No one knows for sure where rope jumping originated, but some people believe it may trace back to ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Phoenician cultures. Eventually it took off in Europe. In the 1600s, Dutch settlers arrived in the area that is now New York City—and brought jump rope games from the Netherlands (see Double Dutch in America). Later, English settlers saw a game being played with twin ropes and dubbed it “double Dutch.” By the 1950s, double Dutch had become popular in many cities, particularly among Black girls. “I started jumping double Dutch at about age 5 in New York City because back in the 1980s, that was the thing to do,” says Tahira Reid Smith, a mechanical engineer at Penn State University. “It was part of life, especially in urban areas.”

Part of the game’s popularity came from the fact that almost anyone could try it, with no expensive or specialized equipment required. Kids who didn’t have jump ropes used clotheslines or similar things from around the house. Reid Smith remembers using vacuum cleaner cords, which formed a nice arc in the air as they were turned because of their weight. If a rope is heavier, a greater centripetal force acts on it as it turns (see Jump Rope Physics). This force keeps an object moving in a circular path. “If you had a very light rope, like a cotton clothesline, you kept a bucket of water nearby to wet the rope so that you could add weight,” says Reid Smith.

To help keep their rhythm, double Dutch players often sing songs or chant rhymes. As hip-hop developed in the 1970s and ’80s, its music and dance moves were a natural fit for the game. “You could see double Dutch and hip-hop on the streets together all the time,” says Little-Omosawe. “Music became part of double Dutch because you can do the same dances outside the ropes, in the ropes.”

A team of teenage girls from New York City became the double Dutch world champions in 1980. The team, known as the Fantastic Four, helped bring the sport to national and international prominence. They gave demonstrations at schools and arenas around the country and toured Europe alongside influential early hip-hop artists.

No one knows for sure where rope jumping started. Some people believe it goes back to ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Phoenician cultures. In time, it took off in Europe. In the 1600s, Dutch settlers arrived in the area that is now New York City. They brought jump rope games from the Netherlands (see Double Dutch in America). Later, English settlers noticed a game with two ropes. They called it “double Dutch.” By the 1950s, double Dutch was popular in many cities, especially among Black girls. “I started jumping double Dutch at about age 5 in New York City because back in the 1980s, that was the thing to do,” says Tahira Reid Smith. She’s a mechanical engineer at Penn State University. “It was part of life, especially in urban areas.”

Almost anyone could try double Dutch. That’s one reason the game became popular. It didn’t require expensive or specialized equipment. If kids didn’t have jump ropes, they used clotheslines or other things from around the house. Reid Smith remembers using vacuum cleaner cords. They formed a nice arc in the air as they turned. That’s because of their weight. If a rope is heavier, a greater centripetal force acts on it as it turns (see Jump Rope Physics). This force keeps an object moving in a circular path. “If you had a very light rope, like a cotton clothesline, you kept a bucket of water nearby to wet the rope so that you could add weight,” says Reid Smith.

To help keep the beat, double Dutch players often sing songs or chant rhymes. Hip-hop developed in the 1970s and ’80s. Its music and dance moves were a natural fit for the game. “You could see double Dutch and hip-hop on the streets together all the time,” says Little-Omosawe. “Music became part of double Dutch because you can do the same dances outside the ropes, in the ropes.”

In 1980, a team of teenage girls became the double Dutch world champions. They were from New York City, and they were known as the Fantastic Four. They helped make the sport famous around the country and around the world. In the United States, the team gave demonstrations at schools and arenas. They also toured Europe with well-known early hip-hop artists.

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GLOBAL SPORT: The Asian Rope Skipping Championship in South Korea, 2017

Working the Ropes

Dance still plays a big part in double Dutch competitions. In the freestyle event, jumpers execute twirls, splits, high kicks, handstands, or other moves to showcase their creativity and athleticism. They have one minute to do as many tricks as possible. The jumpers and rope turners often switch places, handing off the ropes without missing a beat. In the speed event, competitors jump with alternating feet as many times as they can in two minutes.

While jumping may seem like the hard part of double Dutch, turning the ropes is often the most difficult—and important—job, says Little-Omosawe. “Turners are in control of the ropes. They set the tone, they encourage the jumper, they’re giving direction. The turners are the team’s glue.”

To get the ropes started, turners move each hand in alternating circles. This creates torque—a force that causes an object to rotate around an axis. The turners can adjust this force by making bigger or smaller circles with their hands. This changes the speed of the spinning ropes. For example, a wider circle slows the rope to allow jumpers time to pull off certain tricks. Faster circles allow for more jumps in the two-minute speed event.

Turners must also consider friction—a slowing force created when two surfaces rub together. It’s felt whenever the ropes strike the ground at the bottom of each turn. Reid Smith says that’s why double Dutch is easier to play on a smooth gym floor than on a grassy surface. “Grass creates more friction,” she says.

Dance still plays a big part in double Dutch competitions. In the freestyle event, jumpers show their skill and creativity. They do twirls, splits, high kicks, handstands, or other moves. For one minute, they do as many tricks as possible. The jumpers and rope turners often switch places. They hand the ropes off without missing a beat. In the speed event, competitors have two minutes. They jump from one foot to the other as many times as they can.

Jumping may seem like the hard part of double Dutch. But turning the ropes is often the most difficult job. It’s also the most important, says Little-Omosawe. “Turners are in control of the ropes. They set the tone, they encourage the jumper, they’re giving direction. The turners are the team’s glue.”

To get the ropes started, turners move one hand after the other in circles. This creates a force called torque. It causes an object to rotate around an axis. To make changes, the turners make bigger or smaller circles with their hands. This changes the speed of the spinning ropes. For example, a wider circle slows the rope. That gives jumpers time for certain tricks. Faster circles allow more jumps in the two-minute speed event.

Turners also deal with friction. This slowing force comes from two surfaces rubbing together. It happens when the ropes strike the ground at the bottom of each turn. That’s why double Dutch is easier to play on a smooth gym floor than on a grassy surface, says Reid Smith. “Grass creates more friction.”

Reasons to Jump In

Jumpers face intense physical challenges of their own: They must constantly fight the pull of gravity. With each rapid-fire jump or step, they must overcome this force to get their feet off the ground. As Newton’s third law of motion states, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For double Dutch jumpers, that means that when they push down, the ground pushes back on them with an equal and opposite force. That gets them airborne. Now imagine doing this hundreds of times per minute! No wonder double Dutch is such a workout. All that movement builds muscle strength and gets the heart and lungs working more efficiently.

But Little-Omosawe says that the benefits go far beyond physical exercise. “The number one reason I love double Dutch over regular jump rope is that you can’t do it by yourself. You have to work together. And that carries over to your friendship outside of the ropes.” This teamwork creates a bond between players. “If you know how to jump double Dutch, it’s like you’re in a club,” says Reid Smith.

Over the years, an increasingly diverse group of people have joined that club. “It used to be something that was very popular in the urban communities, but now other communities have really made their way in the sport,” says Little-Omosawe. She says that competitive double Dutchers make friends from around the country and all over the world.

The sport has grown in ways that David Walker couldn’t have imagined when he organized the first tournament 50 years ago. Now Little-Omosawe and others are working hard toward another milestone: getting double Dutch into the Olympic Games. She’d like to see more kids getting involved, whether competitively or just for fun. Little-Omosawe fell in love with the sport and thinks others who try it will too. “It’s my happy place,” she says.  

Jumpers face great physical challenges too. To get their feet off the ground, they constantly fight the pull of gravity. They must overcome this force with each jump or step. Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In double Dutch, jumpers push down on the ground. It pushes back on them with an equal and opposite force. That gets them in the air. Think of doing this hundreds of times per minute! No wonder double Dutch is such a workout. All that movement builds muscle strength. It also gets the heart and lungs working more efficiently.

But the benefits go far beyond physical exercise, says Little-Omosawe. “The number one reason I love double Dutch over regular jump rope is that you can’t do it by yourself. You have to work together. And that carries over to your friendship outside of the ropes.” This teamwork creates a bond between players. “If you know how to jump double Dutch, it’s like you’re in a club,” says Reid Smith.

Over the years, that club has become more and more diverse. “It used to be something that was very popular in the urban communities, but now other communities have really made their way in the sport,” says Little-Omosawe. That’s another benefit for competitive double Dutchers, she says. They make friends from around the country and all over the world.

When David Walker organized the first double Dutch tournament 50 years ago, he couldn’t have imagined how the sport would grow. Now Little-Omosawe and others are working hard toward another goal. They want to get double Dutch into the Olympic Games. She’d like more kids to get involved, competitively or just for fun. Little-Omosawe fell in love with the sport. If others try it, she thinks they will too. “It’s my happy place,” she says.