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Finding Freedom

If you were more powerful than a locomotive and you could leap tall buildings with a single bound, you would no doubt be a superhero.  The closest you may get to accomplish such feats in this lifetime is by mastering the art of parkour.

Parkour is an athletic discipline in which you move quickly and fluidly through an area, typically an urban one, and surmount obstacles such as walls and rails, and leap across open spaces including those between buildings.  Sounds exciting, yes?  But that’s hardly a complete definition of what parkour really is; true parkour is an art form that requires one to develop a proper state of mind – one that is adept at not only overcoming physical barriers, but also mental and emotional obstacles.  Parkour affords its practitioners an outlet for expression, an opportunity for freedom and the chance to really feel alive.  The discipline aims to serve as a means of reclaiming what it means to be human beings and to retrain our bodies and minds to interact with our physical world in a way that we actually should have learned when we were infants.

Parkour was born out of military obstacle course training in France and adapted to be suitable for civilians living in the city.  As an urban activity, it’s inherently non-competitive and purists of the discipline aim to keep that way.  A man who practices parkour is called a traceur and woman who practices is called a traceuse.  Any able-bodied individual can participate in parkour and the only equipment required is a good pair of sneakers.  There are no rules or regulations to parkour and the range of movement a traceur or traceuse is allowed is only limited by their imagination.  Though parkour is a celebration of the individual’s journey, practitioners have developed thriving communities of like-minded individuals who support and motivate each other to achieve their best.

Parkour is now a global phenomenon that never would have existed without the vision and forward-thinking mindsets of some key traceurs.

Fathers of Parkour

In the early 1900’s, French naval officer George Hebert was stationed on the Caribbean island of St. Pierre in Martinique.  It was his eye-opening experience here that would eventually set the stage for the birth of parkour.

Observing the local islanders in their daily lives, Hebert noticed that their level of physical fitness was quite impressive and that it wasn’t as a result of physical training; they built their bodies simply by living naturally active lives.  Hebert further studied the extraordinary fitness levels of certain indigenous people in parts of Africa.  They too had come into their physical abilities simply by living naturally.  From his observations, he developed his own ethos and coined his own motto: être fort pour être utile (“be strong to be useful”).  Hebert believed that physical prowess should be combined with a positive mental attitude that contributes to the greater good of society.  He developed a physical fitness program where the participant would engage in a natural activity, not a competition, and would need to interact with a course – a parcour.  The idea was that the course didn’t have any rules, but rather it required critical thinking skills and spontaneity from the participant.  Hebert was likely the first advocate of this kind of training and if he was considered the grandfather of parkour, then the fathers of the discipline were father and son Raymond and David Belle.

Raymond Belle was a French national, born in Vietnam, who gained exposure to Hebert’s physical training methods while serving in the French military.  He developed his mental and physical strength through an obstacle course Hebert developed for the military – parcours du combatant.  His son David Belle was heavily influenced by both his grandfather, a soldier who told him heroic stories of combat, and his father, who introduced him to Hebert’s methods of physical training.  In his late teens, David moved to a commune known as Lisses in a suburb of Paris; it was in this commune, which features a climbing structure known as Dame Du Lac in the center of the local park, where David met like-minded individuals who wanted to train.  Between David, Yann Hnautra, Chu Belle, Laurent Piemontesi and a few other key figures, modern day parkour was born.  Together, they supported each other in developing innovative ways to overcome obstacles and advance the discipline of parkour.

The efforts of these strong-willed men resulted in nothing short of a global pop culture phenomenon.

Pop Culture Phenomenon

Watching someone engage in parkour has been said to resemble “someone fleeing for their life.”

Parkour “professionals” perform death-defying flips off buildings, frightening leaps over 100-foot drop gaps, and jump over obstacles as if they are taking an evening stroll in the park.  It is the excitement generated from watching this high-octane, high wow-factor discipline that has resulted in the world wholeheartedly embracing it.  In recent years, parkour has been featured in the Bond film Casino Royale, the Jump music video by Madonna, the video game Assassin’s Creed, among many other famous works.  One of the most significant ways that parkour has spread is through online videos that practitioners and fans enjoy sharing.  The best parkour videos have a tendency to go viral and each time a video is published that depicts a traceur performing a physical feat that pushes the limits of what is possible, the discipline advances even further.

Only time will tell how parkour will evolve in the future, but the discipline as a whole certainly does have some obstacles of its own to overcome.

Remaining Non-Competitive

As with all great art forms, the greatest challenge that parkour faces today is its ability to remain pure.  There are those who derive their thrills from the superficiality of wowing audiences with death defying leaps and jumps.  Those are very often the same individuals who lack respect for the traditions of parkour and who are striving to turn it into something it’s not meant to be: a competitive sport.  When parkour becomes more about one traceur or traceuse out-maneuvering or beating another than it is about expression, freedom and a sense of being alive, it’ll be time to hang up the sneakers and take up golf.