Far from the rich history of Marseille and overshadowed by the glitz and glamour of Paris — one of its neighbors in the Ile-de-France region — the French town of Lisses sits outside even the peripheral vision of the eyes of the world. From this modest town has sprung the parkour revolution.
There are different theories about what the word “parkour” actually means: On MTV it was translated as “the way through,” whereas The New Yorker, after saying it was a made-up word, suggested it was a variation on the French word for “route.”
Parkour was invented by Frenchman David Belle, a former firefighter and soldier. The goal of parkour is to negotiate the obstacles in one’s way in the most efficient way possible, using various vaults, jumps, and other acrobatic techniques. One who practices the sport of parkour is called a traceur.
Far from Lisses, enthusiasts have taken up the sport here in Lansing.
Chris Price, a Michigan State University student and Ann Arbor native, has been practicing parkour for four and a half years. His first exposure to the sport was via YouTube videos. Wanting to try the sport himself, he found fellow practitioners on www.americanparkour.com, a social networking site for traceurs, and immersed himself in the Ann Arbor scene.
When he began his studies at MSU, he brought the parkour ethos with him. Price holds twice-weekly sessions during the school year, instructing about eight people per class.
According to Price, it is the most ambitious recruits that usually don’t last long.
Some new traceurs want to begin with the moves they’ve seen on YouTube, but lack the patience it takes to work their way up to that point.
“They’ll come out, they’ll start training and realize, ‘Hey this is a lot of hard work. I’m sweating, I’m sore,’ and they’ll drop out,” Price said. “People who are really interested in it for the discipline — that kind of person is a lot more likely to stick with it.”
Parkour is not a sport for thrill-seekers wishing to tease death. “You shouldn’t be taking risks,” Price says. “Any jump that I do, I don’t consider it a risk because I know I can do it. I’ve done the same distance, I’ve done the same setup in another setting. I’ve worked up to it.”
Practicing without a group or trainer can be dangerous.
For instance, I stumbled in my first time attempt to execute the “cat vault” across a 3-feet-wide, 2-feet-deep gap to reach the top of a 7-feet–high wall. Price suggested that I try it on a wall with no gap.
The practice wall was higher than seven feet but had no gap. I tried reaching the top of the wall, jumping from one foot in front of it.
Success! I gradually increased the distance to three feet. At this point I realized the only obstacle the gap presented was a mental one. My mind told me that what I was doing wasn’t natural and that I should cease and desist.
Knowing that I could physically perform the move, I visualized myself completing the task and successfully vaulted over the gap, my hands landing on the wall. All it took was some practice to tell my mind that I could do something that I previously thought I couldn’t.
All of this makes parkour, in many ways, more mental than physical.
The training regimen for parkour is incredibly strenuous. A staple of any traceur’s practice routine includes quadrupedal movements. In such maneuvers as the “cat walk” and “gorilla,” the athlete uses all four appendages in a specific sequence to traverse the ground.
This is how I began the warm-up portion of my first training session with Price. A few minutes in, I was already winded. Price, a gymnast and dedicated martial artist, didn’t appear to be one bit fatigued.
Parkour remained largely obscure until MTV’s “Ultimate Parkour Challenge” debuted, drawing both ardor and criticism. Belle, the sports’ creator, insisted early on that parkour was never to be competitive and traceurs should simply concentrate on being the best they could be.
Despite objections from the sport’s most devoted adherents, the MTV show caused parkour to spread like wildfire. Newbies in the Lansing area came out in droves, hoping to imitate the show’s aggressive nature — and not realizing the level of commitment and discipline required of new practitioners. As a result, enthusiasm waned quickly, leaving behind only the most dedicated traceurs.
Despite MTV exposure, parkour remains relatively enigmatic. Most who see traceurs in action in urban environments are not quite sure what to make of them. Misunderstandings are bound to occur, such as the time when Price and I were training in the Wharton Center parking structure.
The session began with some endurance training. The route took us up the stairs to the top of the structure and across it and then back down the stairs on the opposite side. Our goal was 14 laps.
Halfway through the exercise, we saw three bicycle cops hovering around our book bags, which we’d set aside. The officers asked us if they could search our bags.
explaining they were called by a Wharton Center employee who saw us drop our book bags and run off: Apparently, the employee believed a possible terrorist attack was in progress.
After realizing we’d broken no laws, the police let us go, but suggested that we call it a day. We didn’t: After they left we resumed running and vaulting over walls, determined not to let anything — not even the threat of domestic terrorism — keep us down.