THE LAST eight months have been hellish for Antoinette Marshall.
The 41-year-old single mother of three endured a devastating breast cancer diagnosis, followed by multiple surgeries as well as radiation treatment. Then, in December, her 34-year-old brother was tragically murdered while walking his two dogs in West Philly. Earlier this year, Marshall went through a painful breakup with her longtime boyfriend, the father of two of her children, and now is involved in a custody battle.
That's enough to put most people into a fetal position.
Instead of sitting at home and fretting over her problems, Marshall has taken up a childhood passion - jumping Double Dutch.
Yes, you read it correctly.
Marshall, who drives a school bus, has taken up Double Dutch again. A couple of nights a week, she meets up with other women from around the city to simply jump rope. They gather at Awbury Playground in East Germantown on Wednesday evenings, at 6 or host pop-up gatherings on the steps outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Check the Philly Girls Jump Facebook page.) Most of the women don't know each other. There's no agenda other than to jump rope like a bunch of schoolgirls.
"It's therapy for me, because if I didn't have that, I would explode," Marshall explained. "I have a temper, and I'm trying to deal with it in the best way I can."
Watching Marshall jump during a meet-up with Philly Girls Jump last week in East Germantown, it didn't seem as if the former high school track star had a problem in the world. All her mind was on was jumping. As two other women turned the ropes, Marshall waited until the perfect moment to dash in and begin jumping. Her ponytail swayed back and forth, keeping time with the rhythm of her feet.
"I love jumping. I go to sleep thinking about jumping," she told me happily.
Philly Girls Jump is the brainchild of high school classmates Della Burns and Tanisha Rinehardt, who earlier this spring found themselves reminiscing about how much fun they used to have as students at Philadelphia High School for Girls when they would jump Double Dutch during their lunch break. On a whim, they decided to create a Facebook post inviting other women to join them at Awbury Playground in East Germantown on April 17 to jump rope. To their amazement, hundreds of similarly nostalgic women showed up, some with clotheslines in hand to use as makeshift jump ropes.
"We had no idea. I only invited my friends on Facebook, the women that were in the area. It still feels surreal right now that everybody is coming together," Burns said last week as a couple dozen women nearby took turns turning and skipping rope. "I saw grandmothers with their grandkids, fathers were bringing their daughters out. It was a lot of fun.
"It was what we did when we were younger. A lot of people like to reminisce and see if they still have it," added Burns, who was an avid jumper until about age 17. "And when you're jumping, you're not thinking about anything else. You're not thinking about being a wife, being a mother. You're just thinking about keeping your feet moving. ..."
Done well, Double Dutch takes a certain amount of skill and dexterity, as participants lift their knees, crisscross their feet, and otherwise show off fancy footwork, all while jumping over two different twirling ropes. The game has roots in ancient times, and is believed to have been brought to the New York City area by Dutch settlers, according to the National Double Dutch League.
While researching this column, I went out to watch the women jump a couple of times, and stayed way longer than necessary. I'd worked all day and was ready to go home, but the energy among the women is infectious. It feels a lot like school recess minus the bell summoning everyone back to class. There's a lot of good-natured joking and laughing. Passersby who plead "for a jump" are welcomed enthusiastically.
"It just brings me back to my childhood," explained Mike Washington, 35, who is one of the few male regulars. "It's something you don't see anymore. Kids now are into social media, television, video games. They're just not getting outside like they used to like when I was young."
"It's so much fun," added Washington, who works with kids with special needs. "I used to be good. I'm getting better. The more I practice, it's coming back to me. It's like riding a bike."
Courtney Davenport, 51, one of the older jumpers, is similarly motivated.
"I just wanted to come out and act like I'm 15 again," she told me.
"This is something I did every day, regardless if I was in school or if I was just in my neighborhood. We jumped rope 24/7," recalled Davenport, who grew up in West Oak Lane. "I remember late nights in the summertime, it could be like 100 degrees at midnight, and me and my girlfriends would be out there jumping rope to the point our parents would be saying, 'Somebody put that rope away!', because they got tired of hearing it smacking on the ground."
That sound. It had been a while since I'd heard it. To me, it sounds like summer in the city.
Last Thursday, Marshall brought along her mother, Kim, 59, who was still dressed in the U.S. Postal Service uniform she'd worn to work. It wasn't long before Marshall had joined in, expertly turning the ropes.
"She's just been through so much, but I'm just happy that she's doing something different and it's really helping her get through what she's been through," Kim Marshall said about her daughter, who was once again jumping, jumping, jumping.
Watching, it was as if all of the heavy problems weighing on her daughter had taken a backseat.
"It's just nice to see her smile," Kim Marshall said. "It's like going back to being young again."
The next Philly Girls Jump event is June 19 from 3 to 6 p.m. at Awbury Playground, 6101 Ardleigh St.