I arrive at the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument at the edge of Riverside Park as the morning sun creeps across the tree-lined square. A youthful horde mills around the base of the massive marble edifice. Animated by eagerness and excitement, some of them run up the ornamental terraces of the monument wall, turn, and leap off; others gambol across the grounds. I watch a 17-year-old boy dart along the edge of a low wall, jump, and hit the ground in a somersault. Another teen sprints up the trunk of a tree, grabs a branch, swings, and lands running. Boys bound up the monument staircase and jump off, slapping the ground as they land. All around me, young men (and one woman) run, leap, vault, and somersault off, over, and onto balustrades, benches, staircases, trees, fountains, and each other, while one boy scales the monument itself, reaching dizzying heights near the rooftop.
“It’s primal,” says 35-year-old Mark Toorock, indicating the frenetic display of athleticism all around us. Toorock, like everyone gathered here today, is a traceur—a practitioner of an emerging physical discipline called parkour. “We are essentially animals and we need to move. Parkour brings some of that back. It’s sort of primal play.”
That innate sense of play slowly developed into a physical discipline in the small town on the outskirts of Paris where parkour founders David Belle and Sébastien Foucan grew up, inspired by the “Natural Method of Physical Culture” created by obstacle-course pioneer Georges Hébert. Philosophically, parkour follows the spirit of Hébert, de-emphasizing human competition while underscoring the union of body, mind, and spirit. Physically, it is the very specific practice of getting from point A to point B in the most direct way possible, using only the human form. Any child successfully evading “It” during a heated game of tag is essentially practicing parkour; likewise, an energetic chase scene featuring Jackie Chan jumping off balconies and leaping between rooftops might also be seen as parkour. While a traceur might draw on gymnastics, martial arts, or track and field, there are no prescribed moves, playing fields, or training exercises. Traceurs learn from others or they learn from improvising in their local environment.
Parkour was largely a French phenomenon until 2002, when a BBC station trailer starring David Belle ignited the British imagination. Two documentaries—Jump London (2002) and Jump Britain (2005) featuring Sébastien Foucan—gave rise to the English termsfreerunning and freerunner. Nike and Toyota parlayed parkour into ad campaigns, but despite international media attention, most people in the U.S. got their first glimpse through video links circulated on the Internet.
Parkour jams, which are usually announced through online forums, allow traceurs to socialize, study, and build on each other’s styles. This particular two-day jam, being hosted by a community called New York Parkour, has drawn experienced traceurs from as far as Texas. Twelve-year-old Julian Meyer practices a precision jump (or saut de précision, in parkour parlance) by leaping over a picnic table from the back of one park bench to another. Soon, his slightly more hesitant best friend joins in. Neither had attended a jam before Meyer convinced his grandmother to bring them up from Philadelphia.
“Modern architecture and city planning prohibits our natural movement,” explains 26-year-old Jesse Woody, a freckle-faced father of two who has traveled from Orange, Virginia, to participate in this jam. “We are confined to desks, to cars, to sidewalks; always constrained. Stay off the grass, walk here, don’t walk there,” says Woody. “Parkour opens all of that up. You can do it anywhere. I can go to the playground with my kids and train for parkour. This is what kids do. Only, I’m not going to stop. And I’m not going to tell my kids to stop.”
Exo, a 22-year-old with short, tight dreads and a well-honed physique, leaps to the top of the monument staircase, calling for a warm-up. About three dozen traceurs, mostly between the ages of 12 and 20,line up in orderly rows and follow his instructions through a series of push-ups and stair drills. After the brief spurt of organized activity, the jam slips back to its more organic form: small pockets of adrenaline-fueled kids honing each other’s skills through inventiveness, mutual admiration, roughhousing, and repetition.
At first glance, parkour closely resembles the early days of street skating, but the differences are significant: First, whether because of parkour’s early Internet presence or its European roots, the discipline has crossed ethnic and economic boundaries as skateboarding rarely has; second, there is an underlying ethical element that sets parkour apart from extreme sports. I watch as traceurs groom new members. One is discouraged from littering; another is told not to laugh at someone whose first vault is somewhat artless; others debate the demerits, advantages, and inevitability of commercialization, just as the NBC News cameras arrive, followed by a documentary film crew and a producer looking for a television pilot.
With the domestic release of the French action movie District B13, starring David Belle, and the upcoming release of a James Bond flick featuring Sébastien Foucan, parkour is about to make a splash in America, but according to most practitioners, the flashy, camera-ready moves—the cat leap, the wall run, the monkey vault—are a small part of the big picture.
“There is definitely a spiritual component here that most other sports lack,” states Exo, “a Zen quality of meditation, focus, and self-evaluation that is deeply individual and then supportive.”
‘If you really want to see it in action,” says Hangman, the moderator behind the New York Parkour online community, “you should pick a smaller jam.”
I pick a meeting at Columbus Circle where Sébastien Foucan is guest of honor. Surprisingly, only about a dozen dedicated traceurs attend, and all try to act casual when Foucan arrives. Endowed with feline grace and an easy smile, he doesn’t present himself as an authority but as another practitioner. Despite a recently broken wrist acquired while doing parkour for Madonna’s stage show, Foucan is eager to freerun.
“This isn’t a media event,” says Exo with a smile, “it’s for traceurs, so you’ll just have to keep up.” Thankfully, Exo is kind enough to provide me with observation points along their run. At the first, I perch on an outcropping of rock above a playground, watching as the traceurs bound over the terrain. Foucan jumps off a dumpster and lands six feet away, on top of a wobbling wooden fence. Other traceurs leap into trees and “tic-tac” from boulder to boulder.
“In parkour, you’re only as good as your environment,” says 27-year-old stuntman and new parkour practitioner Victor Lopez, watching from atop the giant rock.
“The truth is,” counters Mike Zernow, a 19-year-old veteran traceurcharscalex100 working with Foucan and Lopez on the Madonna tour, “you can do parkour anywhere.”
“That’s true,” admits Lopez. “But I want to see the big stuff. I want to know there is risk, a 100-foot drop between two rooftops. But Sébastien is old-school. He says it’s about the little things you can’t really see.”
While Exo has chosen a number of parkour hotspots in the park, the best locations are unexpected places along the way. A boulder behind a low wall on Central Park West is a perfect spot to practice turn vaults, gap jumps, wall hops, and quadrupedal movement. Foucan and Zernow both approach the boulder at a run, leap onto it, tic-tac off of it, turn their bodies 90 degrees, and alight on the slanted edge of the much higher pedestrian wall. It’s really impressive but evidently not at all intimidating to the newer traceurs, who happily attempt the same move again and again until a number of passersby start to applaud. Foucan smiles at his fellow practitioners.
“It is very, very good,” says Foucan in a thick French accent, “to move through the world, to always live with one’s passion.”