Is it a sport? A discipline? A philosophy?
According to its practitioners, parkour (or l’art du deplacement) is all of the above, incorporating running, jumping, climbing, vaulting, and balancing to discover efficient paths through any environment.
- PHOTOS COURTESY OF CCPK
Nipomo’s Craig Gibbons, a “traceur” (parkour practitioner) since 2009 and a student at Allan Hancock College, recently gave his best shot at a definition: “Parkour in its purest form is getting from Point A to Point B, traversing obstacles as quickly and efficiently as possible. Basically it’s an art of movement, any way of moving outside of the ordinary that’s more efficient or a faster way to get to another place. That’s parkour.”
Though he played water polo at Nipomo, sports were never really a priority for Gibbons, now 21, until he got into parkour. Immediately impressed after seeing it on TV, he studied a parkour group in Los Angeles for an ethnographic research paper, and the rest is history.
“I’d never seen anything like it before,” he said. “Something clicked for me, and I thought, ‘If I’m breathing and living, why am I not doing this?’”
Inspired to find locals to do parkour with, Gibbons formed a Meetup group, Central Coast Parkour (CCPK), to practice and train at parks and other environments from Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo. The group has since grown to more than 100 members, holding regular practice sessions every other Saturday and occasionally during the week.
Gibbons, whose favorite parkour movements are vaults and precision jumps onto walls or railings, admitted some people think his group is a little weird.
“People walk on sidewalks and go around rails and walls and they never look up,” he said. “We’re just bypassing all those little things that have been constructed by society to tell you where to go and how to go and in what way.”
David Belle, taking ideas from Parisian physical educator George Hébert, who developed the “Natural Method” of gymnastics, originated parkour—derived from the French word meaning “route”— in France in the 1980s. The activity slowly migrated from Europe to the United States, where it’s still largely unknown and misunderstood. However, parkour (also known as freerunning in this country) is expanding through online Meetup groups, and pockets of traceurs are scattered in populated areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Though there’s no national governing body or certification process for instructors yet, American parkour is slowly becoming more organized.
Santa Barbara’s James Ballantyne first encountered parkour while in London, and became a traceur as an alternative to the gym routine. Besides getting him in better shape, parkour has helped him reach his physical limits.
“It turned into an exploration of what I was capable of,” Ballantyne explained. “Always being ready to move, being able to push my fear limits, and getting up to 15 to 20 feet, and understanding the fear.”
For the past year, Ballantyne has been teaching parkour movements to children and adults in Santa Barbara and L.A. Most students come to him wanting to learn parkour after seeing videos of it on Youtube.
“You’re outside playing, you’re learning how to climb over objects properly, and there are a lot of games we can play,” he said. “There’s varying ideas on why people are doing it, but a lot of it is building confidence, understanding yourself, learning how to be mobile, and really getting back into shape.”
Ballantyne teaches a handful of basic techniques and fundamental moves, including the kong, cat leap, speed vault, fly monkey, and monkey walk. Like martial artists, Ballantyne said, traceurs gradually build up their capabilities over years of practice, conditioning their bodies to handle impact and stress.
“It’s a learning process,” he explained. “All the moves in general aren’t overly difficult to learn, but it’s really about the individual learning how comfortable they feel with moving over walls, rails, and all that.”
Much of the beginner training involves getting kids to land properly, so they don’t hurt their knees and hips. As with any outside activity, Ballantyne said, there’s a danger of injury in parkour, but the risks can be mitigated by training low to the ground until students are comfortable controlling their bodies before moving up to greater heights.
While traceurs say parkour is inherently non-competitive, in recent years cable channels like MTV and G4 have added freerunning competitions—a derivative of parkour incorporating flips and tricks—where traceurs are rated on style and technique. Such competitions have come under fire from purists who feel they encourage traceurs to push themselves too far, resulting in injury, and because it puts focus on competition, not the art.
“The bigger issue in the U.S. is that people look at it and hear about it and think everybody’s just jumping off buildings and doing these crazy stunts that have high risk,” Ballantyne said. “It’s just like any other discipline, where you’re not immediately from day one jumping off a 30-foot building.”
Traceurs are most commonly found at parks, gyms, and college campuses, although, Ballantyne said, colleges are increasingly cracking down for liability reasons. There’s a growing concern that the more popular parkour becomes, the harder it will get to find good spots.
According to Central Coast Parkour’s Gibbons, wherever his group goes, there’s always the possibility of being hassled by security guards or police.
“We’ll be climbing somewhere and people will be like, ‘You can’t be up there,’” Gibbons said. “Mostly people are afraid we’re going to get hurt and sue someone. That’s completely understandable. But our group tries to respect other people’s property, and if we break something we’re going to pay for it.”
But the confrontations and odd looks from some are worth the trouble. Besides influencing him to change his major to kinesiology, Gibbons said parkour has helped him mentally, building his confidence and providing a philosophy for tackling life’s problems.
“The discipline of it helps you train your mind as well as your body, so you can get past obstacles in your life, not just the obstacles when you’re out running or doing your thing,” he said.
According to Gibbons, parkour is something everybody can do, and he welcomes anyone to his group who’d like to give it a try.
“We have a body, we have two arms and two legs, and we have the ability to do things we’re not used to seeing or doing because of the way society has constructed the world around us,” Gibbons said. “If you have your body, use it, and keep moving.”
Jeremy Thomas is a staff writer for the Sun, New Times’ sister paper to the south. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.