Parkour History: The (Re)Birth of a Movement
Trying to pinpoint the exact moment of the birth of Parkour is no easy task. In fact, it may actually prove to be an impossibility. Something as nebulous and indefinable as this thing we practise tends to defy classification. Already it boasts several names, in more than one language: Le Parkour, the Art of Movement, Freerunning, L’Art du Deplacement, to name but a few. And even if you do settle on a name, there is then the tricky little problem of what that name refers to – Is it a sport? Or an art? Or a philosophy perhaps? Or maybe it is better termed a discipline?
Truth is, there is no consensus on this. And – which really hefts a giant spanner into the works – you can’t just go and ask the founding father because this great movement is pretty damn far from being a nuclear family, 2.4 kids and all the rest. No. This child has had a whole host of surrogate step-parents influencing its development down through the years, the centuries, indeed even through the millennia. It has drawn on many sources, supped on inspiration from all over, and drunk from a hundred different cups as it has evolved – and by no means is this process over.
So where do we start in an attempt to get a grip on all this? Not at the beginning, because the gods only know where that was. Not at the end, because that isn’t even in sight. Seems the best we can do is to start somewhere in the middle, and give credit where it’s due to a certain little town in France.
The French Connection
To the south of Paris rest the sleepy, suburban towns of Evry, Sarcelles and Lisses, places no different from any other of the hundreds of satellites orbiting the French capital, save for one small fact: these places were home to a group of nine young men widely acknowledged as having crystallized a number of influences to create something then called l’Art du Deplacement, sometime in the 1980s. At the core of this group were Yann Hnautra and David Belle, who drove much of the early training and have since become known as the originators of the art. These childhood friends formed the group which called itself ‘Yamakasi’, a Lingala word meaning ‘Strong man, strong spirit’, and for over a decade they practised their discipline together and alone, reviled by the French authorities and seen as wildmen by the local public.
One of those influences that inspired the Yamakasi to explore the urban-rural environment in entirely new ways throughout their childhood was David’s father, Raymond Belle. In fact, the later term for the discipline ‘parkour’ is perhaps indirectly attributable to Raymond Belle, who introduced his son to the military training methods of Georges Hebert, a man who had a powerful influence on the development of physical education in France, particularly in military circles, by creating the parcours du combattant; the obstacle course. From parcours, meaning ‘course’, came the altered parkour, for which David acknowledges his friend Hubert Kounde as having coined.
The senior Belle had trained using Hebert’s methode naturelle whilst in the French military. Hebert’s methods were inspired by the natural, physical conditioning of indigenous peoples from Africa in particular, and this is still noticeable in the practise of modern parkour; many practitioners talk of the importance of freeing one’s natural instincts, of stripping away conditioning and returning to an innate, effortless way of moving that utilises the entire body as a whole rather than consciously employing isolated muscle groups. The elusive ‘flow state’.
The influence of David’s father was more than just an introduction to Hebertism however; he also instilled in his son the roots of what would go on to become the philosophy of Parkour. Sebastien Foucan – who trained with David Belle during the critical birthing period of Parkour – speaks of how Raymond Belle encouraged them both to better themselves, stating that with dedication they could reach their dreams.
It is important to recognize that Belle, though central to its ongoing development, was only one among a larger group of individuals who nurtured the art of movement into being, including Sebastian Foucan, Stephane Vigroux, Yahn Hnautra, David Malgogne, Chau Belle-Dinh and Frederic Hnautra among others, all of whom contributed to the art in its embryonic stage. Stephane Vigroux, for example, was instrumental in the creation and development of the Saut de Chat movement (now known in English as the King Kong Vault). And Yann Hnautra was very much responsible for bringing the rigorous discipline and training methodology to the group.
It was when they learnt to take their childhood games seriously and develop their skills that the Yamakasi began to outline what would become, within two decades, a global movement. From children playing in order to alleviate their boredom they developed into teenagers with a goal in mind, a sense of purpose and inspiration taken from many sources, including the philosophy of Taoism via the works of Bruce Lee, the acrobatic antics found in Jackie Chan movies, and perhaps even the urban shamanism of the wild man of Paris, Don Jean Haberey. But at its core, Parkour was already far more than just a childhood game that simply grew to maturity alongside its creators. It drew on the spirit of physicality and functionality prevalent in many ancient cultures and older disciplines.
According to one of the group, the start of the ‘big jumps’ came at around age fifteen. They began to develop and refine a fundamental set of movements: vaults, jumps, climbs, rolls. They taught themselves to be athletes, moving through their environment in a way never before seen in an urban setting. Obviously it is these ‘big jumps’ that have grabbed the attention of the world’s media and mainstream consciousness, though all experienced practitioners are quick to play down the significance of the more spectacular aspects of Parkour.
Parkour is by nature, however, a visually stunning activity, especially when displayed by those of the skill and power of Belle, Vigroux and Hnautra. Outside interest was inevitable. As the reputation of the original practitioners spread, more came to join them and to learn, and beyond these – also predictably – came those who saw the potential Parkour possessed as a money-making machine.
Ultimately it was this swell in interest that was to cause the first splits in parkour: between those that embraced opportunity together – Besson’s 2001 film Yamakasi: Les samouraïs des temps modernes, for example, starring the group of the same name, is a famous reference point in the split – and those that chose to walk their own path such as David Belle.
The interest after Luc Besson’s film was less than perfect: two deaths were attributed to copycat behaviour, and much of the growing interest was less than true to the art proper. Sebastien Foucan describes the attitude of much of the post-film interest: ‘After Yamakasi it’s another kind of people, it’s just “I jump I jump I jump, just like the movie, I’m on the roof, just like the movie”.’
Following the split, a group of the early practitioners (including David Belle, Stephane Vigroux, Kazuma and Johann Vigroux) coined the term traceur to refer to themselves: Traceur means ‘bullet’ and was chosen because of the emphasis Belle and his contemporaries put on achieving direct, efficient and fast movement over any terrain. Understandably, they developed a somewhat sceptical view of many of the newcomers to the discipline; those who displayed a genuine interest they continued to welcome of course, but not those who were drawn to the spectacle, looking only for the next adrenaline rush.
But whatever negative repercussions came about as a result of Yamakasi, the movie also catapulted the movements of l’art du deplacement into the public consciousness. The art was introduced to the British public first by a BBC advert of the same year; dubbed ‘Rush Hour’, the ident starred David Belle as an innovative commuter who chooses to find an alternate route home via the rooftops of London in order to avoid the crush of people on the streets below. And of course, since then Belle has himself engaged in a number of commercial projects, utilising his incredible skills to step into the world of blockbuster action movies with his first lead role in Luc Besson’s District 13.
Parkour had stepped onto the global stage, and business was about to pick up.
Though parkour had been displayed in the media, still it had not been explained. In some parts of the world, people even wrongly referred to the discipline itself as ‘Yamakasi’! Misunderstanding was rife. But an undercurrent of excitement had developed, a desire to see more of the dynamism and joie de vivre that parkour exhibits, and small groups of people quietly took up the practise of the art from the little they had seen of it.
However, it was not until 2003 that an accurate insight into the depths of the art was released for public consumption when the UK’s Channel 4 produced a groundbreaking and award-winning documentary entitled Jump London, featuring Foucan and the Vigroux brothers unleashing their skills upon an unsuspecting London cityscape. This was the tipping-point, as Johann Vigroux, Jerome Ben-Aoues, Stephane Vigroux and Seb Foucan conveyed the philosophical aspects of Parkour side-by-side with the physical brilliance, at last providing the wider public with a handle on the fast-emerging discipline.
The response was telling. Groups of practitioners, also known as ‘clans’ or ‘crews’, sprang up everywhere and the term ‘free-running’ seeped into the mainstream vocabulary. Due in no small part to being the title-location for Jump London, the UK’s capital city fast became a hotbed of activity and a focal point for the nascent Freerunning community.
The hugely successful documentary sequel, Jump Britain first aired in January 2005, and this was the dam-breaker for Parkour, cementing its position as a recognized and valid sport/art for the modern age. Through the Jump series, Parkour had quite literally leapt into the spotlight.
The Re-Birth of (a) Movement
Parkour, as we have seen, is not something easily categorized. Perhaps inevitably however, as the community grew and numbers swelled, attempts to define and classify became commonplace. By nature an art that encourages freedom of movement and individual expression, it is difficult – if not impossible – to formalise a structured system that contains it whilst at the same time allowing for the subjective approaches of its practitioners. Matters were further complicated by the simple fact that David Belle – acknowledged as one of the gurus of Parkour – chose at first not to release any succinct and clear definition for others to refer to, and so the debates raged and schisms between the different perspectives ensued.
These debates tend to revolve around what does or does not constitute Parkour. Does it include acrobatics, or is this counter to the core philosophy of efficiency espoused by Belle? Is it purely a practical discipline, to be studied as if one were studying a fighting art, or can it simply be done for fun and the feeling of liberation it inevitably brings? To flip or not to flip, for many, has been the question…
However, Parkour Generations is keen to impress upon people that while parkour was a term intended to liberate people from the limiting, conventional methods of movement and travel, it is just a term. While communication requires the use of some accepted terminology, what is actually being communicated is far more important than any name or label. Movement is movement, and it is mastery of one’s own movement and the constant development of one’s body and mind that one should seek through the practise of Parkour.
Parkour has grown far beyond its fledgling roots in Lisses, and is now a truly global practice. It is something that is constantly being reborn as each new generation of practitioners pick it up and run with it, if you’ll excuse the pun. Indeed as each new individual finds parkour, so the discipline finds an entirely new and unique way of expressing itself. It is unpredictable and nebulous by nature, difficult to pin down and extremely hard to grasp fully. It is evolving all the time, and this is always healthy and natural. Long may it continue.
Risk-takers or Self-challengers?
Although parkour is not an extreme sport, it does carry inherent risk with it just as any athletic training discipline does.
However, excessive risk-taking runs in opposition to the philosophy of parkour. According to one participant, “one of the most striking differences between parkour and other so-called ‘extreme’ sports is that it is not concerned solely with the acquisition of physical skills, but also with the improvement of one’s mental and spiritual well-being. Ensuring that physical progress is not at the expense of mental progress is one of the main aims of a good traceur” (cited in Jones n.d., para. 22).
The experienced traceurs do not engage in the activity in order to experience the adrenaline-rush that comes from excessive risk-taking. Rather, they view their practise as challenging themselves to overcome limitation and the restraints of fear and inhibition. The goal of complete functionality within any situation is paramount, and in order ot achieve this state both mentally and physically it is necessary to face and overcome the challenges that are part and parcel of parkour training. The training in parkour enables the practitioner to learn to manage risk and through exposure to challengin situations to become a better, safer person all round.
Moving swiftly on…
So what does the future hold? Who knows?! And that’s the beauty of it.
In its fairly short public lifespan to date there has been enormous interest from a host of large organisations. Parkour has eased itself stealthily from the underground shadows of Paris to the gritty streets of London and from there on to the glamorous world stage itself. And now it is even beginning to filter into that most mainstream of institutions – Education: In early 2006 Westminster Council enlisted the services of two parkour instructors in Francois “Forrest” Mahop and Dan Edwardes of Parkour Generations to teach the discipline within several inner-city schools and community sports centres. The groundbreaking project has been a huge success and has gone from strength to strength, with local councils all over the country now desperate to reproduce that which Westminster has pioneered.
The Parkour Generations Academy has become the largest teaching establishment for parkour / freerunning in the world, and has been the model for most global teaching to date. In 2008 Parkour Generations and the Yamakasi founders collaborated to create the A.D.A.P.T Qualification programme for those people who wanted to become recognised coaches or parkour. A.D.A.p.T is now the world’s only recognised coaching qualification for parkour, and is a vocational qualification on the European sports coaching frameworks. It has been adopted and implemented by the UK’s National Governing Body, Parkour UK, and endorsed by Sport England and the London Olympics Inspire Mark Programme. It certainly can no longer be described as an underground activity, it seems.
The movement is still relatively young (or as old as sin, depending on how you look at it!), and where it goes from here is very much in the hands of the people who live and breathe it – the practising community and its spokespeople. Parkour has now been involved in several big-budget movies, most recently the latest Bond blockbuster, and is being used in every form of media from television commercials and idents to documentaries, billboard campaigns, fashion shoots and live stage-shows; and active and growing communities of free-runners and traceurs have appeared all over the world, from Brazil to Japan, from Finland to Australia, from Russia to Canada.
In short, Parkour is here to stay: it isn’t going anywhere.
Or rather, it’s going everywhere.