The National called it “daredevil urban gymnastics.” Practitioners say it is not a spectator sport and is about individual growth. Ever since Parkour has become an Internet sensation and invaded the global consciousness, people all over the world have tried their hand at the discipline. What exactly is it? How did it get started here in Halifax? This blog examines the history and growth of Parkour in the world and the local origins and dedication of a small group of Parkour enthusiasts here in Halifax.
The first thing I was told before going to meet Glenn Knockwood, the founder of a small but dedicated Parkour community in Halifax, was that I would recognize him by his smile. However,glancing around the hard-wood studio loft at the Micmac Native Friendship Centre, with mats sprawled on the floor and the ‘traceurs’ (the official term of those who practice Parkour) in various states of leaping or climbing, I was not sure how a smile was going to help me find Glenn. I waited a few minutes, silently observing. Then I saw one tall man in his late twenties break into an utterly contagious, enthusiastic and boyish grin while talking to another traceur. I walked over to him and introduced myself.
Hailing originally from the Mi’kmaq settlement Indian Brook, N.S., Knockwood moved to Halifax to study Media Arts at NSCAD. He is the Sports and Recreation Director for the Kitpu Youth Centre, a program of the Micmac Friendship Centre.
This job description proves very fitting since Knockwood has an extensive background in martial arts and Tai Chi. However, after a number of years in training, Knockwood found himself disillusioned with the competitive nature of martial arts, and strove to find a physical exercise that could be an individual test of strength and flexibility. Knockwood turned to Parkour.
The history of Parkour
David Belle, who was born in France, is credited as the founder of Parkour. Belle’s father trained in the French military and mastered the Natural Method, a military training tool created by Georges Hebert that strengthens the body using only the natural surroundings around. Belle took initiative from his father’s interest in this method, but translated the Natural Method to the urban environment Belle found himself in on his move to Paris.
Belle didn’t think of the word ‘Parkour’ (which he got from the French word parcours de combattement, or ‘obstacle courses’, that were part of the Natural Method), until much later. When he first started applying Parkour techniques around the city of Paris, he and his friends called it l’art du deplacement, or ‘the art of movement.’
Parkour comes from the French word parcours, which means ‘course’ or ‘route.’ Those who practice it are reluctant to call it a sport, preferring to describe its mixture of running, climbing and creative use of the urban environment as a ‘discipline. In this article, I have capitalized Parkour, as one would capitalize other disciplines like Tai Chi or Kung Fu, to distinguish this difference.
Listen to Lauren Oliver, a ‘traceur’ who practices Parkour with Knockwood, describe what Parkour means to her.
Parkour in pop culture
This may not be an adequate description of what exactly Parkour entails. A more complete understanding truly requires a glimpse at one of the many thousands of home-grown and professional Parkour videos on YouTube. These videos are how Parkour has sparked such widespread interest, with many depicting traceurs doing death-defying stunts to fast-paced music. Clips of David Belle on Youtube have over 7 million views.
Parkour has now infiltrated the global consciousness to such an extent that it is now seen in movies, video games and television shows. The 2010 film Prince of Persia, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, had Parkour in many of their action scenes. Not surprisingly, Belle aided in stunt co-ordination for the movie. Another example is the award-winning comedy series The Office, which did a very funny segment on Parkour (you can watch a clip here).
The media has also jumped on the bandwagon, to the extent where it’s almost becoming “sensational,” Knockwood says. MTVs depiction of Parkour is “pride and ego-based,” he continues. Their segments focus on what looks the most impressive for the camera, which takes away from the individual self-betterment that is a central tenet of Parkour.
Regardless, the mainstream attention Parkour is receiving means more people are becoming interested and willing to try it. These videos seem to be the nurturing inspiration for most people who have sparked up an initial interest. Lauren Oliver, another member of the Parkour community, noted this commonality among many aspiring traceurs. “One of the things I’ve heard people talk about is seeing a Parkour video, and just going out right after they watch it to try,” Oliver says.
Kash Fida, a student attending the University of King’s College here in Halifax, says that after hearing about Parkour from a friend, she immediately went home and, after watching clips on the internet, decided she wanted to start practicing. Fida was drawn to the child-like freedom that Parkour promised. “Ever since I was a kid, I liked the idea of climbing stuff,” Fida wrote in a message.
Knockwood also learnt about Parkour through YouTube videos. Intrigued by the “crazy French jumper guys,” as he used to call it before learning its official name, Knockwood started practicing at night, and eventually learnt how to vault over a car. Eagerly, Knockwood showed his brother, who, impressed with his brother’s skills, joined Knockwood on his nightly jaunts.
Friends and colleagues started showing interest, and soon a Parkour community was born.
The Halifax Parkour community is not that well-known in the area. Its current members have either heard about it through friends, or have done their own research while looking for a group to practice with. Usually, practices get anywhere from 5 to 15 people showing up, while the summer months might see 25 or 30 on a particularly sunny day.
Lauren Oliver heard about the community in passing, and, after encouraged by friends, decided to join. Coming from Sackville and spending a lot of time outdoors, Oliver says she initially “wanted to learn how to maneuver the forest.” Living in Halifax translated this interest into Parkour.
Gus Guimaraes is a 1st year Neuroscience major at Dalhousie. He is originally from Brazil but has lived all over the world. It was while he was living in Norway that Guimaraes first started doing Parkour on his own; he had to find creative ways to dodge obstacles while running to catch his bus. Coming to Halifax and joining Knockwood’s community is the first time Guimaraes has done Parkour with other people. It is this community that has encouraged Guimaraes to really devote himself to Parkour.
“I use it as a tool to help me work other problems out,” Guimaraes says. Parkour has taught him how to “take steps back, look around and see different paths to the same solution,” in his words.
Just like Guimaraes, Knockwood has found Parkour helping him in other areas of his life. Once shy and introverted, Knockwood soon found himself forced to interact with people who would stop him and ask what he was doing, naturally curious about the reason behind his acrobatic stunts off handrails. He felt the need to explain Parkour so they wouldn’t get any wrong impressions, and in this way, has found it much easier to talk to strangers.
He has also found that Parkour has brought him out of his comfort zone and made him more open-minded. “Many people see us confidently jump off two-storey buildings, and say to themselves, ‘I could never do that,’” Knockwood says. Parkour is “breaking down what you think is impossible.”
Negative aspects of Parkour
There are certainly some negative sides to Parkour, however. I wondered about the legality of doing acrobatic stunts in public urban spaces. If the property owner doesn’t want them there, then the traceurs could be arrested for trespassing. Glenn’s community avoids this by practicing either in an indoor studio or on Citadel Hill.
Citadel Hill is a public space, where many picnic or jog. Theresa Bunbury, who works for Parks Canada, says that Parks Canada is aware of the presence of traceurs practicing Parkour below the Citadel clock-tower, and encourages the use of their green space for “casual recreation,” in her words. However, Bunbury also says that Parks Canada “takes care to see that persons are reasonably safe,” and so “are not liable for personal injuries from risks willingly assumed.”
Knockwood says that their only dealings with the law have been with the occasional policeman. Most of the policemen who patrol Citadel are familiar with Knockwood and Parkour, and give the community little trouble.
There are other dangers besides legality. While there are no official statistics, a number of deaths from Parkour stunts have been reported, including a 14-year-old in London, England, and a male student attending the University of Illinois. These deaths are few and far between, though, and usually involve a stunt far beyond the skill level of the person attempting it.
I was surprised to find, out of the people I talked to at least, that the most major injury from Parkour had been Knockwood shattering some bones in one foot. Fida said that after her first week of Parkour, she was “so sore that it hurt to just walk,” she says. Now, she’s never sore, and has never had any major injuries, nor have Guimaraes or Oliver.
Oliver says that injuries happen when a traceur does not have the right mindset, even if they have the physical fitness. They may be “so concerned about competition and trying to be better that they do things they shouldn’t be doing and end up hurting themselves,” Oliver says.
What a Parkour community gives
This is where the value of practicing with a community lies. Getting together with other traceurs who have been doing Parkour for a long time allows inexperienced members to learn the basics while minimizing the chance of injury. Guimaraes says that the community should encourage its members to “feel comfortable enough with other people to ask for help.”
Knockwood encourages the people who come to practice to make sure that they also practice at other times. He recommends even practicing at home, whether it be practicing vaults over the living room couch, or climbing a doorframe. “It’s not a suit you put on three times a week,” Knockwood says.
Listen to Gus Guimaraes talk about the benefits of practicing Parkour with others:
The community also allows people of all types to come together in a common interest to help and grow. Knockwood notes that they have men and women, from the ages of 10 all the way up to 64. He stresses that there is a common misconception that Parkour is only for 16-20 year old men, when it doesn’t and shouldn’t apply only to that demographic. “Given the right circumstances,” Knockwood says, “anyone could be drawn to parkour.”
Knockwood has been invited to numerous movement workshops to explain the foundations of Parkour. He shows a physical demo and tries to get the audience involved in order to get past the initial stage of fear and doubt. He stresses the importance that Parkour is accessible to all people, regardless of age, strength or gender. “We all move our body,” Knockwood says.
Are you interested in trying Parkour for yourself? Getting involved with other people in the Parkour community is probably a good place to start. Glenn Knockwood holds practice sessions throughout the week. Check out the Halifax Parkour Community Blog for details.