It looks exhilarating. Dynamic. Depending on your ability to process what you're seeing as you watch the leaps, vaults, rolls and other maneuvers executed by its most experienced and accomplished practitioners, parkour might even appear intimidating, beyond the abilities of all but the most physically fluent people.
Not so, says Alissa Bratz. The executive director of Madparkour acknowledges the inherent challenge of the discipline, and the online proliferation of parkour videos focusing on some of its more spectacular examples, such as running across a series of rooftops. But the prevalence of these daring video escapades fosters a mischaracterization of parkour, she insists.
"It's not an extreme sport," she says. "It's not a daredevil sport."
It is more difficult to describe than to see and appreciate first-hand. Created and cultivated in France, parkour seeks the most efficient, purposeful and direct means of traversing an urban or natural environment using only one's body, the surroundings and the most appropriate movement methods for sustaining momentum while overcoming obstacles. Its basic vocabulary includes running, jumping, climbing, crawling, vaulting and rolling, and eschews wasted effort and recklessness. (Free running, a more acrobatic offshoot of parkour, affords greater latitude for creativity and is often mistaken by the general public as synonymous to parkour.)
"Humans have moved this way for thousands of years," Bratz says. We used to interact with our environment in the style of parkour, she explains, but these instincts have been dulled by buildings and sidewalks that inhibit and restrict us to more linear movements. "Parkour is kind of a pushback against that," she says. "It's a reclaiming of our natural way to move as humans, and it's an embracing of movement in the most complete sense possible," reintegrating the full body and reintroducing it to three dimensions.
A French teacher with an extensive ballet background, Bratz, 33, has also studied kung fu. But it was her love for French cinema that led her to parkour. Watching the kinetic 2004 French thriller District B-13, "I said, Wow, I have to figure out what that is," she recalls. "I did some Googling and found out there was a name for it and there was a community out there all over the world and I just jumped in with both feet."
She landed on americanparkour.com, run by Mark Toorock in Washington, D.C. Finding no established parkour group in Madison, Bratz launched the online forum madparkour.com in June 2007. Within weeks, a handful of Madison parkour enthusiasts were gathering to train at locations including the UW Library Mall, Bascom Hill, the GEF III plaza and MATC-Downtown.
Such public places afford the opportunity to demonstrate parkour's leave-no-trace ethics and traceurs' devotion to picking up trash. Their two-hour training sessions are an opportunity to dispel misconceptions about the discipline, engage onlookers and satisfy their curiosity.
A typical Madparkour gathering begins with warm-ups and conditioning exercises, such as push-ups, pull-ups and squats, building toward more dynamic movements. Specific drills may follow, to develop skills such as the execution of safe landings at the end of a jump. Training sessions then move toward what she calls flow or gauntlet training, a follow-the-leader activity along a path or circuit, involving obstacles such as street furniture, railings, walls and boulders. This evolves into even less structured free-play time during which traceurs work with the obstacles at hand and learn from each other in a supportive environment. A cooldown period and stretching often concludes these two-hour sessions.
Madparkour's ranks have swelled as a result, though its numbers remain modest. The madparkour forum now counts 120 registered members. Bratz estimates its most active core at 10-20 "traceurs," the French-derived term for parkour enthusiasts.
By this past July, Madparkour had become proficient enough at overcoming obstacles that it hosted the Midwest Jam, part of a series of regional gatherings that lure traceurs for a weekend of training and camaraderie. Toorock was among the 65 attendees, Bratz notes, and his appearance gave a significant boost to Madparkour's visibility.
Chad Barrett - a certified natural trainer and personal trainer at Monkey Bar Gym - has emerged as Madparkour's training director and has structured a more codified training program so local traceurs can make more efficient progress in their training.
The structure is helpful, Bratz says, given the challenges posed by parkour. "It is one of those things that grabs your attention, and then you try it and realize how physically demanding it is," she allows. She is the group's only female member, and one of its oldest. This is typical for the discipline, she adds: Most traceurs are men in their late teens and 20s.
"Parkour is probably the hardest thing I've ever done physically," she continues, "and I know how to dance on my toes. It's so hard. People need to realize that. But the rewards are so great."
Chief among the rewards, she notes, is that "you come to view obstacles as opportunities. You hear a lot of traceurs talk about how parkour has helped them overcome mental obstacles or even emotional or spiritual obstacles."
Bratz has experienced this herself, discovering in parkour the opportunity to confront the obstacle of fear. "Fear can be an inhibitor," she observes, "but it can also enhance your training, and a large part of what I like about parkour is the opportunity to explore your relationship with fear."
Gesturing toward a railing and a nearby picnic table, she notes that jumping from one to the other "is a pretty far jump, but if you miss it, it's not going to kill you. For me, personally, far jumps are really, really scary, even if they're low and the possibility of injury is small." Confronting a situation like this affords the opportunity to pause and determine whether the fear is an obstacle to be overcome, or stems from a genuine self-preservation instinct.
Bratz notes the camaraderie shared by traceurs as they navigate the constant challenge of parkour. "No one is ever done with parkour training," she has learned. "You don't have to have a gym membership to do parkour. You don't have to own any equipment or have a bike or canoe. You can do it wherever you are, even walking down the street."
As an integrated full-body workout that draws from a broad vocabulary of aerobic and anaerobic movements, parkour builds strength as well as stamina. Like rock-climbing, gymnastics and most martial arts, it also cultivates problem-solving, balance and improved spatial sense. The payoff, Bratz observes, is greater overall physical fluency. Plus, she adds, it's fun. She compares it to playing.
But perhaps the greatest appeal of parkour, at least for Bratz, "is how strong it makes you feel. In particular for women, it's a way to realize how strong we really are." Even with her background in dance and martial arts, parkour has been a revelation. "Kung fu spoke to me a lot," she allows, "but I never realized how strong I could be until I started doing parkour."
To learn more
Madison forum with tips on getting started, training calendar, parkour hotspots and other resources.
Tutorials, training tips, videos, photos, links and other resources.
Parkour Project: Pilgrimage
90-minute parkour documentary touching on the discipline's history, philosophy and principles, featuring demonstrations by more than 100 accomplished traceurs.
28-minute documentary rich in dynamic visual demonstrations, emphasizing the importance of safety and the discipline's accessibility to beginners.