DAYTON, Ohio — Fourth-grader Angela Gallagher had just finished her jump-rope routine for a downtown lunch crowd on Courthouse Square in a swirl of legs, arms and rope that could have passed for a martial-arts demonstration.
"Oh, that's just double-unders and crisscrosses," she said matter-of-factly, not noticing that her audience was a bit stunned.
For Angela, 10, and 25 other members of the Happy Hoppers jump rope team at Whittier Elementary School, it's everyday stuff to turn a piece of plastic rope and a quick-footed gait into a work of art.
"The nice thing about this is it doesn't matter how tall you are, how short, how fat or thin, you can achieve, and it gives you a great sense of achievement," said Woody Pumphrey, their coach and the school's physical education instructor.
"It doesn't matter, sex, race or whatever, kids meet kids and have fun. That's what it's all about," he said.
It's also about speed ropes, double-unders, Crougher moves, and double Dutch. It's jumping, doing Cossack dance moves and with pogo sticks, roller skates and bamboo sticks--anything to make the simple game of jump rope look like a museum piece.
Heather Hager, an 11-year-old fifth-grader, said Pumphrey gives team members, who range in age from 5 to 14, a book of 801 single-rope moves and 27 moves using two ropes, or double Dutch.
"We make up our own routines for competition," she said. Many are done to the Happy Hoppers' theme song, the Pointer Sisters' recording of "Jump (For My Love)."
The two-year-old team has caught fire at the school, where Pumphrey said most of the students have bought a jump rope.
"I practiced a lot last year because my friends were on the team," said Heather, who joined the Hoppers this year.
Karen Newson, 14, graduated from Whittier last year and is a seventh-grader at Kiser Intermediate School, but rides a bus across town almost every day to practice " 'cause it's fun."
"You get to travel a lot; show what I know," she said.
It's that pride--students learning they have abilities that go beyond jumping rope--that makes Pumphrey proud.
Pumphrey, 46, a graduate of Defiance College who has been with Dayton schools for 17 years, said the idea for the Happy Hoppers started when another school official saw a team from Colorado at a convention.
The schools invited that team and one from Richmond, Ind., for an exhibition one Saturday at the University of Dayton arena. Only 10 students from the Dayton schools showed up, but that was enough, Pumphrey said.
"You talk about jumping ropes to most people and they think, 'Get a rope and jump. What's so neat about that?' They started showing us these moves, and I was dumbfounded," he said.
The experts from Colorado and Indiana started teaching the moves, and before the day was out, the team was formed. The Happy Hoppers name came later.
The team now averages one exhibition a week.
Pumphrey holds practice three days a week, for 1 1/2 hours, at night. He admits to being demanding and a perfectionist, but says team competitions the Hoppers want to win are grueling, demanding split-second precision and stamina for routines that fly by in under a minute.
Recently they traveled to regional competition in Richmond, where the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade teams were in the top five in single-rope routines and the seventh-graders were first in single- and double-rope routines and first overall.
"I'll say without question that we could go against any team in the United States in single-rope competition," said Pumphrey, who predicts that jumping rope will someday be an Olympic sport.
Pumphrey doesn't get paid for coaching the team, although this year a restaurant chain provided money for equipment and travel.
"A lot of these kids, if we would never do this, they would never get out of this community," he said.