Phtt-phtt-phtt-phtt-phtt-phtt. That's the sound of a skipping rope as it swings through the air. The sound is music to the ears of the Skip Its, an internationally acclaimed demonstration team of 5-to 20-year-olds, most of them from the Boulder, Colo. area. The Skip Its, 151 strong, have appeared on television shows such as Good Morning America and P.M. Magazine and have toured the world, dazzling audiences with their legerderope. Before the kids are done, they may well spawn yet another fitness phenomenon.
"It's unbelievable what these kids can do at such a young age," says Skip Its director Richard Cendali, 40, a phys ed teacher at Boulder's Douglass Elementary School. Candace Burt, 14, can whip a rope four revolutions in one jump, a maneuver that only a handful of women in the world can do. Other Skip Its do flips, push-ups, handsprings, cartwheels and assorted acrobatics while jumping. All of these maneuvers are performed inside double-dutch ropes, a pair of ropes that are turned simultaneously by two team members; every child at Douglass is able to jump double-dutch. Most important, the children involved in the sport really like it. "I feel happy," says Shelby Reid, 9. "I don't know why. It's just fun."
Cendali, known as Mr. C or just C to his pupils, discovered rope jumping in the late '60s when he was a 240-pound center/linebacker at the University of Colorado. To improve Cendali's endurance, UC football coach Eddie Crowder gave him a choice between skipping rope and running up and down the stadium steps in the cold. "So guess what I learned to do? I looked like a gorilla trying to skip rope, but that's why I can relate to kids when they're having problems."
In the next year or so, Cendali became a master of the rope, continuing and improving his jumping both during the football season and after it. Following graduation, he spent a summer as an unpaid aide to the assistant conditioning coach for the San Diego Chargers and then went on to Colorado's graduate school of education. In 1970 he hoped for a teaching position at Boulder High, but there was no opening. Instead, he took a temporary assignment at Boulder's Aurora 7 Elementary School and soon discovered that he thoroughly enjoyed working with kids.
For five years at Aurora Cendali used rope skipping in his classes, but only as a fun, coed activity to promote balance, coordination and endurance. Then, after transferring to Douglass, he attended a phys ed conference in Denver and something went phtt. Cendali heard a talk by a phys ed professor, Frank (Chief) Prentup, on rope skipping as a team sport. Prentup had introduced the idea in the U.S. in 1937. Asked if elementary school kids could learn to skip rope, the professor said yes, but not to a high degree of efficiency. Says Cendali, "I turned to the woman next to me and said, 'Baloney. Just give them a chance.' "
Cendali went back to Douglass and did just that. He immediately began teaching his kids sophisticated team routines and letting them improvise. The Skip Its were created. "I told the kids if they could think up a new trick I'd name it after them," he says. "Now we have over 1,200 tricks." The team works on routines year-round, preparing for demonstrations and competition. (In competition, routines are judged much as they are in diving, taking into account the degree of difficulty, execution and creativity.) When the Skip Its go on the road, they usually have a sponsor, a local construction firm, a bank and Adidas. When they don't have a sponsor, Cendali dips into his own pocket to come up with the money. "I want to give them the chance to perform, and the educational opportunities are too great to pass up."
"Mr. C cares about kids," says Shelly Nelson, 15. "The Skip Its give me a lot of confidence. They keep me in shape, and keep me studying. To travel we must have good grades."
"I used to be really shy," says Candace, who has traveled with the team all over the U.S., Canada, Japan and Europe. "I'm not shy now because I've performed in front of thousands of people." The kids work hard, but the emphasis is on fun. "If I make a mistake, I don't really care because I know I can do the trick," says Shelby. "I just try over again."
Inspired by the Skip Its, some 300 teams have started up across the country, expanding the number of competitive rope skippers in the U.S. to an estimated 10,000. Recently, the Department of Defense consulted Cendali about establishing similar programs in its overseas schools. "It's so easy to teach," he says. "I taught German kids, and I don't speak German."
In the upcoming months the Skip Its will be performing in Denver Nuggets halftime shows and traveling to West Germany, Canada, California and Japan. They will compete in their region's rope-skipping tournament in Boulder next May and in the international championships in Greeley, Colo, from June 20 to 27 in 1986. "We tend to forget that kids are people," says Cendali. "We don't give them the chance to do the things that excite them. I give them the opportunity to express themselves with a rope. What pays off for me is seeing a kid smile."