A leap of faith

This is crazy, absolutely crazy. Denis is perched
precariously on an overhang at least two stories off
the ground, and he is seriously contemplating jumping.
‘I’m not suicidal,’ he insists. And then he hurls
himself off the roof.

The first thing in Denis’s downward trajectory is a
metal railing a mere 10 centimeters wide, one floor
below. He lands on it with perfect balance – and then,
as if that weren’t tricky enough, immediately, and in
a single movement, jumps again onto the craggy
concrete slab one floor below that.

Down on the ground, sure enough, Denis’s body looks
nothing like the aftermath of a suicide.

‘On the contrary,’ he says with a grin, popping up,
unscathed, after landing with a roll that diverts the
force of impact, ‘I’m far more careful than the
average person.’

Denis’s display of ‘caution’ is an unextraordinary
example of parkour, an extreme sport/art that is
sweeping cities around the world. A quick tour of
amateur videos on the YouTube Web site reveals hordes
of dedicated devotees jumping off buildings in France,
England, the US, even Latvia – and, as Denis’s flying
leap off the Bialik School in Netanya proves, here
too.

Splitting hairs, aficionados differentiate between
parkour (derived from parcours du combattant, French
for obstacle course), as a purely practical
discipline, and free running, with its preference for
showy or artistic moves. But in both, the basic idea
is to travel from one point to another as efficiently
and quickly as possible, using just the human body’s
natural abilities. Overcoming obstacles in one’s way
requires practitioners to employ techniques taken or
derived from gymnastics, acrobatics and martial arts.
The combination demands fitness, skill and – copycats,
beware! – a whole lot of practice and forethought.

In an urban setting, the result is visually striking:
limber young men jumping over walls, contorting
themselves through railings, vaulting over benches and
even leaping from building to building a la The
Matrix. Unlike the movies, though, there are no
special effects in parkour. There is only the skill
and the bravado of kids in sweat pants and running
shoes.

Denis was first exposed to parkour when he saw
Yamakasi, a French action movie featuring a famous
troupe of urban gymnasts calling themselves traceurs.

‘Friends told me about this movie where people run
around and jump from one building to another, doing
all kinds of crazy stuff. I love action movies – I
have tons of Jackie Chan movies at home – so after I
saw this movie, I started looking up parkour on the
Internet. I started finding Web sites about parkour. I
understood that the guys in Yamakasi were not just
doing stunts, they were displaying a sport. I was
intrigued. I started getting into it, and I started
getting my friends into it. We would watch the movie
and go out to try to do the things we saw.’

He has been practicing parkour ever since, for almost
five years. It was through parkour that Denis met Yan,
a student of tae kwan do for the past eight years (‘I
was the national champion in 2005,’ he says with
pride) who says there is much more to parkour than
just an urban form of gymnastics.

‘The acrobatics element is the physical element, the
ability to physically overcome obstacles. But there is
a martial arts element that is the internal element,
the philosophical element,’ says Yan.

When Denis and Yan train together, they say, they
often find themselves on a rooftop somewhere, opening
up to each other and discussing the life lessons that
their stunts have taught them.

‘That’s the best,’ Yan says. ‘Then it’s really a
spiritual journey within yourself.’

Denis, 21, and Yan, 20, made aliya from the former
Soviet Union as young children and have grown up in a
run- down section of Netanya. Parkour, they insist,
has given them something much more significant than
just the thrill of completing a dangerous jump.

‘People often say to me, ‘Nu, you’re 21 years old.
When are you going to stop jumping off of buildings
already?!’ For me, though, parkour is a tool for
getting through life. It’s about overcoming your
fears. And that’s something that you encounter, not
just in extreme sport, but in everyday life. Through
parkour, you learn to be decisive.’

Before he got hooked on such daredevil feats, Denis
was an exceedingly shy and timid teen. ‘It was so
bad,’ he recalls, ‘that if I was at a store and I was
short-changed, I wouldn’t dare say anything. I didn’t
value myself at all.’

Minor interactions that people take for granted, the
young immigrant would avoid. Now, he’s studying
acrobatics at the Wingate Institute, the country’s
sports mecca, and earning his stripes in the stuntman
business – look for him in the movie that Adam Sandler
just filmed here, Don’t Mess With the Zarhan – and
he’s something of a local hero in the neighborhood,
where people recognize him as ‘one of those crazy
parkour guys.’

When they first started practicing, neighbors tried to
chase them away because they thought they were
dangerous. But now neighbors know the traceurs aren’t
interested in causing trouble, and the police give
them no problems either.

‘Also, after people saw us perform on TV, they started
treating us with respect. French tourists here in
Netanya see us practicing and they shout, ‘Yamakasi!
Way to go!”

PERFORMING PARKOUR moves requires practice and a
regular training regimen. But it’s impossible to
qualify parkour as a sport, as it has no rigid set of
rules, no points, no teams – no goal, really, other
than the fulfillment of one’s potential to navigate a
given terrain. There’s no formal hierarchy in parkour,
except the recognition of a practitioner’s prowess.
Nor is there any competitiveness, for that matter,
other than the desire to emulate the proficiency of
other traceurs.

Parkour challenges other conventional perceptions of
it in other ways, too. Although it defies the notion
of being limited by urban structures, it does not seek
to tear them down or to replace them with anything. In
a sense, it celebrates the urban jungle, as respect
for one’s environment is a central tenet of the
movement. The parkour crowd refuses to interact with
the city as everyone else does, but it stops short of
being a counterculture.

Credit that to the founders, who invested their art
with a spirit derived from a philosophy of physical,
mental and moral refinement. To the originators of
parkour, there is no sense in rivalry – not with one’s
environment, and not with one’s peers. With statements
like ‘our aim is to take our art to the world and make
people understand what it means to move,’ primary
founder David Belle gives parkour a decidedly esoteric
flair.

That, says Dvir Rozen, the 26-year-old leader of the
Israel Parkour Team, of which Denis and Yan are both
part, is what a lot of urban youth could use.

‘There are so many negative influences and temptations
out there – alcohol, drugs, etc. – so it’s great to
see kids being pulled away from negativity and toward
something positive, to something with purpose,’ he
says.

The IPT, which includes about half a dozen young men
from Netanya as well as another half-dozen from
coastal cities such as Tel Aviv, Ashdod and Rishon
Lezion, performs choreographed stunts for crowds every
few months. Recently they did a short film for Red
Bull in which they used parkour to twist, vault and
roll their way through Tel Aviv, from the Yarkon River
in the north to the Jaffa port in the south.

The team hopes that crowds drawn to parkour by the
exhibitions will learn to appreciate the art for more
than its ostentatious side.

‘You learn about your limitations… and then you
learn to break through those limitations,’ says Yan.
‘Once you overcome the physical difficulty of jumping
a certain distance, the only thing holding you back is
the fear of falling. And once you overcome that fear,
you can do anything.’

How many Israeli traceurs are there? That’s hard to
say. Rozen notes that students of parkour from as far
as Kiryat Shmona and Eilat use the team’s Web site
(www.parkour.co.il) as a forum to exchange ideas. Yan
estimates that a year or so ago, there were as many as
1,000 kids who claimed to be into parkour, but now
only a few hundred are actually committed.

‘It gets trendy for a while. People are always really
excited at the beginning because it looks really
cool,’ explains Denis. ‘But it’s harder than it looks.
And the ones who don’t take it seriously, the ones who
aren’t smart about it, start getting hurt. So they
give up pretty quickly. The ones who stay with it are
the ones who actually think.’

For parkour, which is dedicated to moving efficiently
through one’s environment, injury is anathema. One who
wishes to adhere to the tenets of parkour, then, must
ensure that he avoids injury.

‘After years of doing jumps, I’m not afraid anymore.
But that doesn’t mean I jump off things without giving
it any thought,’ Denis says. ‘I have to think about
landing the right way because if I don’t, I’ll damage
my body.’

At the Bialik School, where Denis and Yan have been
practicing their moves, a few of their IPT partners
join them and start leaping from a set of stairs
toward a concrete pillar several meters away.
Elementary schoolers look on, as amazed (and a little
bit frightened) as they can be expected to be. Then
two adults chance upon the scene and reveal the way
parkour still divides most observers.

‘Hey,’ says a broad-shouldered man in his mid-30s,
‘you’re those kids from the TV, the ones who do all
that jumping around! Way to go!’

Then a woman, a generation or more older than him,
comes ambling down the stairs on her way home. She
glances at the young men in their black IPT T-shirts,
measuring their steps as they launch themselves toward
the pillar. ‘Nu?’ she scolds. ‘You kids are still
doing that nonsense?’

The guys just smile a knowing smile, and keep hurling
themselves at their target. She wouldn’t understand,
now, would she?

(Box 1) The parkour paradox

‘Parkour seems to be motivated by using and adapting
to the urban environment in a way that escapes the
city while being part of it,’ says Michael Borer, a
sociologist at Furman University in South Carolina.

‘When you see these kids running through buildings,
and also away from buildings – it’s not contradictory,
it’s paradoxical. Urban life is extremely structured,
but it can be very chaotic, too. Parkour embodies that
paradox.’

Sticking with the subject of paradoxes, Borer
continues: ‘On one hand, it is a place-based activity;
it needs the physical urban environment. However, it’s
not confined to that space, because of electronic
media and the ability to have other people pick up on
it, as in the video sharing Web sites that are used to
display and compare moves. It’s a paradox between the
local and the global.’

It’s that mind-bending element that differentiates
parkour from the usual urban sports, according to
Reuben A. Buford May, associate professor of sociology
at Texas A & M University and author of Living Through
the Hoop.

‘For lots of the population, the urban vs rural
distinction fosters its own kind of athletic
competition. Here, basketball is a way for poor youths
and immigrants to move forward in society, partly
because it doesn’t require a lot of materials to do.

‘This activity, however, requires a higher level of
thinking about space. It’s not just a brick wall, for
someone doing parkour. You aren’t conquering
something, you’re becoming one with it. The flow is
part of the individual embedding himself within the
structure itself.’

That, May says, points to a class distinction in the
origin of the art.

‘Kids from poorer classes just think, ‘I play
basketball.’ But a person from a higher class is more
likely to see himself as part of his environment,’ he
says. ‘If we look at parkour as part of a culture, it
looks to me as if it was developed by someone who came
from a more stable environment. Notice that the
martial arts influence is not just in the moves
themselves but in the mind-body connection. That’s an
approach to sport that is not common to lower-class
urban kids.’

Anecdotally, at least, parkour has helped some of its
practitioners to overcome the hardships of urban life;
the philosophical aspects of parkour are internalized
as much by those traceurs who have struggled through
poorer childhoods as they are by those who have
enjoyed a cushier upbringing.

On an even deeper level, though, the parkour
revolution harks back to a primal need for children to
be imaginative and interactive with their environment
as they play.

‘In our world right now, there is very little
discretionary time for children, and there is way too
much programmed activity as opposed to the freedom to
do what they want. Boys find this freedom by just
going out in their teens and trying to break out from
a very boring set of environments and opportunities,’
explains Roger Hart, of the Children’s Environments
Research Group at the City University of New York.

It was reform-minded activists in Manhattan at the
turn of the 20th century, Hart notes, who insisted on
creating public spaces where children would be
encouraged to participate in structured play.

‘There was a real battle,’ he says, ‘between those
kids who were willing to play in the playgrounds and
those who resisted.’

Traceurs, then, are today’s version of the playground
rebels. ‘So in a way, this is about recreation in the
cities coming full circle, by having kids going back
to the streets. They are choosing their own style of
play, rather than someone straitjacketing them into
it.’

‘Urban culture,’ concludes Borer, ‘is about a
combination between what is handed down and what is
created. Parkour is another emergent activity in an
urban area, an adaptation. It’s fascinating.’

(Box 2) ‘The world is our playground’

If you’ve seen the latest James Bond film, Casino
Royale, you’ve seen the heart-pounding action of a
movement that is sweeping across the world’s big
cities. That’s the racing, climbing, kicking and
flipping performed by Sebastien Foucan as bad guy
Mollaka in the opening chase scene.

Foucan, who calls his art free running, describes it
as ‘my own expression of what I have been doing over
the past 18 years. Me and my friends were just playing
around, and we never stopped doing what we had done as
children. It became a lifestyle. We never saw it like,
‘Let’s create something.’ It developed very naturally.
As we matured, I started to give it a name and a
definition.’

Free running, the 33-year-old actor and dancer told
The Jerusalem Post, ‘is an art. It’s about freedom.
There are no restrictions. It is influenced a lot by
Asian philosophy; Bruce Lee influenced me a lot. When
I do a movie or a tour, it’s showing off. But the main
point is really just to develop yourself.’

Foucan was part of the high-flying action troupe
Yamakasi, the pioneering group from the suburbs of
Paris which brought parkour to the attention of the
public in 2001 with the movie Yamakasi. Since then,
the original members of Yamakasi have split up over
philosophical differences, but the urban gymnastics
art has spread to teens and 20-somethings all over the
world with the force of a kong vault.

‘It’s unbelievable to think that it started from
nothing, where people looked at us and thought we
would do nothing with our lives,’ Foucan said. ‘It has
grown and grown and grown… and we don’t have control
over it anymore.’

Like so many underground trends that begin to enter
the mainstream, l’art du deplacement, as it is known
in French, is undergoing changes as corporations try
to tap into its growing appeal.

‘Big companies have started to create competitions,’
Foucan noted, ‘but that’s not what it’s about. It’s
about developing yourself. I always try to be positive
and to encourage people to be positive. The attempt to
find out who is better is wrong.’

Foucan also cautions against neophytes attempting
dangerous moves they see in video clips.

‘Whenever I meet someone, I spread the message,’ he
said. ‘We try to show the good way and the safe way,
but it’s beyond our control now. When the kids try to
copy the difficult stuff, it’s crazy. Free running is
not about doing jumps to impress people… you have to
take your time.’

There is also, Foucan said, a misperception that free
running is solely an inner city pursuit.

‘People don’t know it’s not just for urban
environments,’ he said. ‘I used to practice
everywhere… The philosophy of free running is about
connecting your body, mind and spirit with your
environment. The world is our playground. And it’s a
perfect time for this movement.’

It’s a pretty good time for Foucan as well: He
followed up Casino Royale by showing his skills on
stage with Madonna during her Confessions tour, has
just finished another movie, is planning a teaching
tour and is working on a book.

How much longer can Foucan keep up the pace? And what
will he do as he gets older?

‘I will show people we can still move,’ he said with a
laugh. ‘Free running is like martial arts in that
there is no end until you die.’

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