Quick — can you name three things in or about Rockaway that are internationally famous? My short list includes: (1) the renowned bird-watching destination, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Broad Channel; (2) Playland Amusement Park (the footprint of that site in the Beach 90s now features affordable housing and sadly, the relics of the amusements adorn The Wave's offices, instead of a park); and (3) Far Rockaway High School graduate Bernie Madoff (change the "famous" to "infamous" for that one).
Now, if you have to distill the list to just those places, people and groups that are still part of the lifeblood of the Rockaways, and are known on several continents — Stan's Pepper Steppers, hailing from the Sorrentino Recreation Center of Cornaga Avenue, Far Rockaway, quickly moves up on the list.
Oh, you mean that really good Double Dutch jump-roping team from Far Rockaway coached by Stan Brown, often seen at street fairs and festivals? Yes, that's the one.
But Stan's Pepper Steppers is more than just a great Double Dutch team. The organization has reached iconic status in the world of sports. Legions of great teams have sprung up around the world, as Double Dutch (the fascinating athletic endeavor that involves performing tricks, speedy footwork and acrobatics inside two constantly twirling ropes) has spread over the past 35 years from New York City to places like Canada, France, Belgium, England and Japan. Double Dutch is now über-chic. There is a documentary film. The sport will soon be seen in a series of nationwide television commercials. It is showcased annually in December at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater.
Stan's Pepper Steppers, one of the pioneer groups, still dominates. They have over 1,000 international titles. What's so inspiring about Stan Brown and his team is that they were one of the first, and they still lead the pack. The Pepper Steppers were formed in Far Rockaway back in the 1970s, just shortly after a NYPD Community Affairs Officer and a group of athletic instructors at an Upper Manhattan intermediate school revitalized the centuries-old urban pastime into a competitive sport, establishing the National Double Dutch League. Double Dutch finally became an official PSAL sport in city schools last year.
The Pepper Steppers has been a real family affair since the start. Brown's wife, Linda, holds numerous titles and has helped coach the team. Their daughter Yatte, formerly one of the team's champion jumpers and now a coach, came up with the team's name. Laa'Neisha Jones, the Browns' granddaughter, is now a mainstay of the Pepper Steppers, and was named most valuable player when she competed for Thomas Edison High School in the inaugural season of the PSAL sport last year.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the group is that it was founded inside of the Sorrentino Recreation Center on Cornaga Avenue, an official New York City Parks operation under the direction of Bernard Robinson. It is itself a jewel of the peninsula, with its recently renovated facility that offers daytime, afterschool and evening sports, recreation, homework help, and computer classes for children and adults.
There are now two leagues in the sport, and Brown is involved with the American Double Dutch League. Their biggest event of the year, the world championship, occurs each year in June, at locations around the U.S. Stan's Peppers Steppers is always one of the favorites. Trophies are awarded in three categories: compulsory routines, freestyle routines and speed jumping (the records hover around 400 steps or more in a two minute time period). Brown has continuously coached the Rockaway program as it has expanded to accommodate over 40 regular participants each season. The group now fields almost ten teams in competition, from third grade to high school.
But the teams from Japan are the new kids to watch. The Japanese, who have always nurtured an attachment to aspects of American pop culture and style, from preppy clothes to Michael Jackson to hip hop music, invited some American Double Dutch jumpers to visit and teach them about the sport in the 1990s. They learned very quickly, according to those who were involved. At about the same time, Fusion, essentially freestyle jumping set to music, was added as a separate competition in the National Double Dutch League, and the crowd-pleasing routines destined for the You Tube generation were crafted.
The Pepper Steppers have their work cut out for them. In addition to perfecting their athletic and performance skills, they are always looking for sponsors from the community to help fund scholarships for their champions as they head toward college.
If you'd like to explore sponsorship, or see these young people in action, they are hosting a "Back to School Double Dutch Tournament" on Saturday, October 3, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Sorrentino Center, located at 1848 Cornaga Avenue. For more information, call Brown at 718-471- 4818.
Columnist's Note: I'd like to say thanks to the Rockaway Theatre Company for their gracious words about my column in last week's Letters to the Editor, and add that I overlooked the names of three of their original founders in my August column — Ruth Graves, Kevin Spillane and Sal Trento. There is an additional correction to note — that James Cantirino, who, as a devoted volunteer, has been creating the artwork for sets and programs since the Company's second season, was not an original founder of the group.
My apologies for these oversights. I can't wait to see Rockaway Café '09, "Welcome to the Sixties," which opens next weekend. To reserve tickets, call the RTC Hotline at 718-374-6400.