Better future lives – but also futures of mere survival – seem to take place in rural areas, while the cities are left to rot and ruin.
At best, in utopias, cities are creative and efficient conurbations, but keep people in their cocoons of technology and in a state closer to convenient slavery than self-chosen lives; at worst, they are foreseen to become dangerous ghettos.
Either way, the city remains antipodal to nature, wilderness, the outdoors, and any sports that can help us rediscover our being bodies and living in places.
People who think like that obviously haven’t seen enough of parkour.
Parkour, yes, that “sport” where young people jump from rooftop to rooftop, the elegant and artistic attempt at getting from point A to point B in the city in as exciting – or efficient, or direct – a way as possible… and the discipline / sport / practice that has often appeared in just those kinds of movies that show the dangerous and decaying city.
From 2005 to 2008, I did field work studying the “tribe” of parkour practitioners via participant observation, in Vienna (Austria) and Riga (Latvia), like the cultural anthropologist I was academically educated to be.
Now that parkour and the related freerunning have become a more established, if still stranger, part of the (“sports”) landscape, and as I am writing for the public (rather than trying to join the ranks of the academically constipated), it is time to look back at parkour, and forward.
It is all the better a time for that, perhaps, as Christopher McDougall’s “Natural Born Heroes” (see my review of it here) has put a spotlight on parkour.
Of course, parkour did and does attract some young people through insane stunts presented on YouTube, but they typically seem to be disabused of such notions very quickly when and if they go to traceur’s (parkour practitioner’s) meetings where they encounter people with more experience.
Additionally, even basic moves turn out to be challenging enough for the beginner (and still being practiced a lot by the advanced), anyways.
They are often easy (as in, not highly technical), but take quite enough of a different approach from everyday walking to be challenging. After all, how often do you use your hands or get down on all fours, jump and balance on various surfaces, let alone get your ass higher up than your head in a jump or vault, when you are just out walking?
One issue has been notorious, though: Parkour, if done strictly, does not do the somersaults and similar flashy moves that attract many – and make them go right on to freerunning which does whatever strikes the fancy, the flashier the better (or so it sometimes seems).
As many of these things go, online discussions about (or in strict parkour circles, against) flashy moves and competitive approaches – Hello, Red Bull Freerunning Championship – tended to get rather heated.
And in actual practice? In “real life,” people of both camps mingled and had few (if any) problems with each other.
What is particularly interesting now, years later and with the focus on at-home-making, are two factors in parkour, of fitness and of views.
Parkour and Fitness
One, as pointed out in discussing McDougall’s Natural Born Heroes, is that parkour is one of the best examples of a practice that isn’t a sport, isn’t for fitness in the common sense, but makes all the more fit.
It is not bad for endurance and only too good as strength training, and it works on both in order to be able to move between places, be they at the same level or higher or lower.
It all seems so useless and like child play in today’s world, but it is among the most fun and, should anything untoward happen, useful things. The skills it gives are just those we tend to be missing, and the ones most needed.
Imagine you are on vacation on the coast and a tsunami rolls in, and you will want to be able to get to higher ground.
Imagine your house catches on fire, and you’ll want to be able to get out quickly – let alone, help others.
Just think of aging and of how many seniors break their hips because they are neither nimble nor good at balancing, and you may appreciate what parkour focuses on…
“Etre fort pour être utile”
It’s all about function a normal body should be able to perform (and as argued before, we need to focus on function rather than, to give the particularly problematic example, on weight). If it basically looks like child’s play, an adult should be able to do it even better, no?
Secondly, starting the practice of getting from point A to point B, not in the way of the automotive GPS-enabled driver or the subway-using pedestrian but as an agile body moving through an environment on his/her own power – and it certainly doesn’t have to be an urban jungle, parkour came out of more natural environments – develops a different view.
Especially in urban environments which are “normally” just moved through on designated paths, each for particular types of movement, it is a fascinating experience when you start picking out new possibilities all the ledges and handholds and bars and steps and sundry other surfaces would offer for alternative paths, up, down, across, and over.
It makes you see the city anew and in different ways that arise very quickly and grow as your abilities do.
Not a bad experience to make and have…