June 29, 2007
Throwing Yourself Against the Wall
By ETHAN TODRAS-WHITEHILL
THE brick wall was only three feet high, but thick, capped by an unforgiving slab of concrete. “So you want to dive headfirst at it,” Cliff Kravit, 27, standing by my side, was explaining, his waist-length hair pulled back in a ponytail. “You have to commit to it. Trust yourself.”
To demonstrate the move, known as the Kong jump, Mr. Kravit’s fellow traceurs flew at the wall, and just when it looked as if they would snap a shin, rib or collarbone, slapped their hands on the far edge of the top of the wall and whipped their legs through like gorillas hurtling a pommel horse. They went over in succession, each landing beyond the wall and segueing fluidly into a roll on the grass. Silverton Nguyen, 21, the last to go, dispensed with the wall-slap altogether, diving gracefully over headfirst, as if the patch of grass were a swimming pool, and landing in midroll.
Mr. Kravit nodded. “So just like that,” he said. Then he laughed. “Well, not like Silverton.”
I was there to learn the basics of parkour, a French discipline of urban gymnastics with philosophical underpinnings. Earlier, Mr. Kravit had encouraged me to “learn how to not be confined by what so many people take as boundaries, and learn to move past those boundaries.”
I was finding this difficult. It was a wall. Walls are built to bound things, forcibly separate them, in this case this pathway from that patch of grass on the U.C.L.A. campus.
The crux of the parkour philosophy, Mr. Kravit explained, is usefulness and efficiency. A parkour practitioner, or traceur, trains his or her body and mind to be able to get from Point A to Point B in the quickest way possible in order to be useful to others.
“If someone is in a burning building, you’re not going to necessarily have to walk up all the stairs or take an elevator up,” Mr. Kravit said. “You might find a new way to get up and save that person.”
I looked at the wall again. I wasn’t sure how diving at it headfirst would make me more “useful,” except if I were taken an emergency room doctor in need of practice. Nevertheless, I took a deep breath, a running start, and dived.
Parkour, along with its cousin freerunning, is a burgeoning discipline in the United States, one popular among athletic young men with limitless energy and bodies like Gumby. It is like skateboarding without the board, a set of movements designed to allow the practitioner to pass fluidly and often beautifully through an urban environment without hindrance from obstacles like railings, walls and even parking garages.
It has attracted adherents through documentaries, YouTube videos, commercials, Madonna’s latest tour and the opening sequence of the recent James Bond movie, “Casino Royale,” which features Sébastien Foucan, the founder of freerunning, bouncing off cranes and rooftops like a SuperBall.
But although the online videos of men scaling drainage pipes and jumping from rooftop to rooftop make it seem like the latest extreme sport, its metaphysical component makes it more of a nascent martial art. Freerunning focuses on the feeling and aesthetic expression of freedom, thinking that can be traced to the transcendentalism of Rousseau and Thoreau. And parkour’s “utility,” of which Mr. Cliff and other traceurs speak, is akin to the Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham in its application of mathematical principles to everyday life.
Each movement and progression is scrutinized and evaluated according to its efficiency: sure, that Kong jump got me over the wall, but was it the fastest and easiest way over?
Cliff Kravit and Silverton Nguyen are members of PKCali, a loose-knit group of California traceurs. Like many of the grassroots organizations of its type that have formed over the last few years, PKCali offers a monthly indoor gym session to teach parkour techniques to those who wish to try it, without the ripped skin and bruises that inevitably result from doing it outdoors.
WHEN Mr. Kravit started the gym session two years ago, 10 to 15 people came each week. Now he breaks the program into basics and advanced classes, and the basics class alone has as many as 40 students.
After the Kong jumps, Mr. Kravit suggested I try a “cat leap” — a jump at, not over, a wall where the hands clasp the top of the wall at the same time that the feet slam into its face, like a feline bracing for a fall.
The team demonstrated by leaping nine feet over a fountain, but I confined myself to repeated short jumps at a gravelly concrete wall not much taller than I am. As I wiped the blood from my hands, Mr. Kravit showed me his own mitts, which were as calloused as a construction worker’s. The final move he showed me was a “tic-tac,” in which you run at a wall from one angle, jump, then kick it with one foot, sending yourself flying in another direction.
Although it seems like child’s play, the discipline has a life-changing impact for some practitioners. The youngest of the five that day was Devon Martinez, 16, who is almost 6 feet tall with long, powerful legs and matted, curly brown hair. When Devon started doing parkour at 13, he was faring poorly in school. But after a year or so of training and reading the philosophy behind the sport, he started to apply his training to his life.
“I would be like: ‘Here’s an assignment. If I don’t do it, I’m going to fail, and I’m useless,’ ” he said. “So I have to do it to be useful. I have to do it to get past the obstacle.” Now he does well in school and in parkour; the shoe company 510 recently asked to sponsor him, he said, because of his influence in the California parkour community.
Parkour developed into its current form through David Belle, a Frenchman whose father was a soldier and a firefighter. Growing up in Lisses, south of Paris, Mr. Belle met Sébastien Foucan, and together they developed their techniques and prowess to their current movie-ready form.
But over the years, Mr. Foucan and Mr. Belle disagreed over the philosophy behind parkour. Mr. Belle wanted the definition restricted to a useful form of motion, while such limits did not sit well with Mr. Foucan.
So they split, with Mr. Belle’s useful and efficient form remaining “parkour” — from the French word “parcours,” meaning “course” or “journey” — and Mr. Foucan’s artsier discipline becoming “freerunning.” Today, the two exist side by side, sometimes practiced by the same people or simply assumed to be the same thing. Small cults of personality have built up around the two men and their philosophies.
To the casual viewer, the main difference between freerunning and parkour is that freerunners will use techniques like flips that are beautiful but not necessarily useful. But beneath the surface, the philosophical focus is quite distinct.
“In freerunning, we use obstacles creatively to add to our movement or as launchpads to create new movement,” said Levi Meeuwenberg, 20, a freerunner from Traverse City, Mich., who, along with Mr. Foucan, recently toured with Madonna. “When you come upon obstacles in life — relationships, money troubles, whatnot — you can use the obstacle to your advantage, like learning a lesson from it.”
Both parkour and freerunning are, on some level, the art of doing all those things you wanted to as a 5-year-old on the playground that your mother wouldn’t let you do. But the brain of a conscious adult performs a more mature calculus, factoring in an adult body’s capabilities, adding up the consequences of messing up, and asking, “Do you really need to try this?” That calculus, that fear and the successful overcoming of both, can be a strong draw.
IN a patio behind one of the U.C.L.A. buildings, Devon stood at the edge of a fountain, contemplating the 10-foot gap between the ledge on which he was standing and the gravelly wall beyond it. The idea was to do a cat leap, jumping the gap and sticking to the wall beyond it like Spider-Man. Beneath the wall was a slim ledge, less than a foot wide, so if the jump failed, he would fall quite a way to the shallow pool of water below.
He walked through the approach several times, planning his steps. After exhaling deeply through puffed cheeks, he began his run, only to stop at the last second.
Finally, one of the group, familiar with Devon’s routine and knowing exactly which buttons to push, called out, “You can’t do it!” Devon spun around, sprinted straight for the gap and leapt it, his hands and shoes scraping as they caught the wall beyond. Continuing the motion, he pulled himself up onto the wall, turned and squatted.
Waggling a finger, breathless, grinning, he said, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!”
Parkour and freerunning groups have been formed in many urban areas across the country, and several offer gym or outdoor sessions for beginners.
LOS ANGELES The home page at www.pkcali.com has news of sessions in California, as well as monthly gym sessions, which are divided between beginner and advanced ($15; check Web site for dates).
BOULDER, COLO. Two gym sessions are conducted every Saturday by Colorado Parkour, one beginner and one advanced ($12 for drop-ins, $10 each for a 10-week course; www.coloradoparkour.com/classes.html).
CHICAGO The local parkour Web site, www.aeroparkour.com, is under construction, so make contact through the forums at www.chicagoparkour.net to join a weekend outdoor jam session for training.
WASHINGTON Primal Fitness, a parkour gym, offers a range of classes for different levels, schedules and ages (www.primal-fitness.com).
NEW YORK NYPK posts information on New York and New Jersey jam sessions on its Web site (www.nyparkour.com) and is also host to a forum for traceurs in the area.