Leap of faith (video)

Extreme sport parkour celebrates the Israeli urban jungle and a philosophy of physical moral refinement.

parkour 224. 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
parkour 224. 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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? 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." '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."