“Parkour was founded by David Belle, who learned it from his father—a French firefighter. Belle took it into the streets, shared it with his friends, and they all trained together, a group also known as the Yamakasi—.” Lonnie Tisdale cuts himself off.
“Let me know if this is uncomfortable for you.”
We're standing on top of a Downtown building that Tisdale manages, six stories up, on a particularly breezy evening. It's his suggestion to hold our interview up there, to show me where he practices parkour. It's an astonishing scene, set against San Diego's skyline, and one that I can't fully appreciate due to my intense fear of heights. I tell him that I'm fine, but, really, I'm terrified.
Despite how fascinating I find the history of parkour, I can't get the videos out of my mind.
Type “parkour” into any search engine and you'll encounter countless videos of people performing acts worthy of a real-life Spider-Man: jumping between buildings, running up walls and vaulting over stairs to find the most efficient line between points A and B. Parkour stunts have even been co-opted into mainstream cinema and TV, from France's District B13 to a parody on The Office. However, spend enough time sifting through clips and you're bound to find videos of stunts gone wrong. These are the clips that play through my mind on top of that building.
“Parkour is the first viral sport,” Tisdale says, describing the movement's origin in France and route across the Atlantic through videos, online forums and documentaries like Jump London. But Tisdale, founder of San Diego's Parkour Club, is quick to condemn reckless and irresponsible behavior. He stresses that discipline and philosophy, akin to martial arts, are major components rarely seen in the videos.
“I've been doing martial arts for most of my life, but when I was 19, I started having seizures. I couldn't really risk getting hit in the head anymore. In 2004, I started seeing [parkour] videos online and it felt like a continuation, like something I'd always done my whole life—the spirit of it, wanting to move. At its core, it's just the essence of movement and expression. That's what it is to me.”
“Bodily movement” and “free running” are base terms used to describe the difficult-to-define sport. “It's not so much about risk; it's more about personal improvement,” says Lysander “Stitch” Luansing, who's been practicing with the club for five years. “That's why if you really break it down, you really look at everything these people are doing, it's simple bodily movements, just amplified.”
A visit to one of Parkour Club's jams, which happen at 1 p.m. every Saturday in the Butterfly Garden at Balboa Park, verifies the emphasis on self-improvement. I arrive to find brothers Justin and Kevin Ureta racing to see who can get to a predetermined point and back in the shortest amount of time, vaulting over the zigzagging walkways and inclines. “Our parkour is all about finding your own way” Justin says, aware of the literal and figurative interpretations of moving through space and overcoming obstacles.
As more people show up, the Butterfly Garden takes on the appearance of an Indiana Jones Training Camp, with people jumping from ledge to ledge as if the ground were covered in lava and walking on rails in a way that fills me—and my groin—with anxiety. Members gently push each other to perform faster or along new paths until a small group of spectators congregates. Most people watching today seem to enjoy the stunts, but according to member Kody Clegg, parkour is often met with the same apprehension as skateboarding.
“It's not a problem for cops or park rangers, just people. They mostly yell at us: ‘Get off that; you're going to break it!'” Still, as the number of spectators grows, parkouring around them becomes increasingly difficult and the group moves to another established spot (all found on a convenient map at sandiegoparkour.org).
We kong around at the international houses for a couple minutes (a move that involves leaping head-first onto an object, bringing your knees through your hands and landing in a step-out position), until someone says, “Let's go to the secret spot!” The camaraderie within the group is infectious, and whatever philosophical meanings and benefits there are to parkour become upstaged by the feeling of community.
On the way to the next spot, member AJ Reyes brings up one facet of parkour with which everyone can agree: “In case I'm getting chased by someone, I want to know that I can get up that wall and they can't. Not that I plan on getting chased, but, you know, when the zombie apocalypse starts—.”
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