One, two, skip. Three, four, jump. Five, six, do a back flip. Seven, eight, now break dance.
To be a hip and funky Double Dutch performer, you have to have a sense of rhythm, nimble feet and the courage to throw your body about with controlled abandon.
This part-dance, part-sport involves two people holding and swinging a rope in each hand, while between one to four other people jump in and through the ropes. Moves are executed at such a blistering speed that it is hard to follow them with the naked eye.
Some of the top Double Dutch performers are students at the Nippon Sports Science University. To date — in other disciplines — the university has produced 30 gold, 29 silver and 37 bronze medal winners at the Olympics.
On a glorious sunny afternoon a couple of weeks ago, I visited the university’s Setagaya campus, a 15-minute walk from Sakurashinmachi Station on the Den-en Toshi Line.
When I arrived at the track, as arranged, I could barely hear the hip-hop music playing over the grunts and yells of the American football team members going through their practice drills.
“Thanks for coming today,” said Natsumi Yamada, 22, the vice-captain of Rannawa (meaning “wild rope”), the university’s Double Dutch club that was established in 1998. Her shiny nose ring gave her a funky, almost esoteric look. Some of her colleagues nearby were nonchalantly doing the splits, while others were hoisting themselves into perfect one-handed handstands. I was not the only one impressed, as even the giants of the gridiron momentarily took a break from battering each other to gawp in wonder.
Rannawa is made up of 17 teams of four to six members each, both male and female, but all in the same school year. The team currently on top of their form, according to the Yamada, is Lapis Lazuli.
The six members of Lapis Lazuli — four men and two women — exuded an air of confidence as my cameraman and I approached them.
“Please show me your best routine,” I asked.
Without the slightest hesitation, all six members got into their respective positions. Two people held the ropes. Somebody cranked up the volume. Tension filled the air as all the members stood still in focused silence.
The first move was dramatic: One guy grabbed the bottom of another guy’s foot and pushed him upward and flying toward the ropes in a backward flip. The others immediately jumped in so that within seconds the action had become fast and frantic. One moment a person would be skipping to the music, then the next moment holding the rope. It was incredible to the see the coordination that they had, especially at one of the climactic points when four members leaped into the ropes together and managed to deftly avoid each other — as both girls even made peace signs with their fingers! The crisscrossing of the bodies and quick rope handovers were hard to keep up with, and by the time the routine ended with somersaults by two of the guys, I felt exhausted.
One of the guys, goatee-sporting Gaku Okano, 21, emphasized that “teamwork is really important” — a factor that is influenced by the teams’ mixed-gender ratio.
Interaction between the two people turning the ropes is also crucial for a routine to be successful. The “turners” not only have to be in sync with each other and the jumpers, they also have to swing the ropes in a way that makes it easy for people to jump through them.
Each gender has its own strong points. Men are generally able to carry out moves that require physical strength such as somersaults, while women use their suppleness, as was demonstrated by Nakajima who went down straight into the splits when egged on by one of the guys.
“Double Dutch is an unusual activity because it requires men and women to work together,” said Asami Nakajima, 20, with a wry smile on her face suggesting that this is not always an easy thing to do.
Though Rannawa sometimes does practice indoors on mats, most of the time they are outdoors on tarmac. This means that injuries such as twisted ankles, fractures and grazes, are common.
Why do something where the chances of injuring yourself are so high?
“Because it’s cool,” said 20-year-old Miki Murai of Lapis Lazuli.
Another reason that drives Rannawa’s members to practice three times a week, for 4 to 5 hours a time, is competitions. In the “fusion” category, teams made up of any number of members go through freestyle routines to music for between 2 and 2 1/2 minutes. In the “speed” category, the number of times the left foot of the jumper hits the floor in the space of two minutes is counted. The Fubi team from the Nippon Sports Science University currently holds Japan’s singles (one jumper and two turners) speed record of 391 jumps, which they recorded at an event in the United States that they won.
Double Dutch is said to date back over 300 years, when the Dutch introduced it to the Hudson River trading town of New Amsterdam, now New York City. When the English arrived there and saw children playing it, they named it Double Dutch. Popularity, however, waned from the 1950s when increasing urbanization made it difficult to do. In 1973, two New York policemen revived it from the brink of extinction and developed it into a competitive sport.
The Japan Double Dutch Association, founded in 1996, estimates that there are currently about 35,000 people here — from kindergartners to some in their 50s — who do Double Dutch. It has become particularly popular among high-school and university students, which make up about two-thirds of the total.
So how can one tell whether a Double Dutch routine is good?
“Of course, you can’t make any mistakes,” Yamada said, “but in competitions it’s crucial that a team becomes one with the audience, who are usually really vocal in their support.”
For sure, if by watching one of the Rannawa teams go through their routines I could get a share of their energy — well, I’d be there in a hop, skip and a jump.
To enjoy the explosive speed-and-fusion events at the “Double Dutch Challenge in Tokyo 2008,” go to the Yoyogi National Stadium 2nd Gymnasium near JR Harajuku Station on April 6. Entrance is ¥500 for elementary-school students and ¥1,000 for others.