You've probably seen them somewhere.
Maybe you've seen the Nike commercial where the hotass French guy (wearing Nikes, of course) eludes a chicken chasing him through the streets of Paris by scaling walls and leaping from rooftops.
Or maybe you've seen the 2002 film Yamakasi written by Luc Besson, where seven similarly agile lads scramble up high-rises and commit Robin-Hood-style burglaries (stealing from the rich for the poor) with the help of their dexterity.
Or, perhaps you've seen small groups of guys leapfrogging over park benches and hurdling from heights in the Pearl District.
Whatever your exposure, it's called Parkour (an abbreviation of "le parcours d'obstacles"—obstacle course in French). It's not just a sport, it's a discipline, a philosophy, "a movement about movement." And when it's done well, it looks fucking rad.
L' HISTORIQUE ET LE PHILOSOPHIE DE PARCOURS
Sebastien Foucan and David Belle, childhood friends in Paris, are credited with formulating the discipline in 1987. Both athletic, the men decided to make simple trips to the grocery store more challenging. Foucan (known to insiders as simply "Seb") is quoted as saying, "Walking is a wasted opportunity. What you need is a more imaginative approach to propelling yourself along the street."
An imaginative approach is necessary 'cuz it ain't just for play. Foucan believes deeply in the Parkour philosophy ("Nobody ever invents anything—you're inspired, and sometimes you can improve.") and finds it crucial for other traceurs (as they're called) to think similarly. Part of Parkour is self-reflection. Foucan refers to it as "evolution of the mind" and "following your own path." Though discovering one's own rhythm is important, so is a sense of collaboration.
A traceur needs his homies—and not just for support and camaraderie. Fellow traceurs cooperate on investigative runs. They can also dissuade an ambitious runner from attempting a stunt that will most certainly break his fucking head. Ambition is good, but grandstanding is missing the point.
Fluidity is favored over flashiness. Though it may be tempting to show off your skills (especially if there are chicks around), "the flow" is the key. Parkour (or "freeflow" or "free-running") has been likened to the movement of water as it flows over and around obstacles it encounters. With the catlike leaps and inhuman balance involved, feline comparisons are also prevalent.
Of course, catapulting from rooftops and climbing three-story walls with sneakers as your only tool can be dangerous. And it's not easy—but that's part of the fun. Nonetheless, even Foucan had to start small—as you should too. It goes without saying that you need to warm up a bit before running (even skilled traceurs do), but some basic moves are necessary to master before putting a run together.
Foucan has begun training camps in the UK and France for learning Parkour basics. Much like gymnastics training, the camps teach basic leaps, landings, rolling, vaulting, balancing, and rail precision. Although the "sport" is extremely low-maintenance (it can be done in almost any locale—urban or rural—and the only requirement is sturdy sneakers), preparation is crucial for the budding traceur. Otherwise, loss of limb is likely.
Foucan's Parkour website (www.parkour.com) is a good place to start for how-to instruction. Naturally, there are variations on basic Parkour movements. Much of the beauty of the discipline is that no two people practice in the same manner. Each runner brings his/her own techniques to the discipline. After all, it is intended as a means of self-expression. Ideally, the inherent goals of Parkour reach beyond shocking the dunderheads down the block and earning product endorsements. A development of confidence and conquest of fears is an integral part of the philosophy. Foucan intends for the mindset to extend to a runner's daily life.
A VELOSOPHY OF LIFE IN PDX
On a weekday afternoon around sundown, some kids are scaling a 10-foot wall and attracting some slack-jawed passersby around the Oregon Zoo's parking lot. One woman, after watching a few boys succeed in climbing the wall after one jump, cries out to no one in particular, "Why are they doing that?" It's a question this group hears as often as, "Take the fucking stairs!" Jessica, one of the free-runners, doesn't miss a beat: "Because it's cheaper than getting a skateboard!"
These kids on the wall are Velosophy, the Portland-area Parkour troupe. Organizing meetings and practices since early spring, Velosophy is still new, but not fledgling. There are around 30 members, most in their early 20s, and they meet at least once a week. At the practice I attended, there were 12 present—including some first-timers. Some began after seeing Parkour on Ripley's Believe It or Not!; some cite the Nike commercial as their initial inspiration. Jessica got into it through her boyfriend, Brett, the club's organizer.
Evident from the three women at the practice, Parkour is not just a cock-sport. "It doesn't have to be," Jessica explains, "I can understand how it can be intimidating with the vaults and the rolls, but girls can be great at it." I wonder if women also have an easier time achieving the necessary state of mind than men, who are often out to impress.
These local traceurs, though, seem to have more in mind than blowing off a little testosterone. Foucan has a concept he believes is crucial to Parkour: "No violence, no competition, no chiefs." There really is none of that noticeable in Velosophy. The more skilled runners seem eager to train rookies and always encourage their mates.
So, when they run, do they run together or solo? Tyson, one of the more seasoned runners explains, "It depends on the location. Most often we just meet to drill moves and scope the area together. When you're running solo, you've got to get over the fear. If you can do that by yourself without trying to impress anyone, then you can become a lot better, a lot faster."
Fellow traceur Jamison continues, "When running alone, it tends to be easier to get into the fluid state of consciousness. If you have other people, you have to be in tune with what they're going to do."
I was also curious about the comparisons to cats and flowing water. I approached Jessica, looking very catlike as she slinked atop a thin railing. Did she feel like a cat? "Not really—cats are more graceful. I have an equestrian background, so, with all the natural obstacles, I feel like I'm on a horse—without the horse." She pauses. "Or maybe more like a monkey."
When I ask Jamison, he adds, "I feel more like a kid. Everyone has their own idea what Parkour is. For me, it's flow... that state of mind. It's an endorphin rush."
Vance, the assistant organizer, explains, "Yeah, we all come from different backgrounds and learn how to approach the obstacles differently. We all understand it the same way, though, even though we can't describe it."
It is hard to describe. While writing this article, I occasionally mentioned Parkour to my friends and was met with blank stares. Then I found that I couldn't do Parkour justice. "It's like skateboarding without the skateboard," I tried to explain, "You know, jumping from rooftop to rooftop and surmounting high walls by alternately ricocheting between them." Alternately ricocheting? That phrase, though ridiculous, is somewhat fitting.
Now that I've finished the article, I still fear it may not be clear to some readers what Parkour is. Again, it's a lot of things. It's play, it's a state of mind, an innovative way to go to work, a lifestyle. To say it holds some "je ne sais quoi" may be "apropos."
I recommend Besson's film Yamikasi, in which he calls his free-runners "modern-day samurai." The plot itself is cloying as shit, but the action scenes are worth watching, particularly one in which they elude two watchdogs by repeatedly defying gravity.
For enthusiasts (and also for the curious), check out Velosophy's website. The group intends to start instructional workshops like those Foucan started in Europe, and hopes to build their membership. For those still in the dark about this phenomenon, wait a few years. Its burgeoning popularity suggests that the next big sport may be about to come bounding through the city.
www.parkour.com—Sebastien Foucan's main site on Parkour
velosophy.us—An informational site on Velosophy, Portland's Parkour group
www.urbanfreeflow.com—A very informative site based in the UK covering international Parkour goings-on