Black History 365: Double Dutch
How the Fantastic Four took Double Dutch to new heights
December 4, 20222:01 PM ET
Heard on All Things Considered
Dutch settlers may have brought Double Dutch to America, but it was Black girls who put it on the map, says Lauren Walker, president of the National Double Dutch League. “Double Dutch is Black girl magic. It came from a union of young girls in their community getting together to socialize, and to engage in each other’s dreams and ambitions.”
They also put their own spins on popular rhyming songs, like “Miss Mary Mack,” and brought them into the ropes, says ethnomusicologist Kyra D. Gaunt. “You learned from your elder siblings, you learned from your same-age peer age group, in schools, hanging out on the stoop, on the sidewalk.”
Then in 1973 two New York City policemen, Ulysses Williams and Lauren Walker’s father David A. Walker, established Double Dutch as a team sport and got it into schools. When the first tournament was held a year later, nearly 600 kids participated. Many more were inspired.
Adrienne “Nikki” Adams Howell, Delores Brown Finlayson, De’Shone Adams Goodson, and Robin Oakes Watterson met as junior high schoolers on the Lower East Side in 1978. Howell says they meshed immediately. “Everyone had their own creative ideas and everyone had their own different strengths, you know, everything came together for us.”
Calling themselves “The Added Touch,” the team placed second in the singles division and third in doubles at the 1978 World Wide Double Dutch championship. Then they took it higher, says Watterson. “I would like to say we reinvented ourselves. It’s like ‘We’re the Fantastic Four!’ We changed our name, changed our attitude. And we brought it.”
In 1980 the Fantastic Four became the Double Dutch World Champions, leading to appearances in McDonald’s commercials, a spotlight in the Emmy-award-winning 1981 documentary Pick Up Your Feet, and invitations to demonstrate Double Dutch at schools across the country. Goodson remembers being rushed by young fans back home in New York and realizing that her team was representing more than just the sport. “I remember them knocking us down to the ground actually, you know, with hugs and they showed so much love.”
As the team’s star rose, so did the profile of Double Dutch. In 1981, Frankie Smith released the hit song “Double Dutch Bus.” In 1982, the Fantastic Four were tapped to perform at The Roxy alongside DJs, MCs, graffiti artists, and B-boys- leading to the team’s participation in the New York City Rap Tour, which introduced hip-hop to audiences in Europe.
A photograph of the Fantastic Four taken on the tour by Janette Beckman has circulated widely, for example appearing on a book cover and in an exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. However, the Fantastic Four were identified on the tour bill as “the Double Dutch girls” and the photo has often been interpreted merely as an expression of friendship.
These erasures were consequential, says Gaunt, adding that today many people don’t know that Double Dutch was an integral part of hip-hop culture and history. “What’s missing and the reason why people don’t know it is that that narrative is not perpetuated by most of the men who tell the story of hip-hop.” (A notable exception is KRS-One).
And yet the ties between hip-hop and Double Dutch were never completely severed. For example, you can spot them in Nelly’s 2000 debut single “Country Grammar,” which borrows from the hand-clapping game “Down Down Baby,” a 2011 ad for Jay-Z’s Rocawear, and songs by Missy Elliott, including 2002’s “Gossip Folks,” which samples Frankie Smith’s “Double Dutch Bus,” and 2019’s “Throw it Back,” whose music video features a scene where Elliot’s braids double as jump ropes.
In early 2023, the Cartoon Network animated series Craig of the Creek will air a Double Dutch-themed episode co-written by Ashleigh Hairston. “My dad is a pastor in Seattle, Washington, and I grew up playing Double Dutch in the parking lot with my friends and we would just go for hours and hours,” she says. “And I was really excited to bring those experiences into the episode.”
When Craig’s friend is accused of slacking by her hyper-competitive Double Dutch teammates, he challenges them to a “jump off” even though he has no idea how to jump. Unbeknownst to Craig, his mother was once a Double Double champion- until she was bested by a rival, Carla Frazier, who is voiced by Missy Elliott.
Revisiting that memory empowers Craig’s mom to reframe it, and inspire the kids to jump for joy. As for the real-life champions, the Fantastic Four went on to college, families, and careers, and stayed involved as coaches and officiators. They were on hand this year to serve as judges for the 31st David A. Walker Memorial Double Dutch Holiday Classic at the Apollo Theater, paying forward what Double Dutch gave them. “Structure, discipline, working with others,” says Delores Brown Finlayson. Then Nikki Howell jumps in, “These are my sisters for life.”