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.