In the mid- to late 2000’s, Parkour was having a moment. Featured prominently in the 2006 action film Casino Royale, and in a 2009 episode of “The Office,” Parkour achieved significant media exposure and pop culture status. Unbeknownst to most, the subculture has a long and nuanced history, holding a range of meanings to individuals and groups around the world.
In 1913, physical education therapist Georges Hébert presented a novel style of physical conditioning, which he called the Natural Method. Hébert espoused a philosophy of physical fitness in union with personal virtue. As he saw it, athletic training should be a means for situating the self within locality, connecting to and embodying natural self, and learning to encounter difficulty with mental and corporeal grace. Hébert’s Natural Method, sometimes called the parcours, or obstacle course method, was adopted by the French military, and used extensively by the French in the Vietnam War. When David Belle’s father returned from combat in Vietnam, he instructed his teenage son on the Natural Method. Belle and a friend, Sébastien Foucan, took to the training, substituting Hébert’s outdoor landscape for the Parisian suburbs. They dubbed this adaptation “Parkour.” The phenomenon spread rapidly, dividing along different stylistic and ideological lines, through 1990’s France and Europe. Today it is a worldwide practice (Atkinson 2009).
Contemporary Identity and Practice
In the subculture, participants call themselves “traceurs.” A widely-used definition among subculturalists is “training the body to move quickly and efficiently from Point A to Point B.” Many compare Parkour to activities like skateboarding, martial arts, or gymnastics. In Parkour, however, the (sub)urban space fills in for the skateboard, sparring partner, or balance beam of these similar sports. A “run” is a sequence of moves that the traceur uses to cross space. Jumps, like the “cat jump,” wall runs, where a traceur runs along a vertical wall, and vaults, where the traceur places two hands on a horizontal surface and brings their feet through the space between their hands form the technical foundation for these runs (Ortuzar 2009). Within scenes, hierarchy appears to develop mostly around which traceurs can take the biggest risks with the greatest technique and grace. Participants usually gather in specific spots, like the Dame du Lac in Lisses. Traceurs often give these spaces names, like “the wall of death” or the “nacho” sculpture. For the most part, traceurs wear gym clothes, sweatpants, and sneakers and generally appear clean and put together (Kidder 2013).
On the individual level, the practice of parkour seems to deeply affect the lives of traceurs. One traceur profiled in the documentary People in Motion spoke of the experience of fear as central to the practice. The traceur, he claims, is not reckless, but is able to measure fear, listening to it but not allowing it to be in control. Performing a run successfully helps to cultivate a relationship with fear that stays with the traceur in all realms of their life. Likewise, parkour brings people into their own somatic experience of the present moment, helping them relieve stress and frustration. Speaking to this, the same traceur says, “It’s the same concept of when angry people punch something; it’s because they gotta impart their will over something to feel in control” (Dahl and Hoffman 2012). Parkour allows the practitioner to exert control over their body and natural world, undergo and overcome fear, and impress an audience. All this contributes to a sense of empowerment that fundamentally changes the traceur’s relationship to their body and mind.
Communities of traceurs are remarkably close-knit and supportive. Traceurs form tight bonds within their crews and greater networks outside of crews. This broader network enables traceurs to stay with each other when traveling, making the whole world more accessible. When a young traceur, Lokey Coppolaro, was injured, the worldwide parkour community raised funds to aid in his recovery (Hamilton 2014).
The internet has become a particularly meaningful vehicle for traceurs to engage with the subculture. Traceurs often make their first contact with the subculture by watching clips on Youtube of experienced practitioners. They later learn technique from online tutorials, socialize and coordinate meet-ups with other traceurs, and share their own photos and videos. Thus, Parkour as a physical, communal practice is deeply informed by virtual space (Kidder 2012).
Intersectional Identities and Experience
A participant’s experience of Parkour inevitably is made through the various identities they occupy. White, working class youth in France will experience a different Parkour than their black, lower class counterparts in Chicago. For young men involved in the subculture in Gaza, Parkour is an act of rebellion and resistance against puritan Islamist authority, which seeks to repress the sort of public fun, especially imported from the West, that Parkour is based around (Thorpe and Ahmad 2013). The ascription of meaning onto land and territory is also widely different among different scenes.
Across scenes, Parkour tends to replicate patriarchy and gendered dynamics. Parkour becomes a space for men to perform manhood by appropriating and controlling physical space. Runs become rituals of risk taking where men can demonstrate resilience and bravery. A feminist reading of the subculture reveals how Parkour acts as a hostile space for women (Kidder 2012).
In the Gaza scene, traceurs often train at Nusseirat, an old Israeli settlement, as a means of reclaiming the space and asserting their right to the land. Women, while marginalized in Parkour spaces across the globe, face a particular sort of repression in Middle Eastern scenes, where, for the most part, they are not even allowed to practice Parkour (Thorpe and Ahmad 2013). In Singapore, the state takes an active and forceful role in designing and controlling its urban areas. Urban planners seek to regulate human movement in an orderly and predictable way. Given this context, the deregulated and unconventional movement of traceurs is a unique sort of resistance to the state and its practices (Loo and Bunnell 2017). For French people of color, Parkour is a transformation of oppressive space, a way to embody mobility that has been denied to them, and define the neighborhood that have been imposed on them (Silverstein 2018).
As Parkour has expanded and morphed from its roots in Hébert’s Natural Method, so has its underlying ideology. Building on Hébert’s assertion of exercise as a means to position the self in the natural world, contemporary urban Parkour sees exercise as a means to rework the natural world. The body is used to refigure the purpose of a space. When used in Parkour, a stairwell becomes a site for risk, play, physical development, and so forth. Kidder describes “meaningless,” “dead spaces” being “brought to life” by traceurs. Parkour, then, is an act of subversion, an assertion that a city be defined by its inhabitants, not just its planners. Some scholars position Parkour as a means of creating a so-called “ludic city,” where traceurs challenge standards of acceptable behavior, thus bringing light to deeply embedded cultural norms and expectations about how one should interact with the space around them. Traceurs take on an childish, exploratory, and creative approach to the city, which attracts attention, confusion, and often concern (Ameel and Tani 2012). Other scholars define Parkour as poiesis, anti-technocapitalist, and anarcho-environmentalist (Atkinson 2009).
Parkour contains a vast range of articulations, philosophies, and practices. Understanding the nuances of this subculture allows us to better make sense of how youth define public space, resist authority, and make meaning out of their bodies and environs.
People in Motion (2012)
A documentary by Cedric Dahl and Bennett Hoffman profiling a group of young traceurs traveling through the west coast, this film seeks to examine parkour as a way of life. Features a lot of interesting and in-depth interviews with members of the subculture that speak to the personal meanings and philosophies traceurs ascribe to this practice.
Jump London (Channel 4, 2003)
A documentary following three French traceurs in London, including famous practitioner Sébastien Foucan. They perform runs mostly on famous London landmarks like the Royal Albert Hall and HMS Belfast.
Inside Gaza: The Epic Parkour Squad (BBC, 2018)
A short segment that focuses on a crew from the Gaza parkour scene, called PK Gaza. It centers on a 13 year old, Ahmad, as he prepares to join the crew. This film gives great insight into the Gaza scene and the dynamics of mentoring relationships within Parkour.
Clips/Footage of Traceurs
Footage of people practicing the Natural Method. From the 1977 film Gizmo!
A compilation video of female traceurs featuring Lynn Jung, Melanie Hunt, Sydney Olson, Yuliya Zasekina, and Renae Dambly.
An amateur compilation video two traceurs, Will Gorecki and Peter Teatime, made of themselves practicing parkour in Chicago.
Pioneering traceur Sébastien Foucan showcases some parkour moves and speaks about the philosophy of the subculture.
An interview with David Belle, the creator of parkour, where he discusses the philosophy and practice of parkour. English subtitles.
Kidder, Jeffrey L. 2017. Parkour and the City: Risk, Masculinity, and Meaning in a Postmodern Sport. Rutgers University Press.
Research on Parkour as a sport/subculture that focuses in particularly on the dimensions of masculinity in the subculture.
Ameel, Lieven and Sirpa Tani. 2012. “Parkour: Creating Loose Spaces?” Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 94(1):17–30.
Atkinson, Michael. 2009. “Parkour, Anarcho-Environmentalism, and Poiesis.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues 33(2):169–94.
Loo, Wen Bin and Tim Bunnell. 2017. “Landscaping Selves Through Parkour: Reinterpreting the Urban Environment of Singapore.” Space and Culture 21(2):145–58.
Ortuzar, Jimena. 2009. “Parkour or ‘L’art Du Déplacement’: A Kinetic Urban Utopia.” The Drama Review 53(3):54–66.
Stapleton, Scott and Susan Terrio. 2010. “Le Parkour: Urban Street Culture and the Commoditization of Male Youth Expression.” International Migration 50(6):18–27.
Thorpe, Holly and Nida Ahmad. 2013. “Youth, Action Sports and Political Agency in the Middle East: Lessons from a Grassroots Parkour Group in Gaza.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport 50(6):678–704.
Edwardes, Dan. 2009. The Parkour & Freerunning Handbook. New York: !t.
Practical guide that explains Parkour technique and culture.
Hamilton, Mary. 2014. “Why Parkour Is a Cure for the Fear of Being Human.” The Guardian.
Article exploring one traceur’s experience with fear, community, and relationships within the subculture.
Wilkinson, Alec. 2018. “The Birth of Parkour.” The New Yorker.
Article that looks at the creation and emergence of Parkour as a worldwide phenomenon.
10 Parkour Tricks for Beginners. Traceur Nick Pro gives the “ultimate Parkour tutorial for beginners.”
by Lily Dawson