Parkour, the art of displacement, or freerunning—whatever the name, this new discipline born in the Paris suburbs is rapidly being adopted by people throughout the world. Not satisfied to suffer through urban life, these athletic artists or artistic athletes want to thrive in it, all the while earning dignity by daringly reappropriating three fundamental motor skills: running, jumping, and climbing. Vincent Thibault explores the philosophical and spiritual aspects of the art of movement and offers ideas on health, sports, urban living, and the relationship between the body and the environment. Reflecting on the culture of effort, he also avoids the misguided notion that depicts parkour as just another of those elitist extreme sports, instead providing a thoughtful, lyrical adventure into martial arts and chivalry in an urban setting.
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About the Author
Vincent Thibault is the cofounder of the Académie québécoise d'art du déplacement (Quebec Parkour Academy) and the first Quebecer to be a certified instructor in the discipline, for which he trained in France and the United States. He is in close contact with some of the world authorities in parkour, also called freerunning, and is the author of a two collections of short stories, two novels, and two books on philosophy and spirituality. Casey Roberts is a Montreal literary translator originally from the United States and the recipient of a John Glassco Prize awarded by the Canadian Literary Translators Association. He lives in Montreal, Quebec.
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Parkour and the Art du déplacement
Strength, Dignity, Community Montréal
By Vincent Thibault, Casey Roberts
Baraka BooksCopyright © 2012 Les Éditions du Septentrion
All rights reserved.
As your Idea's clear, or else obscure, Th' Expression follows perfect, or impure
Nicolas Boileau, The Art of Poetry
You're in a city, in an insignificant little space you've seen a thousand times. A small downtown park, a traffic median, a suburban atoll. A concrete forest or a granite beach. You go past it every day on the way home from work, the bus stop is only a few steps further. You go up and down the steps. When you see a tourist delightedly snapping photos, you wonder why. It's just city hall, it's only the post office. The grey annex to a parking structure, the sorry entrance to a non-place, a deserted space that only exists so you can get to another space, perhaps nothing more than a passageway, in any case not a destination in and of itself. Something that punctuates your everyday life without leaving a trace. A bit like the clock you glance at a hundred times a day: who needs to know how it works?
One day you encounter a band of urban hominids. A little earlier and you'd have seen them jogging, doing push-ups, practicing the nuances of moving elbows, knees and hips. Warming up, slowly. But now they're gliding, in full flight. They run and leap over a railing with the utmost flexibility, skillfully maneuver up a wall, drop down gracefully and roll on the ground. One of them climbs up the stairs on all fours and then crawls down backwards, his muscular shoulders rippling in the sun. A girl decides to take the ramp: she walks with a sense of balance and assurance you'd expect from a circus tightrope walker. Or maybe a cat. It makes you aware of your animal instincts ... of something primal.
The young people are intently focused on what they're doing, smiling from time to time at the encouraging bystanders watching them. Two people walking by think they have chanced upon a performance but quickly realize their mistake: the athletic parkour artists practice the same move five or twenty times over. They're training, learning.
It reminds you of a movie chase scene you've seen a thousand times. Crooks and cops, spies and assassins, sprinting and leaping from rooftop to rooftop, exciting, but also disturbing. Is this life imitating art? You kind of hope that they're not playing Spiderman and planning to climb up the sides of that huge office building. Intrigued, you start talking to one of the young participants who's guzzling a bottle of water: he tells you that they are practicing parkour, l'art du déplacement, a discipline where one learns to master three basic skills — running, jumping, and climbing — in all their variants, drawing on the urban environment and the objects within it as inspiration, stage, set, and props. He seems to be able to read your mind: you're obviously not the first person he's seen react with anxiety to what could be seen as a risky and extreme art form. He references the broader culture: action movies are filled with edgy car chases and epic battles of unbelievable violence, but that doesn't mean we can drive without a license or that going to a dojo to study martial arts doesn't also confer health benefits.
The metaphor is pleasing. Your eyes are drawn to the background: a parkour artist has just succeeded at doing something that doesn't seem that difficult mechanically, but he has done it with a remarkable degree of precision and grace, with unusual control. He takes two running steps and then jumps, landing silently with both feet on the edge of the sidewalk. He does it again and again.
And suddenly, you want to try it yourself! The art of moving from one place to another? At first glance, it just seemed like some young people acting weird, but in fact. ...
* * *
You might have noticed that the title of this chapter, Definitions, is plural. Words enter our vocabulary and derive their meaning from the way they are used by large numbers of people. However, since parkour is a relatively young discipline, there is not always agreement on exact definitions, or even on what language to use. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, since problems can arise when we take ourselves too seriously and we must always guard against becoming too rigid in our thinking. But even though an approach that maintains a healthy mistrust of crystallized ideas can be attractive, it would at the same time be absurd to engage in any kind of practice without really knowing what it was. At the very least, we need to be able to explain to our interested friends what are the elements of a workout that can quickly become so visceral.
I hope to share in this book my personal definition of parkour, l'art du déplacement; other practitioners have their own definitions and ways of expressing themselves.
* * *
Various disciplines aim to develop our humanity. This purpose is perhaps implied in any artistic endeavour. The martial artist, actor, painter and sculptor share the search for what it means to be truly human; they each wish to sharpen their awareness and to strengthen and refine their understanding of the world. These goals are pretty universal and are shared by everyone who is interested in the meaning of life, whether they be scientists, philosophers or politicians. The difference may be that one of the main resources of the artist is creativity. Creativity — and we will come back to this — is not a goal in and of itself (in the long run, nothing is created just to create, as if we were only interested in production),it is a process of development, a conveyor of meaning.
Countless are the reasons and ways to grow, and none of us is in a position to judge the true motivations of other people.
Parkour, which is both a sport and an art, is no exception: a person might get involved for various reasons, and the benefits to be derived are varied. The best analogy seems to be with martial arts: some people train for self-defense, others to fight (something different); some are looking for health and inner harmony; others see it as a way to express themselves and particularly appreciate the aesthetic. There are still other reasons to train in martial arts, and perhaps it is precisely this diversity that raises this discipline to the level of an art and sets it apart from combat sports. One may train in kick-boxing for the competition, or even for health (as long as you don't take too many hits to the head ... but admittedly, the workouts are very demanding). The fact that kick-boxing is a combat sport and not a martial art does not make it an inferior discipline or somehow less interesting, only different.
In fact, there is a wide range of reasons why someone might be attracted by the martial arts. In early adolescence, I had a tendency to look down on people who put everything they had into the competitive kind of training imposed by some contemporary schools of wushu. Their movements were impressive, imbued with a surprising agility, however, in my mind, they valued aesthetics over efficiency. But even if that were the case, why should I have let that bother me? Maybe it was just their way of growing. I certainly don't claim to know their deepest motivations. Sometimes we believe we can see into the heart of another person, only to find out we're just looking in a mirror that is reflecting back our own doubts and fears.
A similar perspective could be applied to parkour. Some people are initially attracted by the health benefits offered by any balanced training program: rather than building up isolated muscles, parkour conditioning adopts a holistic view of the human body. The exercises are performed to keep the functional anatomy and everything that enables us to fully enjoy the world around us in good shape. The physical preparation takes into account all the muscle groups, tendons, and ligaments, and the healthy relationship that everyone is entitled to have with their own anatomy. This includes their physiology, respiratory system and cardiovascular health; the bone structure and the ways that the impact of certain movements on joints can be reduced (i.e., the precise way of terminating a jump), sense of balance, proprioception, etc.
People also train in parkour for pragmatic reasons: one partial definition of the discipline is to go from point A to point B in the most efficient way (the most efficient, meaning fastest, but also the safest, and if possible, by using less energy). This can definitely come in handy in an emergency. It's not desirable to break a few bones jumping out of a burning building. Just knowing how to "recover" from a serious fall can be, in itself, a very worthwhile skill. Learning how to climb a low wall can also be useful. But training in parkour goes even further, as we have seen. We not only do it to increase our muscle power, but also our flexibility, agility, coordination, sense of balance and to learn to adapt to the environment, regardless of its complexity. The parkour athlete is able to take advantage of ramps and barriers, walls and rocks, façades and railings — and any other supports, surfaces or obstacles he or she encounters. The possible movements and techniques are unlimited.
Having unlimited possibilities does not mean that there are no fundamentals to learn; a certain level of theoretical and practical knowledge is indispensable. This consists of a series of movements that can be broken down and adapted as required (we will see later that adaptability is a key concept). Whether we want to write a novel, essay, travelogue or a children's story, we must first learn to write; we must master spelling, grammar and composition, and then it's up to us how bold or creative we become. This little book is not really a primer in technique, and it's not a way to learn how to perform movements, but a short list of basic techniques seems relevant, at least to situate the reader who has not had any experience in parkour. Experienced readers may wish to skip over this paragraph — with a monkey vault or a precision jump.
To start with, there is the one- or two-handed vault (passement), which involves moving past an obstacle (wall, enclosure, table, rock, etc.) that is generally lower than the shoulders of the practitioner. There are a variety of vaults, to gain height, length or speed, and how to perform one is a factor of the entry or exit angle, the proximity of the obstacle, the type of surface, the possibility of placing both hands on the obstacle, the need to get the whole body past it (as in the case where one "fits" between two posts), the presence or absence of a second obstacle with which you can sequence another movement, etc. A wall that is too high to get over with a regular vault is spontaneously climbed using a wall run (passe-muraille); you build up some momentum, plant one foot on the wall, gain some speed and height, and use your hands to catch the ridge or the ledge. A tic-tac is when you support yourself by putting your foot on an object and push off of it to change direction or to vault over another obstacle. There is also the arm jump (saut de bras), where you "hang," usually vertically, by placing your hands on a flat surface (like the top of a brick wall) or else cling (for example, to a post or guard-rail), and touch your feet to the lower part of the obstacle so that your legs can absorb the impact. Precision jumps (sauts de précision) are technical jumps where the goal is to land on a precise surface, usually with your two feet together; running jumps (sauts de détente), are performed with a lot of energy and engage the whole body, enabling you to cover the greatest distances. Drops (sauts de fond) are made from a significant height (sometimes two meters or more) and are usually followed by a roll (roulade), a basic movement that is much more technical than it looks, enabling you to redirect your energy and thereby reduce the impact that otherwise would be absorbed by the body. Some movements involve balance (walking on a narrow surface, advancing "on all fours" on a railing); others require the body to sway (starting, for example, from a position where you are suspended); others depend on fluidity or agility (like thrusting your legs and then the rest of your body through a narrow passage, or sliding under an obstacle).
The approximate definitions in this non-exhaustive list can provide a good idea of the basic techniques. Some practitioners, most of them artists, have come to appreciate parkour as an indispensable way to develop their creativity. Like urban gymnasts or dancers, they slightly vary their basic movements or find new ways of stringing them together, add twists and somersaults and seek elegance in movement. However, to get a good understanding of what parkour is, it's important to know what it is not: its essence is neither competition nor performance. Parkour is a complete discipline, not to be confused with what young people call tricking or, say, skateboarding or break dancing. That being said, the aesthetics are sometimes underestimated by beginners. Just look at the pioneers of the discipline in action to see how graceful their movements are. These artistic athletes know that elegance is often a reflection of the control of movement. The aesthetic is not the primary purpose of the practice, but comfort begets fluidity, which begets beauty. The pioneers respected the artistic aspect, since l'art du déplacement also involves spontaneity, freshness and audacity. Finally — and this is not always obvious to the uninitiated — some exercises that seem a priori to have only aesthetic value are very functional (to cite just one example, learning to sense your centre of gravity).
Other practitioners see their art as a means of personal fulfillment. They do it in order to face their fears; to get to know themselves more intimately; to improve in how they relate to other people; to get to the essence of things; to see that obstacles, of whatever kind, are an integral part of life and offer many opportunities for advancement. Parkour is not just a physical discipline, it helps to develop social skills and inner qualities. It leads to — and this book is in good part dedicated to — a sense of universal responsibility and a sense of ethics, a quiet confidence and joy, a practical wisdom. This is the spirit of chivalry in an urban setting. A spiritual path for the modern samurai, but in the service of the heart, not the dictatorship of the ego.
While some young people practice this discipline mainly for the thrill of it, by doing so they are missing the essence of it and tuning out the message of the pioneers. Contrary to the idea conveyed by the media, parkour is not an extreme or elitist sport. Frantically searching for new adrenaline rushes is probably the best way to seriously injure yourself. We will see later how these attitudes — along with those that accompany "feeling too full of yourself" — can be dangerous.
Survival, pleasure, training the mind ... it is essential to periodically review your motivations. For many people, the regular practice of parkour brings about a genuine inner transformation. Our motivations tend to evolve along with our practice, and we'll explore the full range of possibilities further on in the book. One person might be initially attracted by the thrill of the exciting sensations, but a few months later, find him or herself infused with beautiful serenity. Someone else used to get his kicks insulting cops and now tries to befriend them. With eyes finally opened on reality, a surprising sense of magic permeates everyday life.
Excerpted from Parkour and the Art du déplacement by Vincent Thibault, Casey Roberts. Copyright © 2012 Les Éditions du Septentrion. Excerpted by permission of Baraka Books.
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