When Renice says she can't hike her knees up high enough to jump properly, Alleyne insists she can. Renice says she can't do a cartwheel, but Coach disagrees. "You can," Alleyne says. "Stop saying you can't."
All this encouragement does not go unnoticed. Renice later explains that she plays basketball and soccer, but jump rope has helped her grow in a different way. "I feel more confident to be around new people, " she says. "I used to be really shy."
In Fort Lauderdale, the Warfield Park Warriors meet on Tuesday evenings in an aging building sandwiched between Hot Dog Heaven and a Walgreens, at the honking, exhaust-fumed intersection of Sunrise Boulevard and Andrews Avenue. Inside, the gym is ripe with sweat, equipped with linoleum floors and dingy basketball nets.
Many of the team members are Haitian-American. They live in the small, cramped houses nestled between the New Life United Methodist and Immanuel Baptist churches. The double dutch program is free for the kids enrolled in the city's after-school program. Many of them walk here after class at North Side Elementary.
On a cool Tuesday night, a tiny, lithe 9-year-old with dark eyes and dimples is concentrating hard on his speed jumping drill. Wearing orange-laced sneakers, Lensley bounces nimbly on the balls of his feet, eyes glued to the hands of the coach turning the double dutch rope ahead of him. In this exercise, his challenge is to maintain a steady pace, follow the rhythm of the ropes, keep his knees up, and hop from one foot to the other as quickly as possible.
A wave of nostalgia hits me. These speed drills are the same ones I remember from 20 years ago. The Hurricane Jumpers have upgraded to vinyl and bead ropes, but the Warfield Warriors use cloth double dutch ropes. They are jumping the way I did in Harrington's Woodburn Elementary school gym. Except Lensley is far better than I was.
"One, two, one, two, up, up!" his teammate chants.
Now Lensley's doing a forward flip — leaping onto his hands, flipping over, and jumping in time for the double dutch ropes to swing beneath him. He's the only boy at practice tonight, but no one seems to care. He steps out of the ropes for a few minutes before attempting another trick. Biting his fingernails, he takes a deep breath and lunges forward. Cartwheeling with his feet together — a gymnastic trick called a round-off — he lands on his feet, then does a backflip into the ropes.
"Ready, set, go!" he chants. He jumps onto his hands, kicks into the air, lands back on his feet.
Over the years, the Warriors have traveled to competitions and performed at the city's St. Patrick's Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day parades. But turnover among their coaches has slowed their progress, and they were not aware of the March 31 jump rope competition in Miami Gardens. Chantel Miller, who used to coach a team in Lauderdale Lakes, says she began coaching the Warriors in March. Now she's training the Warriors so that six kids can compete in a tournament organized by Moody at Nova Southeastern University on May 19. The City of Fort Lauderdale will cover the Warriors' tournament fees. Lensley is one of the children Miller has selected to compete.
He's been jumping for five years and has outlasted many of his coaches. One of those former teachers, along with Lensley's dad, taught him how to do backflips. Now his parents are divorced, and his dad lives in West Virginia. "I miss my dad," Lensley confesses, as he takes a break from jumping to munch on Goldfish crackers.
In his spare time, Lensley likes to play basketball, soccer, and volleyball, listen to jazz and hip-hop. He boasts that he can speak "Haitian, kinda Spanish, kinda Chinese — oh yeah, and French." Jump rope is one of his many talents. "We do impossible stuff that some people can't do," he says.
When he grows up, Lensley is not certain what career path he will choose. Maybe he'll be a college football player; maybe not. "Whatever job that gives the most money," he says. He wants to make sure he can buy things, he explains solemnly, because his mom told him today that he will not be receiving any more allowance.
Back at the USA Jump Rope Region 13 Qualifying Tournament, tensions escalate by the hour. Veteran jumpers are trying to score high enough to advance to the national tournament. Younger, newer jumpers, such as Taryn Marriott, are simply trying to rank regionally. The Hurricane Jumpers are in constant motion, bouncing around the gym, practicing cartwheels, memorizing dance steps. The girls have their shiny hair pleated in identical braids. Their shoelaces are covered in fluorescent pink or green tape, to prevent tripping. The gym echoes with the steady slap of vinyl hitting the floor. "No Fear. No Excuses. Jump Rope," commands a bumper sticker on the wall.