Free to Move
Parkour lets you turn the urban landscape into your own playground.
By Violet Snow
November / December 2009
A young man leaps from a 10-foot-high retaining wall, landing on concrete. He absorbs the impact with a forward roll, which delivers him back onto his feet. Without a pause, he darts forward and vaults over a picnic table—lengthwise. He encounters a retaining wall attached to a building. He runs two steps up the building’s façade to propel himself over the wall, turning a flip on the way down.
These athletic feats are elements of parkour (“the way through”), also known as freerunning; the aim is to move through the landscape—usually in an urban setting that provides appropriate obstacles—as efficiently and rapidly as possible. The majority of practitioners, called traceurs or freerunners, are teenage boys. But classes are being developed for adults as a way of combining aerobic exercise with strength and agility training—and enjoying a break from the treadmill-and-weights routine at the gym.
“It’s about creativity and freedom,” says Tim Shieff, 21, of Derby, England. “I like it because you have no restrictions.” Shieff makes a living from competitions, shows and teaching. He and other traceurs have appeared on MTV and on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”
“Our motto is ‘Know obstacles, know freedom,’” says Victor Bevine, co-founder of the World Freerunning and Parkour Federation (WFPF, www.wfpf.com). “You learn to use obstacles in life as opportunities for growth and creativity.” He first heard about parkour in 2005, when it was a largely European phenomenon. “It reminded me of things I’d done as a kid. I was working with youth at risk, and I thought parkour would be a good way to give inner city kids a new perspective, an alternative to gangs.”
Legal issues rarely arise, according to Bevine. “Parkour athletes are often chased from the places they want to train,” he says, “but beyond that, since the ethos of the sport is to benefit one’s fellow man, there’s never any destruction of property.”
Parkour may sound like an injury waiting to happen, but Bevine says that isn’t so. “The injuries are few, most often a twisted ankle or sprained wrist. Compared with other extreme sports parkour is safer; a parkour athlete can go only so fast and no faster.” (If you’re past your teen years you should get a checkup first.)
Parkour originated with French naval officer Georges Hébert, who was impressed by the way African tribespeople moved through their environment. He devised a system of physical education based on natural movements that he later adapted to military training, using obstacle courses to build agility, strength, courage and self-confidence. In the 1990s, gymnast and martial artist David Belle developed parkour with friends based on obstacle-course skills he had learned from his father, a French soldier and firefighter.
Parkour continues to expand. In New York City’s Equinox Gym, students are practicing vaults, rolls, jumps and balance exercises under the eyes of Shieff and gym staff members. “This is our first week of parkour classes,” explains Lisa Wheeler, an Equinox trainer. “We’re about taking fitness out into life—we’re taking parkour out to parks all over the city.” Equinox has partnered with WFPF to develop classes in New York and Los Angeles in the effort to ease adults into the sport.
“I can’t walk down the street without climbing on stuff,” says Ashley Salter, another Equinox employee. “It’s empowering and confidence-building.” Wheeler adds, “It’s like going back to the playground.”—Violet Snow