By Yaw Bonsu
On June 19, 2019, Yocana Orange noted the rise in obesity rates in recent years and decided to try and change the stats by gathering a group to take part in double Dutch jumprope, a national sport in which participants must step in sync as they keep ahead of a whirling rope, often to the beat of music.
“A lot of times we don’t have a place to work out,” Orange, 45, said. “We don’t fit in in Zumba. We don’t have time for a personal trainer. We don’t keep up with our gym membership.”
Enter the Dutchess of Ropes: an organization made to fight obesity through double Dutch and sisterhood.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease accounts for 23 percent of deaths among African-American women, making it the leading cause of death within this demographic. Double Dutch, participants say, is one way to keep the heart strong.
Heart disease can often stem from conditions like obesity, which can be combated through exercise. Whether it is on the cold stone pavement of Baldwin Park, or the wooden floors of Uniondale High School, Dutchess of Ropes brings older women together weekly to exercise through jumping rope.
While many other sports could have taken center stage, double Dutch brings a sense of nostalgia for these women. “If you grew up in Brooklyn, if you grew up in Queens, if you grew up in the Bronx, it didn’t matter,” Orange said. Double Dutch was everywhere.
“As soon as you come to the Dutchess of Ropes,” she said. “it’s everybody’s, like, right back in front of the project building…They just rewind the clock back, and now they’re 16 again.”
Olubukunola Phillips Aliyu grew up in Brooklyn and started double jumping at age 10. Being between the ropes served as a shelter from the danger of the streets.
The sport made its way to Brooklyn as rope skipping, which was first done in ancient Egypt and China and then Europe. The sport was dubbed “double Dutch” in the 1600s and brought to the United States.
While boys usually had sports like basketball to turn to, NYPD officer David A. Walker thought double Dutch was the ideal opportunity for girls to stay active. In 1974, Walker founded the American Double Dutch League, the sport’s first governing body.
“It kept us busy. We started doing teams competitions, and this is when I was like 10,” Aliyu said.
Now 61, Aliyu is the oldest member of Dutchess of Ropes. “At my age, you know I needed something to keep my mind and spirit and body occupied,” she said. “And I think I found that in this particular group.”
Aliyu joins Orange and the other women in practicing at Uniondale High School and taking their skills to local communities. The Dutchesses use their performances to recruit, inform and keep alive the art of double Dutch.
“A lot of kids don’t even know how to jump rope, regular jump rope,” Orange said. “So to see us at our age jumping double Dutch and still being able to connect with all ages was just something that was a mission that I set out to do.”
For some, the Dutchess of Ropes group becomes more than a place to get good exercise. “I was looking for something that can help me keep in shape. That’s how it started out. I just wanted to exercise without feeling like I was exercising,” said Lavern Sterling Felix, a coach with the organization. “I also wanted a sisterhood type of group that I know I would get support from and that I can also give support to.”
Felix, to her surprise, became a coach. “I came to practice often, worked well with the girls. I realized that I was able to capture certain aspects of jumping quicker,” Felix said.
“I was promoted from like the beginner’s team or division level up to the more experience…from there, coach,” she said.
Each practice for the Dutchess of Ropes consists of learning different combo moves made to test one’s ability to hold a rhythm while working with two other and sometimes even three other people.
Between the ropes is almost like a bubble that shields the women from all other outside pressures. Above all, the Dutchess of Ropes is truly a pack of double-Dutching sisters.
“Mothers, especially myself, we don’t often get to go out, cause your life is consumed by your children, your work, your schooling,” Felix said. “This is a little me time — a time that I can enjoy me for an hour and a half.”
“The bond, the respect, the sisterhood, it’s amazing the way these ladies support one another,” Orange said. “The commitment and loyalty that these women bring to the group is really what keeps the heartbeat of the Dutchess of Ropes.”