In an Instagram Reel, Chetan Tambe stands in the middle of a road. Then a peppy song starts to play and Tambe starts moving. Unlike most Instagram influencers, Tambe isn’t dancing. Twirling a skipping rope in mesmerising patterns, he jumps, summersaults, does handstands. At the end of the sequence, he comes to a standstill, grinning. The Mumbai-based Tambe, 23, is a trendsetter, and the trend here is jumping rope.
“I started skipping as a warm up for my karate class as a child. But my coach found out that there were competitions being held and encouraged me to try for that. I won gold in the national competition for the first time some 15 years back. Since I found it fun, I kept doing it,” says Tambe. He continues to take part in competitions and also coaches students.
It is this “fun” aspect that is giving jump rope, or skipping, a new lease of life. Social media too is playing its part, as is proven from the dozens of jump rope videos that are going viral. But it hasn’t always been a smooth run. Supposedly invented by the Dutch, jump rope in its many forms can also be traced back to ancient Egypt and China. The ‘Double Dutch’, where two ropes are turned in opposite directions, became so popular in American cities in the 1950s that the New York Police Department used it to create an anti-drug drive, cleverly named “rope, not dope”.
In India, jump rope has been mostly used as a school sport, or as a warm up for those who need to quickly boost their heart rates before a workout. Competitions are often organised but awareness remains a challenge. There are a few bodies in India that actively organize competitions. The most prominent among them are the Jump Rope Federation of India, started in 2008; and the Indian Rope Skipping Federation, also started around the same time. Though repeated attempts have been made in the past to get the foundations recognised by the government, this hasn’t happened yet. “The Jump Rope Federation of India was recognised by the ministry of youth affairs and sports in 2012. Naturally, many people got involved, athletes came on board, players started representing India in various international meets and we even got medals. But 2017 changed it all,” says Shazad Khan, secretary.
That year, Khan explains, the ministry withdrew the recognition due to “some miscommunication”. On advice from the ministry, the federation has repeatedly held elections and re-filed for recognition, but it has not had much luck. Each year, the number of prospective athletes has dipped due to a lack of clarity about the future of the sport. “It is not an expensive sport. But for an athlete to give her all to one thing there has to be future prospects too. Till the time we are recognized by the government, we cannot even give them that guarantee,” says Khan. Jump rope isn’t an Olympic sport. For that to happen, at least 40 countries must recognise jump rope as an official sport. As of the present moment, this number stands at 20.
Rope jumping competitions are of different kinds. Some may focus on stunts, gymnastic moves or athletic moves, as well as the form and aesthetics of the jumps. Some others may look at speed. There are freestyle events as well. The more famous ones, such as the World Jump Rope Championship and AAU junior Olympics, see participation from enthusiasts the world over.
In India, choreographed jump rope tricks on social media like Instagram seem to be getting quite popular. Tamble’s Reels, on his Instagram handle @skip_with_chetan sees an average of 3,000 likes per post, with some going as high as 6,500 likes. With over 56,000 followers on the platform, he is perhaps India’s best known rope skipping athlete. It’s still quite a long way away from international jump rope star Lauren Flymen, with 839,000 followers. “I have been coaching for the last eight years. But I struggled to reach out to new people. The lockdown for me then came as a boon. I started posting videos first on YouTube and then on Instagram. I have even got 20 million views on one of them. Not to mention many more students,” says Tambe, who teaches around 200 students now, the youngest being 8, and the oldest 73.
The lockdown was also the reason why Mumbai-based Pratul Maheshwari, 31, picked up the skipping rope. Battling a considerable weight gain, he needed something with low impact but high effect. After a day of scrolling through videos online, and upon his brother’s insistence, he picked up the skipping rope. Starting small was his best trick. “For seven straight months, I did a thousand skips daily. And I ended up losing over 20 kgs. But I did make some beginner mistakes. Now I know better,” he says.
Maheshwari’s top tip is to always land on your toes to limit the impact on the joints. “I used cushioned, running shoes and jumped only on a sort-of treadmill mat. I always iced my legs, upto my knees, after every skipping session. And to prevent shin splints, I mixed skipping with body weight exercises. So I would skip for 30 seconds, followed by 30 seconds on push-ups and then repeat.”
Bodyweight or any kind of resistance training is important when jumping rope. While the general assumption is to use jump ropes as a warm up for a workout, many jump rope athletes lift weights to make sure their muscles can sustain the effort of continuous jumps and prevent shoulder-muscle fatigue. “I started with calisthenics but quickly switched to jump ropes because it was more fun and I could always level up. But I do continue to use resistance training. Especially as a woman, it is important to do some of resistance training to build the muscles. That said, skipping itself has helped me get stronger calves and increased my ankle stability,” says Upasana Garnaik. She’d picked up skipping at her university in Austin, Texas. However, it was only during the covid-19 lockdown, while stuck at home in Delhi, that she really got into the sport: experimenting with heavy ropes, switching to PVCs and finally gearing up with beaded ropes for tricks and moves.
The moves—much like a choreographed dance—takes a lot of effort, admits Garnaik, who makes Insta Reels as well. If she is learning from a video, she practices each move without the rope first. Once she gets the hang of it, she adds the rope. A 20-second Reel probably requires days of intense practice to perfect. However, Garnaik’s own choreographs can take longer. She spends the whole day listening to a part of a song to dance to, and then matches some move to it. Sometimes this can take hours.
Maheshwari believes that a useful way to learn the tricks and moves is to record yourself. “I took three and a half months to learn one trick called the MIC release. I kept trying it with a heavy rope before realizing that every rope has a different function,” he adds. Maheshwari switched to a beaded rope—with segmented beads threaded around a cord—soon after for his trick moves. The segmented beads help the swinging mechanism, especially for the ‘release’ (where the jumper lets go of one of the handles while jumping and catches it again). Depending on which rope you are choosing, you could spend ₹100 to over ₹20,000 (for an imported weighted rope).
It seems like the simplest thing—a rope being used as an aid to fitness. And once that basic level has been achieved, there is no finish line. From muscle building, to posture correction or just speed work, jump rope can be tweaked to suit anyone’s age, expertise and goals. But will it ever achieve the status of a sport?