On a warm autumn evening, a half-dozen African American women — sisters, cousins, friends — gathered for an activity that first brought them joy decades ago.
"I'd been looking for an outlet for exercise and fun and I said, 'Who wants to get back in the ropes?' " said Atlantis Wigfall, 43, a high school administrator from Brooklyn Park. "We all know double Dutch."
Wigfall was 6 when she learned to jump double Dutch, a rope-skipping game in which two long ropes are turned in opposite directions. The game, which has deep roots in African American culture, requires fancy footwork for the person jumping.
Wigfall jumped in school programs and continued with double Dutch as a college RA. But her happiest double Dutch memories are from the long summer days in her neighborhood in Jersey City, N.J.
"I grew up in a large, close-knit family and they taught me. We found our spot off the curb in between the parked cars," she recalled. "We ran in to eat and do our chores but otherwise we jumped from morning until the streetlights came on."
About a year ago, Wigfall rounded up about a dozen professional women between the ages of 40 and 60 to resume the carefree form of play that they had left behind long ago. When the weather is agreeable, they meet once or twice a week at parks and playgrounds around the Twin Cities.
"The women in this group didn't all grow up together, but we grew up doing the same thing," said Babette Buckner, 56, CEO of a Golden Valley construction company, who developed her double Dutch skills jumping a clothesline in Milwaukee.
To the slap of the rope on the pavement, they chant and pant, jumping singly and in pairs, alternating with quick hops and fancy steps — mumbles, pop-ups and criss-crosses.
Several in the group wear fitness trackers that count a prodigious number of calories firing in the fat burning zone. With its emphasis on speed and intensity, a double Dutch session could qualify as a trendy high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout.
"Get it, girl!" called De'Vonna Pittman as she cheered Wigfall's extended run of more than 100 consecutive jumps.
"It comes back pretty quick when you get in the groove of it," said Pittman, 49, a nonprofit executive who lives in New Hope. She played double Dutch on her block in her neighborhood outside Chicago. The game, she said, did more than keep her fit.
"This is how I learned about listening, about teamwork," she said. "It's still with me."
'A HAPPY PLACE'
The return to the cherished childhood activity isn't just happening among African American women in Minnesota. In 2016, Pamela Robinson established a double Dutch group for women over 40 in Chicago.
"I was at a barbecue and started jumping. I was going through a difficult period in my life and it took me back to the girl I was before kids, husbands, bills, stress," she said. "I wasn't trying to start a movement, I was just trying to find a happy place for myself."
Through word-of-mouth, social media and local news coverage, her 40-plus Double Dutch Club grew, with hundreds of women joining and jumping in T-shirts bearing their names and proudly stating their ages.
"Our oldest member is 82," said Robinson. "I could not imagine our mothers, grandmothers and aunties doing this, but we are showing you can keep laughing and playing outside. Fun keeps you young."
Robinson's organization became a phenomenon and a nonprofit, spreading beyond Chicago and inspiring the formation of about 100 loosely formed chapters around the nation as well as in Canada, Israel and Ghana.
Now 51, Robinson is a double Dutch ambassador; she recently traveled to the Caribbean island of Saint Martin to promote the activity for midlife women.
"When we were kids in the driveway, girls you didn't know would walk by and ask, 'Can I get a turn?' and then you were friends. It's still like that," she said. "We promote friendship, fitness, fun and fellowship. We encourage each other, we uplift each other."
People have jumped rope for centuries. Historians trace the origin of the activity to rope makers in ancient times who leaped over the long fibers they were twisting into their finished product. It's thought that Dutch settlers to the U.S. brought their skipping games with them, giving the dual rope technique its name.
Girls began participating in the late 18th century, when the acceptance of bloomers and pantaloons allowed them the freedom to jump without the restrictive tangling of petticoats and long skirts.
Double Dutch, as it's practiced today took hold in the 1950s, spreading from urban neighborhoods in the Northeast. While boys shot baskets on public courts in the inner city, girls jumped rope. In the era before Title IX opened formal sports and teams for female competitors, double Dutch became a favored way for girls to show off their athleticism, informally engage in strenuous schoolyard activity and set and enforce their own rules.
"In that era, Black girls ruled the playground. It was their girl power space," said Kyra D. Gaunt, an ethnomusicologist and professor in the department of Music and Theatre at the University at Albany. "There's something unique about the communal aspect of double Dutch. It's sports-oriented but inaccessible to people who don't play,"
In her book "The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes From Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop," Gaunt makes the case that the complex rhymes and playground poetry of Double Dutch games influence Black music and contributed to the formation of hip-hop culture.
She writes that it's no coincidence that the resurgence of double Dutch comes during this time of racial reckoning, when Black women have met to jump near Black Lives Matter murals in New York and Washington, D.C.
"There's a pull to it when you come from the legacy of it," Gaunt said. "There's a strong, urgent conversation around self-care. Black and indigenous women know we have to take care of ourselves: Our emotional well being is at stake. Black women have the microphone when it comes to social media. We are talking about our need for sisterhood and empowering our daughters."
COMMITTED TO MEMORY
Among contemporary youth, double Dutch is more than a grass-roots game, especially along the Eastern Seaboard. Touring performance crews wow audiences with show- stopping tricks and complicated choreography. The sport has a governing body that oversees youth teams, leagues and international tournaments, with a handbook spelling out rules and regulations for competition. In New York City, double Dutch is a varsity sport.
But for women who are returning to the activity, spontaneity is part of the attraction. Jackie Coats, 57, and Cassandra Payne, 49, are sisters, grandmothers and school secretaries.
"I forget my troubles when I do this," said Payne. "It's therapy for me after a long day of sitting at a desk,"
TeLisa Archie, 42, a Maple Grove real estate agent, never learned to jump as a girl but participates with the group as a rope turner, which is its own skill and form of aerobic exercise.
"You have to watch and feel. You listen to the cadence and keep up with the rhythm. If they slow down, you do, too," she said. "I'm going to try to get in the ropes but at this age, if you fall you can really mess up a knee. I'm a little bit fearful."
With the cold months coming, the group is looking for inside space where they can keep moving and getting together.
"People who haven't done double Dutch for years show up and can do it," said Wigfall. "Your body doesn't forget. It's like riding a bike — but more fun."