Just before Christmas, I was helping out at an after-school play session in a community centre in Tower Hamlets in East London. Eight-year-old Jane arrived, took a plastic mug from the kitchen, sat down at a table near me, and started clapping her hands and the table, and tapping and flipping the cup, in a repetitive, rhythmic routine.
Readers will at this point either be scratching their heads – like I was – or sighing and saying to themselves ‘oh, he’s talking about the Cups Game’. Or the Cups Beat. Or the Cups Song. Or that bit in the Hollywood film Pitch Perfect where the Anna Kendrick character auditions for a singing group by performing a bluesy, folksy song accompanied only by a plastic beaker.
Anyway, back at the play session, I asked Jane what she was doing. With help from my smartphone and YouTube, she quickly brought me up-to-speed on the Cups phenomenon.
That evening I told my teenage daughter what had happened. She couldn't believe I had not come across the routine, saying “dad, everyone knows about the Cups Song.” She also said that of course she knew the moves. So she helped me perfect the routine. As a result of which I learnt the following:
- It is not that easy. Just to master the cup moves needs good fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, and a sense of rhythm. It took me at least 30 minutes of focused practice (though I dare say many children would be faster). Singing along to your own routine is harder, as the melody is off-beat. I couldn’t crack it, though my daughter did after another hour or so of practice.
- It is fun. Mastery gives a real sense of satisfaction (try it!) and once you have got it, the routine has an addictive quality that may leave you seeking out suitably sized objects in cafés and bars.
I thought it was unlikely that Anna Kendrick had invented the routine out of nowhere. Wikipedia took me to a Washington Post story from last summer that only added to my sense of being way behind the curve.
But some questions remained. How popular is the game? Who plays it, and how far has it spread? How accurate is the Washington Post version of its history? I turned to the ‘childlore’ academic listserv, and found out the following:
- According to this online account, the cup routine goes back to at least 1987 (in the 1990s it was a common activity amongst American summer camp groups). The song (as performed by Kendrick) goes back even further, to the 1920s if not before.
- While Pitch Perfect was the key to the routine’s global spread, the process had been unfolding for several years before the film’s 2012 release. Several instructional videos had been uploaded to YouTube by early 2008.
- By 2011-2012, some online versions had become so popular (notably one by Indiana teenager Anna Burden) that Kendrick picked up on the song and made the case for its inclusion in the movie.
- In its current form, the game has spread literally around the world (I heard recent reports from Sheffield and Bradford, and also from Sydney, Melbourne and New Zealand) and has been reworked in hundreds of forms (as a quick YouTube search will confirm).
- The game has proved popular in secondary/high schools as well as primary/elementary schools – an intriguing finding, as historically clapping and rhyming games were very much the pursuit of younger school children.
- The game appears to be more popular with girls than boys (like a lot of clapping and rhyming games). However, boys are familiar with it too. To quote Australian researcher Athena Lill (whose PhD is exploring the topic) “the boys all know it - they just don't play it openly… common amongst the boys was a desire to subvert the game by retaining the rhythm but adding in different body percussion instead of using a cup.”
What is also intriguing is how, despite its global popularity, the game has been so invisible to so many grown-ups. Just two days after I first came across it, I heard presenters on the popular BBC Radio 4 programme Saturday Live, mourning the death of children’s culture of playground games, songs and rhymes, and blaming this in part on screens and digital technology.
How wrong could they be? The story of Cups shows that children’s culture is alive and well - and perhaps in better shape than I thought when I wrote this post on traditional games a couple of years ago. (Peter and Iona Opie, the world's pre-eminent scholars of children's folklore, would not have been at all surprised at this.)
What is more new media and digital technology, far from threatening its extinction, are now integral to its evolution, as Steve Roud notes in The Lore of the Playground (his 2011 Opies-inspired compendium). As Prof Kathryn Marsh of the University of Sydney Conservatorium of Music told me: “children use the media as a source of inspiration, rather than having it dampen their enthusiasm for play.”
As I write, I suspect that the Cups Game is already fading from the world's playgrounds. I wonder what the next expression of children's culture will be. And I wonder if the adults around them will notice.
Update 18 Feb 2014: the game is also sweeping France, according to a January 2014 article in the French language Huffington Post
(hat-tip to Andy Arleo).
Notes and acknowledgements
Children’s names have been altered. Thanks to Julia Bishop, Steve Roud, Prof Kathryn Marsh, Athena Lill, Mavis Curtis, Gareth Whitaker, Anna Beresin and Janice Ackerley from the Childlore listserv for their comments, pointers and anecdotes. Thanks too to Play Association Tower Hamlets for letting me volunteer at some of their play sessions.