When I began studying t’ai chi almost 10 years ago, one of my reasons for doing so was a desire to learn how to move more gracefully and meaningfully. I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that t’ai chi would be a safe, interesting, and enjoyable way to learn what it feels like to move intentionally and become more aware of my posture, balance, and physical interactions with my environment.
When I first read about a sport (or art or activity) called parkour, the philosophy behind it sounded very similar: an emphasis on fluid, elegant, graceful motions. But in practice, parkour is about as different from t’ai chi as I can imagine. It’s sometimes considered an “extreme” sport; as its participants dash around a city, they may vault over fences, run up walls, and even jump from rooftop to rooftop. So you won’t see senior citizens doing it in the park on Sunday mornings, but if you do witness it, you may think you’re watching a stunt person on a movie set.
Par for the Kourse
Le parkour is a recently coined French term (related to the verb parcourir, “to run over or through”), sometimes referred to by the initials PK. The activity (and its name) were created by David Belle, Sebastien Foucan, and a group of their friends when they were teenagers living in the Paris suburb of Lisses in the late 1980s. Belle’s father had been a soldier in Vietnam, and his training included navigating obstacle courses. Belle picked up many of the moves—and the philosophy behind them—from his father and, along with his friends, developed them into an art form.
Parkour combines elements of running, gymnastics, dance, and martial arts into a breathtaking—and sometimes dangerous—way of moving from place to place (typically in an urban setting). The general idea is to move quickly and gracefully, treating whatever objects you come across as elements in an obstacle course. Buildings, walls, handrails, rocks, and anything else that people normally walk around become mere props or gymnastic apparatuses that you “flow” over, across, or through. The only real rule is that you should not move backwards, but given any number of ways to get from point A to point B, the objective is to do so with as much efficiency and style as possible.
Unlike skateboarding (which parkour resembles in some ways), the only equipment required for parkour is a good pair of shoes. Participants, who call themselves traceurs, wear no protective gear but typically invest a great deal of time in training and preparation in order to execute the necessary moves safely. The first thing any participant learns is how to cushion the impact of a jump (or fall) by rolling. Although parkour is ultimately about clever improvisation rather than choreographed moves, there are a couple dozen or so standard maneuvers that almost all traceurs learn—including several techniques for getting over tall walls.
Some traceurs participate merely for the fun or the challenge, but others treat parkour as a more serious art, similar to some martial arts. As a philosophy, the movements metaphorically represent becoming one with your environment, learning how to overcome obstacles without effort, and finding creative paths—all things with practical value outside the sport.
Even though parkour has reached a significant level of international popularity only in the past three years or so, there is already an offshoot sport that has led to a great deal of bitterness and division among parkour proponents. Co-founder Sebastien Foucan, in a 2003 BBC documentary called “Jump London,” referred to the sport as “free-running”—apparently as a simple attempt at an English translation—and that term caught on in the media. However, parkour purists feel that the direction in which Foucan has taken the activity is entirely different (in both execution and philosophy) from what he and Belle had originally developed—and that what is now known as free-running should not be confused with “true” parkour (which Belle still promotes).
The biggest difference has to do with theatrics. Free-running involves a lot of trick moves, particularly mid-air flips and spins. Because these moves are merely showy, not economical—they don’t actually help the participant to get from place to place—they’re considered contrary to the nature of parkour. A free-runner may also move backwards in order to make a move as flashy as possible.
But it’s not simply a matter of differing styles. Clothing manufacturers are capitalizing on the growing interest in parkour and free-running by introducing special shoes, designer clothing, and other gear; free-running competitions are also beginning to appear. This commercialization is at odds with the idea of parkour as being a discipline of great simplicity, elegance, and subtlety. Traceurs fear that their art form is being cheapened and degraded.
Whatever else can be said about parkour (or free-running), it certainly requires athletic ability. Participants must be in shape—and more than a little daring. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of participants are male, and most are in their teens or twenties. Although I have every respect for the beauty and grace of parkour, I think I’ll be sticking with t’ai chi myself. All things being equal, I prefer not to be bouncing off the walls. —Joe Kissell