When a stoppable force meets an immovable object and ends up in the emergency room, that's physics. When the force instead does a backflip and lands on its feet? That's parkour.
The relatively nascent sport of "freerunning, " which emerged on city streets in France during the late 1980s, is a mashup of gymnastics, acrobatics and a think-on-the-fly, urban treasure hunt for new and more challenging obstacles. Like Hollywood wirework without the wires, parkour done well makes a strong case for the argument that gravity plays favorites.
If so, gravity has a mad crush on Dante Grazioli.
"Bet he can't do it again, " heckles a bystander good-naturedly, as the 22-year-old leverages for a standing backflip off the knee-high base of a statue outside the El Paso County Courthouse in Colorado Springs. It's after lunch on a Monday, but 65 degrees and sunshine mean plenty of Lookie-Lous.
Grazioli toes the edge, gives a quick glance over his left shoulder to reconfirm a clear landing spot and then falls backward. For a fraction of a second, it looks as though his body will go the catastrophic way of most bodies, but then he's a whirligig blur, aloft and cycling through the air. He nails the landing - for the fourth time - and deflects congratulations with a smile, bang-toss and mumbled thanks.
His response is similar when the attention comes bearing marching orders.
"We go places, we might get kicked out. Some security guys are fine with it. Some are worried about liability. Other ones are just mean and they're having a bad day and want to give you a bad day, too. It just kind of depends, " Grazioli says. "People are usually respectful, and we'll leave if they ask us to."
When the cityscape is your preferred workout space, things can get interesting fast - especially on a weekday. Walls, benches, monuments and railings are great fodder for a freerunner; bystanders and perambulators are environmental obstacles that are best avoided. Given that, Sundays are good days to train downtown. On weekdays, you've "just got to be a little careful, " Grazioli says.
If the fluid manner in which parkour practitioners pinball around looks familiar, it's because many feats are borrowed from and inspired by traditional gymnastics. Moves also might ring with those who've maneuvered a military-style obstacle course, from which the sport is thought to have evolved.
Those are only leaping-off points, though, says Chris Knott, owner and founder of Dunamis Accelerated Recovery and Performance in Colorado Springs. "Traditionally, gymnastics is about (what's done on) the floor. There are very specific skills and elements you master. Parkour is much more organic, free-flowing and artistic, " says Knott, whose appreciation of parkour was inspired in part by his experience as an exercise physiologist, working with some of the nation's top professional athletes.
Taught correctly and at the right age, parkour can be used to draw out and encourage the core elements of human movement. It also instills the building blocks of all safe - and optimal - physical training, such as understanding how the body absorbs and generates force, says Knott, whose center offers parkour training through a partnership with Apex Movement. The Boulder-based company was founded in 2006; it now operates a handful of facilities around the state and in Northern California and claims bragging rights as the first formal program teaching parkour in the Western Hemisphere.
"If I can get kids in an environment that's fun, but still moving and generating force correctly, I can build on that, " Knott says.
Expositions and competitions draw top athletes and the global parkour community, but stats and records remain largely anecdotal. "It's really hard to make an unbiased competition in parkour because it's more about style, " says 19-year-old Michael Lobato, who leads an introductory parkour class at Apex. "There's this artistic view of it. You take it and make it your own kind of thing."