JumpStarz founder Patricia Clement double Dutch jump-roping with her 8-year-old, Amari. (Photo by Chenla Ou)
You hear the rope before you see it. Coming in the front door of the Bellemeade Community Center on the South Side. Thwack, thwack, thwack. Heading down the stairs. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. Into the gym. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. And there stand two women, each holding the opposite ends of two jump ropes. They’re standing about 10 feet apart, facing each other, turning the ropes in opposite directions, so that as one rope ascends, the other descends, carving the air between into a sphere, inside which jumps a girl.
“Listen to the rope. It has a rhythm,” instructs Ah-tavia Greer, turning one end of the rope. Greer, a third-grade teacher in Petersburg, grew up in New Jersey and knows a thing or two about double Dutch jump roping. “You got it. All right, from one foot to the other.”
The girl hops from one foot to the other with each pass of the ropes.
“Hop,” Greer says.
“Hop” Greer says.
“Now, crisscross,” Greer says. The girl crosses and uncrosses her legs at the ankles with each jump, her face set in concentration. A line of girls, most of them elementary-school age, watches, some of them jumping in time, imaginary ropes sweeping up and over, up and over. “This makes me happy,” one says.
“Up and kick,” Greer says. The girl jumps over the ropes with one foot while kicking the other high. A giant smile lights her face.
And that sunbeam glow is the moment for which Greer lives. “It lights up my heart, no lie.”
I went by Bellemeade to witness this magic after talking to 42-year-old Patricia Clement, the woman responsible for making it happen. I called her because, shameless plug here, we were working on the June magazine — on newsstands now — and a really fun feature on the games Richmonders play. Pètanque, anyone? We focused on adults capturing the spirit of childhood. It seemed only fitting to include at least one story about actual children.
In 2005, Clement launched JumpStarz, to promote the physical and mental health benefits of jumping rope. “It’s unique and my passion,” she says. “I have never taught a jump rope class where people left unhappy.”
Clement grew up in New York City's Brooklyn borough and, as she tells the girls she teaches, “I grew up in straight-up poverty. I got kicked out of school, but I went through the Job Corps and now I’m running a business doing something I love. You set your mind to something, you can do it, and I’m not telling you something I’ve read. I’m telling you something I’ve done.”
Clement says when she moved to Central Virginia in 1997, “I just couldn’t believe they don’t double Dutch here ... It can change lives. I am telling you, I have worked with little girls who have cried; they say they can’t do it. Then, once they do it, you should see their faces.”
Clement now teaches youth and family programs for several parks and rec departments, among other places. The class I visited at Bellemeade is the fifth of eight, so the girls, some of whom had never jumped rope, have started to get the hang of it. The youngest is 3, and she just wandered into the gym to see what was going on. She gets in line and, saying not a word, steps between the ropes and proceeds to jump as if she were born to it. Her uncle, retrieving her after class, insists that she does not know how to jump. Clement and Greer take out the ropes again and start turning. “What?!” he exclaims, upon seeing this tiny being hopping with perfect timing.
During the class, one of Clement’s staffers, 22-year-old Shahadah Barrett, jumps in with a short jump-rope draped around her neck. She lowers herself into a squat, all the while jumping, and then grabs the rope from around her neck and jumps rope — while double Dutching. And because that’s not astounding enough, she drops into a plank position and knocks out a few pushups – yes, while still double Dutching. (See the video below.)
It’s a display of incredible athleticism. Bystanders cheer. The girls cheer. The moms cheer. Among them is Theresa Slayton, who says that over the course of the class, she has seen her shy 8-year-old, Threvia, bloom with confidence. “Now, I don’t allow her to use ‘I can’t’ as an excuse,” Slayton says. “I just say, ‘Remember when you couldn’t jump rope?’ ”
Threvia, the girl who couldn’t double Dutch five weeks ago, stands facing the turning ropes, weighing a new trick. She calibrates her timing, and cartwheels between the rising and falling ropes, righting herself just in time to start jumping without missing a beat. Outside, dusk approaches. Inside, the gym is alight with the joy of a girl finding her feet.