By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Alexander Santiago Jr. had never done Double Dutch before, but when he found himself between two jump ropes during a demonstration at Jackie Robinson Middle School on Wednesday, his energy kicked in.
Kicking his legs high in the air, Alexander, 12, kept pace, his smile growing bigger the longer he stayed in the middle of the two whirling ovals.
"I just thought about dancing, Irish dancing, and putting my energy into my feet," he said.
The demonstration at the middle school is part of an effort by the National Double Dutch League and its sponsors to get kids to exercise more and eat right. It's also a preview to the league's Holiday Classic, an annual international jump rope competition at the Apollo on Saturday.
Started by Dutch settlers who played along the Hudson River, Double Dutch evolved into a game played by girls on the streets of New York City in the 1940s and 1950s. Soon it was given a set of rules and turned into a competitive and international sport by now deceased NYPD officer David A. Walker.
The first Double Dutch tournament in 1974 drew 600 participants. By 2009, New York City Public Schools had added Double Dutch as a varsity sport.
Jackie Robinson principal Jacob Michelman said the distractions kids face today place a strong demand on their time — time they might otherwise spend outside.
"The technology blows me away, but its killing a lot of the interest kids have in doing other things. My parents had to lock the doors to keep me inside, but that's not the case today," he said.
Double dutch is also a stealthy form of exercising, the principal said.
"They just think 'I was doing double dutch and hanging out with my friends,'" Michelman said.
The jumpers at the presentation were clearly doing a lot more than hanging out.
As the ropes twirled, they performed gymnastics, flipping upside down and spinning, all without touching the ropes. The jumpers kept pace even as the speed at which the ropes were turning and hitting the ground made it sound like a hyperactive stopwatch.
"Anybody can jump Double Dutch but it takes years and years to master," said Laa'neisha Jones, 18, a student at Monroe College and member of Stan's Pepper Steppers from Far Rockaway, Queens.
"Not only is it good exercise, because you have to be in good shape, but it's a team sport where you have to learn to work together," she said. "If one turner messes up, it hurts everyone."
Hassan Bouchet, 11, called the jumpers "brave."
"It's a lot of work," he said after giving it a try. "I caught a cramp."
Alexander said the exercise gave his muscles a work out, and now he's hooked.
"Sometime I can be lazy but the cheering from the people watching kept me at it," he said. "I saw other people out there working their hardest and it made me want to join."