Friday, July 1, 2011

Discovering Parkour

The subversive pleasure of parkour is gaining disciples all over the world, even here in Adelaide. Why has this French craze that treats the urban environment like a playground become so alluring?

Parkour isn’t just about climbing things. It’s a discipline, like martial arts, that began in Lisses on the outskirts of Paris in the early nineties. Parkour has now spawned thousands of independent communities worldwide. While some groups have been training for years, others are just being discovered as their videos emerge online. One such community, boasting some 50 members, exists right here in Adelaide.

Put simply, Parkour is using your body to get from A to B in the most efficient way possible. While that definition is ‘correct’ it does little to capture Parkour’s popular image of the superhuman, urban ninja. If you’ve seen a few action films over the past ten years, chances are you’ve seen some Parkour. Remember that bad guy who was a little too good at escaping through an urban environment? Parkour. But for the people who actually train in Parkour it’s something more authentic that becomes a part of their daily routine.

Every Sunday a group of thirty or so Parkour enthusiasts, or traceur, meet at the rotunda by the Torrens. Newcomers are taken through the basics by instructors while the more experienced members warm up on the concrete jungle gym that is The Adelaide Festival Centre. As the afternoon passes into the night the posse of shirtless, urban acrobats pull stunts that even experienced gymnasts wouldn’t dare attempt at any of their favourite spots around the city.

The group’s longest serving member and state representative of the Australian Parkour Association is Travis Ranson, aged 20. He explains that although Parkour has existed on Adelaide’s fringe for about five years, it’s now becoming more accepted and popular, “and that’s not a bad thing. There will always be some people who give it a try because it’s fashionable. They’re attracted by the image of it but they never last. You’ve got to love actually doing it. Luckily for us, it’s really easy to get into.”

But with its cool-sounding French name and underground status, Parkour has all the right ingredients to becoming the latest urban lifestyle accessory; a ticket to instant street cred. But the philosophy which forms the foundation of Parkour protects the discipline from becoming nothing more than a fad.

Every year the Australian Parkour Association knocks back sponsorship offers from the major soft drink labels who want to buy a piece of their cool. “You don’t need soft drinks or fancy equipment to do Parkour,” explains Travis. “That completely misses the point of what we’re about.”

So what is Parkour about? Well, it isn’t competitive so it’s not technically a sport, which helps it to retain that sense of play that’s become strangely absent from the world of professional sport. For those who want to compete there is “Free-Running”, an offshoot of Parkour that involves showy flips, championships and plenty of corporate merchandise. Parkour’s motto, “be strong to be useful,” rules this out.

“Flips look cool but they’re useless so they don’t come into Parkour,” explains Travis. “Parkour is about helping people, not beating them in competition. It’s about using your body to beat your own goals.”

For those who really get into Parkour it can begin to alter your perception of the urban environment. “It’s the sense of freedom it brings,” explains Travis. “People talk about “Parkour vision”. It’s when the city starts to look more like a playground than a restrictive place of work.”

That sense of identity sets traceurs apart and grants access to a global community that shares Parkour videos online. Watch a few of these videos and you begin to notice that each region develops its own techniques and style of movement.

Australian Parkour is on its way. “We’re really the first people to take it seriously in Adelaide so it’s encouraging to know that we’re breaking new ground. That’s one of the reasons we make the videos so we can look back and see how far we’ve come.”
It also gives newcomers something to aspire to. As a fresh batch of eager traceurs gather at the rotunda each week there’s a palpable sense of expectation that they’ll become urban ninjas in no time. In reality it takes years of training to build up the strength and technique required to pull off what the instructors can do.

Travis gets a lot of inquiries from parents who want to get their kids active and away from video games. While they’re always welcomed, Travis explains that kids don’t really need classes. “Kids have a way of naturally making up their own Parkour without realising. It’s a pity that, at some point, it becomes socially unacceptable. If kids are discouraged in that way they can start to loose touch with their experimental psyche.”

While it might come naturally to kids, Parkour, with its goal-directed philosophy, is a discipline. As traceurs share information and techniques, friendships grow and the support network strengthens. “The community has a sort of collective conscience,” says Travis. “Although instructors can point younger traceurs down a path of avoiding dangers and mistakes, the truth is, we are all at the frontier here. Parkour is still being discovered.”

- This article was originally published in the in the Adelaide Review inJuly, 2011 -


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