Parkour vault box
A steady rain was falling from ominous, dark clouds over downtown last Friday, and the occasional thunderclap was so loud, the earth seemed to vibrate. But it was the first-annual We Jump the World Day, a worldwide celebration of parkour and freerunning, and the Memphis Parkour group wasn't about to let a little bad weather ruin their good times.
A planned parkour meetup outside Bass Pro Shops was moved at the last minute to a dry spot in a covered enclave behind Alfred's on Beale. It was there that I watched Kevin Hetzler run down a covered alley, scale a flight of stairs, use his hands to propel himself over a concrete wall, and then jump up to grab a stair railing that he proceeded to climb — all the while followed by his buddy Navii Heru filming the sequence with an iPhone camera on a selfie stick.
A few minutes later, 17-year-old Anna Holt, a life-long ballet dancer who told me she just started practicing parkour a couple months ago, hopped a stair railing, lifted herself up onto a wall, and then jumped off the wall into a front flip on the concrete below before landing gracefully on her feet. After the sequence was done, she grinned from ear to ear as her mother, who sat watching from a concrete bench, beamed with pride.
I stayed for more than a hour as Hetzler, Heru, Holt, and University of Memphis student Kenneth Shields took turn after turn demonstrating new ways to jump, swing, run, and vault over the architectural obstacles in their path. When I left to head back to the office, they were still going strong — rain be damned.click to enlarge
What Is It?
Parkour and freerunning — terms that may or may not be interchangeable depending on who you ask — are athletic disciplines that involve running, jumping, climbing, vaulting, swinging, rolling, flipping, or pretty much any movement used to get from one point to another.
Watching its practitioners (called traceurs) in action is akin to watching primates moving around in a jungle — hopping over brush, using their hands to propel them over logs, swinging from branches, doing whatever it takes to move over obstacles with grace and speed.
The parkour scene exploded in the U.K. back in the early-2000s, and it caught on in the U.S. soon after. But the parkour scene in Memphis didn't emerge until a few years ago, mostly as a sort of underground pastime for athletic males in their late teens and mid-20s. But now, thanks to the efforts of a few Memphis parkour enthusiasts, the art is moving to the mainstream, attracting kids as young as 3 and adults of all ages to a series of classes hosted weekly at Co-Motion Studio in Crosstown. Co-Motion parkour coach/Memphis Parkour member Jonathan McCarver has seen such success that he's planning to open a dedicated parkour gym near the airport this summer.
"I see a big boom for Memphis Parkour this year, at least by the end of the year. Memphis Parkour has been around about seven years, but it's really just now breaking into the scene, " says Hetzler, a 27-year-old traceur who helps coach both the teen and all-ages classes at Co-Motion.click to enlarge
- Hang on — classes at Co-Motion Studio include Parkour for Everyone, Sundays 1-2 p.m.; Low Impact Parkour, Sundays 2:15-3:15 p.m.; and Parkour Skills (13+), Tuesdays 6:30-7:30 p.m. Sign up at comotionmemphis.com.
The French Connection
Parkour's roots trace back to 1902, when French naval officer Lieutenant Georges Hébert rescued more than 700 people from an erupting volcano on the Caribbean island of Martinique. Hébert was inspired by watching the survivors move — some successfully and some not so much — through obstacles in their path. The experience caused the well-traveled Frenchman to become interested in the physical development and movement skills of the indigenous people he'd seen in Africa and elsewhere.
He drew on those movements to create a military training discipline that using running, climbing, and man-made obstacle courses to recreate a natural environment. He dubbed the discipline "the natural method, " and it eventually became the basis for French military training. French soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam used the style to develop what they called parcours du combattant, meaning "the path of the warrior."
In the early 1980s, former French special forces soldier Raymond Belle, who had trained under that style, passed it on to his son David, who was already training in gymnastics. David and his best friend Sébastien Foucan used those skills to create the modern discipline of parkour, which, in a nutshell, simply meant getting from point A to point B — over, under, and through obstacles in one's path — in the most efficient way possible.
They called its practitioners traceurs and started a parkour group called the Yamakasi. The Yamakasi style was featured in a 2001 French film of the same name, and the movement exploded in Europe.
"It took a long time to make it to the States, but it flourished all over Europe, " McCarver says.
Foucan eventually split from the traditional parkour style by adding flips and wall spins — moves that may not be the most efficient way from one point to another but still look really cool. Remember the famous scene in 2006's Casino Royale where James Bond chases the bad guy through a construction site — flipping, running, and eventually climbing and balancing on a beam hundreds of feet in the air? That bad guy was played by Foucan.click to enlarge
While it was originally developed as a military tactic, these days, parkour is more about fun than military prowess.
"Historically, you could say that parkour is more tied to functional capabilities, but that doesn't matter anymore. Everyone is doing it to have fun, " McCarver says. "It encompasses all of the arts of movement that are just moving your body through your environment. It's broad and it's vague, and that's what makes it interesting."
There are no rules in parkour or freerunning, which sets it apart from traditional gymnastics, an art that utilizes specific equipment in a specific way. And although there are parkour competitions these days, it wasn't really intended as a competitive sport.
"Competitions are less in the spirit of parkour. People tend to associate it with things like American Ninja Warrior, and it has strong crossover, but that's not really parkour training, " McCarver says.