D.C. Bocce Fans Put a Quasi-Healthful Spin on Happy Hour

By Vicky Hallett
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The time has come to stop mocking Washington's young professionals for acting like a bunch of elementary school kids -- and mock them instead for acting like gray-haired gentlemen with a fondness for red sauce.

Kickball may still be kicking around town, but these days the game with buzz is bocce. This ancestor of bowling got its first popularity boost from soldiers of ancient Rome tossing stones to fill the downtime between battles. Over the millennia, their descendants developed the game into a diversion ideal for lazy summer afternoons: Roll balls toward a small white target ball (the pallino, or sometimes pallina) while sipping chianti. Whoever gets closer wins.

But while it still has legions of devotees in Europe (and elsewhere around the globe), bocce's American fans have traditionally been of the old, male and Italian variety. And to witness a game outside a city's Little Italy neighborhood? Fuggettaboutit.

So you might have been surprised if you had accompanied me to Capitol Hill's Garfield Park a few weeks ago to see eight games occurring simultaneously.

"I need to assess the situation," Deb Stewart, 37, reported to her teammates (the Funky Cold Pallinas) as she stepped up for her turn, gripping a green ball. She stared ahead, assessed and released, knocking an opponent's ball out of position and claiming two points for the round.

She celebrated by high-fiving and butt-smacking with teammate Dave Rosenblum, 39, while performing hand gestures probably unknown to even the most expressive Sicilians.

Stewart, now a die-hard bocce-holic, had never even heard of the game before pals cajoled her into joining the booming D.C. Bocce League (http://www.dcbocce.com; registration for the summer season ends Monday). In five years, the group boasting the motto "Our balls are harder" has expanded from 50 players to nearly 1,000. And not a single one of them is an elderly Italian man, according to co-founder Sarah DeLucas. They range in age from 21 to 50, with the average in the late 20s.

The thrill of hobnobbing and postgame boozing undoubtedly accounts for some of those numbers, but a large part of the appeal lies in the sport's accessibility. "It's a game anybody can play," DeLucas says. "No one's going to yell at you that you didn't catch the ball."

And mastering the balls can do the body some good -- emphasis on the some. "The equipment is freaking heavy," noted DeLucas, who has the toned arms to prove it. (Gear for a four-person team, including pallino, comes to about 20 pounds.) Stewart took a swig of her beverage and joked that "it's definitely a workout of the liver." "You're standing in the sun, so Vitamin D," offered Katie Reidy, who's playing with the league for the first time this year.

Admittedly, crisscrossing the court and hurling a two-pound ball occasionally isn't exactly boot camp. But between heading to the fields to play (and then away to drink) and wandering around for an hour during the games, the movement starts to add up on a pedometer. "It gets us outside on weeknights having fun when otherwise we'd be sitting at home," said Mike Ferguson, 25, who has played for three years. "It's a physical happy hour. Well, a semi-physical happy hour."

Sounds smart to personal trainer Suzanne Reilley, whose "Recess" sessions in Meridian Hill Park cater to folks who prefer to work out with games rather than "exercises." They warm up by flinging a Frisbee, then move on to silly stuff like blob tag: When the person who is "it" taps someone else, they both become "it," so an ever-increasing arm-in-arm mass runs around to catch other players. "Regular lifting and running can get repetitive and serious. We have enough of that in our lives," she says of her approach. "We're just playing and letting go."

To adapt bocce to her purposes, Reilley would add cardio: Whichever team sprinted faster to collect its balls after each round would earn extra points -- and burn extra calories.

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