Dr. Kyra Gaunt Talks Double Dutch

Kyra Gaunt

Dr. Kyra Gaunt

Dr. Kyra Gaunt, Ph.D. is a 2009 Inaugural TED Fellow, a CUNY Associate Professor, and author of The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop (NYU Press, 2006). An ethnomusicologist and expert in race, gender and African American music, Gaunt is also an advocate for black girls online and double-dutch jump rope enthusiast!

What prompted you to study black girls games?

Gaunt: As I describe in the book The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop (winner of the 2007 Alan Merriam Book Prize awarded by The Society for Ethnomusicology), I had been thinking about studying women in hip-hop and lucked upon two 8-year old twins playing several handclapping game-songs. Just a week before I had said to my dissertation advisor that the beats and rhymes of girls’ games are just like hip-hop. Girls’ sample and improvise, more or less. And their games precede hip-hop as we know it. So I looked for all the spaces of play were that kind of activity happened. It led to studying handclapping games, cheers and double-dutch games and the accompanying chants and rhymes. I made a case for a kind of gender twist where girls always sample and reference male artists commercial songs and male artists tend to borrow from girls’ songs.

The Games Black Girls Play: From Double Dutch to Hip Hop

The Games Black Girls Play: From Double Dutch to Hip Hop

Tell us about about the rhythmic and musical aspects of double dutch.

Gaunt: Just read the opening passage of my book which is a poetic description of musical blackness in the game. “only think of the music that drives the popular culture of African-Americans, I first thought is not a double-dutch: girls bouncing between two twirling ropes, keeping time to the tick-tat under their toes, stepping out with snatches of song and dance that animate their torsos and release their tongues with laughter. The game black girls play‚Äď‚Äďhand-clapping game songs, cheers, and double-dutch jump rope‚Äď‚Äď may not even register as a kind of popular music because the term is chiefly reserved for commercial production often dominated by men” (Gaunt 2006, 1). As double-dutch became a competitive sport, the early officiating judges who were current/former police officers and justice officials ruled out music from the sport in its $30 rule book. “No music allowed.” But girls reinscribed their musical chants — new and old — in the freestyle part of the competition as “choreographic endings”. That should give you a sense of the rhythmic and musical aspects I study. The chants usually come from the latest popular songs like “The Tootsie Roll” or “Criminal Minded” by KRS-One, back in the day. So this dialogue as a gender twist between girls and men surfaces again.

What’s the relationship between hip hop and double dutch?

Gaunt: In 1973, double-dutch and the underground roots of hip-hop were common in Harlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn. Probably all the boroughs because of the interconnected nature of subway transportation and family networks in the metropolitan city of New York. The Fantastic Four, arguably the first stars of the American Double Dutch League based in Harlem, were part of the first international rap tour in 1982 with Fab Five Freddy, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Grandmixer D.S.T., the Rock Steady Crew and many others. They were the only females who were part of spreading hip-hop culture beyond our shores. They were dubbed the “Double Dutch Girls” as opposed to their chosen name “The Fantastic Four” and we erased generically from the early roots of hip-hop. KRS One states in a Harvard lecture that double-dutch is one of the core elements of hip-hop.

Fantastic Four.  nationaldoubledutchleague.com

 Fantastic Four   (www.nationaldoubledutchleague.com)

Does double dutch benefit black girls?

Gaunt: It was started by black girls. Black and Latino girls are the progenitors, the originators of the practice as we know it, as far as we can tell in upper Manhattan–Harlem and the Bronx. It is their historical, cultural, linguistic and biological legacy and contribution to our own kind of social and physical wellness. A video by an Australian videographer named Jessie speaks to the power of the practice to girls in general and recalls the power of the Fantastic Four. I cued the video up to 2:40″ for you to hear her talk about the power of adolescent girls passion for double-dutch which Jessie learned as a girl in Australia but knew of double-dutch through the early video doc “Pick Up Your Feet” by Skip Blumberg (1981). The obvious benefits of play, performance, social peer support, collaboration and athleticism are only the beginnings.

Tell us about your new research.

Gaunt:¬†My latest research studies the intersections of race and gender in digital media ecologies like YouTube as online black girls growing up online (ages 13-16 and as young as 8) broadcast themselves on YouTube while they are tweaking. It seems an unlikely move to make from studying double-dutch but when I share more you might think differently. Now that most networked adolescent girls’ activities are mostly online instead of on community or school playgrounds or in a gymnasium practicing double-dutch or gymnastics or even cheerleading, our attention needs to shift to see what embodied musical play they involve themselves in and who gets to do what, where and how. This is where attention to race and gender disparities online matter. I study the music they twerk to, the history of twerking which originated in New Orleans in the late 1980s as part of bounce music culture and its presence in parties and clubs. I study how girls’ reveal their personal identity and how millions of others who watch their videos are learning to sustain stereotypes in the general public about black girls as baby mamas, welfare queens, or emblematic of ratchetness. This is not the case for most adolescent girls twerking online. I collect data of girls who twerk from the “privacy” of their bedrooms to talk about the way that normative cultural activity for adolescent girls of all ethnicities and races is being misrepresented by comments below the videos. So I am studying how black girls’ musical play online is sustaining stereotypes and worst yet may harm their future identity and net worth as the grow up and move to go to college and get a job. YouTube videos are searchable, persistent media. They will be in the massive YouTube Archive forever. Best advice, if you use YouTube make your videos private and only share from your device. If you want to be sure no one downloads a video you wouldn’t want to see when you are 20 or 50, then don’t upload your videos onto the Internet or don’t do anything in a video you might not want on the record when you apply for any kind of job or school. The risks are too high for black girls given racist and sexist ideologies today.

So my scholarship is about digital media advocacy and hopefully training parents and adolescents about the risks to their future digital reputation and net worth. By teaching girls about creating content and offering workshops to schools and organizations, I empower 21st century online black girls to go beyond merely hanging out or messing around with digital video. They must learn the complicated ways in which video needs to be edited and those skills could get them high paying jobs now and into the future. You voice is more important than your dancing body. You don’t have to choose but you have to find the right balance.

Find out more about Dr. Kyra Gaunt: