(WOMENSENEWS)--Ruth Payne's girls were taking longer than usual to warm up. Something was different that day about jump-rope practice, which takes place every Saturday afternoon in the St. Peter Claver gym in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.
Older boys were there.
A scheduling conflict had turned a gym big enough to host three full-court basketball games into the sporting equivalent of a middle-schooler's first formal: girls on one side, boys way over on the other.
"Y'all are shy, right?" asked Payne, founder of the Jammin' Jumpers who, at 64, had long forgotten to care about such things.
Jammin' Jumpers, Payne's 12-year-old jump squad, is one of Brooklyn's competitive double-dutch teams. Unlike street jumping, which also uses a double rope, three- or four-member jump teams follow rules enforced by the American Double Dutch League or the National Double Dutch League.
It took 36 years of extracurricular competition, including annual world championships at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, but this March kicks off New York City's first-ever season of competitive double dutch in its public high schools.
Practices are grueling. Starting in the sixth grade, Payne favors what she calls "the medicine rope"--three regulation-weight ropes tied together and knotted at both ends--to build endurance. The Jammin' Jumpers push themselves through three sets of 400 turns at the beginning, middle and end of Payne's practice.
A panel of judges at local competitions evaluates every misstep and scores jumpers on precision, style, execution of tricks and endurance. Coaches are forbidden from coaching from the sidelines, forcing girls to communicate with each other--"Turn faster!" "Pick up your feet!"--in order to win.
At Payne's coaxing, six pre-teens dressed in sweats and sporting their practice hair--mussy cornrows, wrapped perms and ponytails with flyaway edges--peeled off the gym's floor and started coaching each other through jumping jacks and sprints.
Less than 30 minutes later, and with the arrival of more jumpers and another coach, the girls had deployed two extra ropes and taken over center court.
Boys? What boys?
Era of Expansion
Thirty-seven years since the passage of Title IX, the federal law that mandated gender equity in education, including athletics, girls' participation in sports has grown exponentially.
In 1972 only 1 in 27 high school girls played varsity sports. Today, it is 1 in 2.5, according to the Women's Sports Foundation, an advocacy organization founded by tennis legend Billie Jean King that is based in New York.
But the overwhelming majority of girls reaping the benefits of active and competitive lifestyles are suburban.
Urban girls have some of the lowest rates of sports participation of all adolescents in the country, according to an October study released by the Women's Sports Foundation. Only 26 percent of urban girls, predominantly blacks and Latinas, play organized sports compared to 54 percent of their suburban, and predominantly white, counterparts.
More Testing, Less Phys Ed
The disparity can partly be explained by comparatively low-performing urban schools trying to meet federal No Child Left Behind testing mandates by cutting time in physical education, a key determinant of whether a child will play sports later on.
Still, 33-year-old Denique Graves, the first player to be drafted into the WNBA from a historically black university, attributes the low participation rates to something more insidious.
"We're discouraged from taking on sports at a young age," said Graves, a 6-foot-4-inch former center for Philadelphia's University City High. Compared to the boys' teams, she recalls receiving fewer resources and less attention from either her school or her community. With the exception of her very encouraging mother, that was also true within her family.
"Even today, I see the old mentality that girls shouldn't do this, girls shouldn't do that, as if we don't have a future in athletics," said Graves, now an assistant coach at Binghamton University in upstate New York, who reflects, with slight jealousy, on the adoration that some other countries, such as China and Sweden, show their female athletes.
Reaching Girls Through Sport
New York City, after some nudging from Payne, is trying to sideswipe negative cultural messages by meeting its girls where they are
"When we did pre-season demonstrations, the girls were so eager to get in the rope and try it," said double-dutch commissioner Andrea Cherry, whose coaches are teachers working in the 17 competing high schools. Teams can have as many as 15 girls and boys and must excel in three timed components testing speed, acrobatics, coordination and creativity.
"My vision," Payne said, while overseeing one teen's two-minute speed jump, "is to see 3,000 girls in Brooklyn jumping double dutch."
Carla Murphy is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn and a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She graduates in December 2009.
This story, part of our New Writers Program, was funded by the McCormick Tribune Foundation.
For more information:
Black Women for Black Girls
National Double Dutch League
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