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A Trip Down Parkour Memory Lane

Table of Contents

The exact origins of Parkour proves to be a difficult one.

The art and skill of Parkour is known to transcend time and cultural boundaries, beyond the grounds for classification. In its name itself, there are multiple variable references for this singular referent — such as Freerunning or L’Art du Deplacement.

Just by looking at these differential names, a problematic inquiry arises.

The term “Freerunning” has categorical connotations of a sport whereas the term “L’Art du Deplacement” has that of an art form.

As Parkour seemingly spans across several categories, what would be a definitive consensus on this dilemma?

As it is, there is no decent verdict for this. As it is, Parkour cites its cultural and historical influences from a whole host of traditions and practices.

Its family lineage is muddled and its genealogical cup runneth over.

It is impossible to precisely trace down Parkour’s origin to a single source.

Perhaps the best way to narrow it down is to deconstruct it from the point of greatest influence — a quaint, little French town.

The French Influence

Many small, semi-rural satellite towns and villages encompass the grand capital of Paris.

Contrary to the grandeur and epicness of the act of Parkour, some people claim its humble beginnings from a group of nine young men.

This group was accredited to the creation of l’Art du Deplacement during the 1980s, specifically childhood friends Yann Hnautra and David Belle.

They were proposed to be responsible for much of Parkour’s early training through their formation of the group “Yamakasi” from the language Lingala, meaning “strong man and strong spirit”.

Together, they can be accrued to be the founders of early Parkour. 

Given the urban-rural setting of these towns, many of the children growing up in these communities spent the bulk of their childhood prancing about in nature.

David’s father, Raymond Belle was one of the greatest influences on Yamakasi.

He introduced military training regimes of famed physical health instructor, Georges Hebert, called parcours du combattant.

This training method was influenced by the natural, physical conditioning of indigenous African tribes where they free their inhibitions to become more attuned with their natural self.

This allowed them to move their body collectively in a more effortless and fluid manner rather than isolating muscle groups.

This ‘flow state’ of movement informed innovative new ways to navigate the natural environments.

Moreover, since parcours means ‘course’, it also served as the onomastic source for the altered English derivative, parkour.


While Raymond was pivotal to the ongoing evolution of parkour, a larger group of individuals can be attributed to nurturing the speciality of holistic body movement like the popular Saut de Chat movement (otherwise known as King Kong Vault).

Through this development, Yamakasi took advantage of and revolutionized the utility of childhood games to develop the parkour narrative.

Instead of idling partaking in games, games became objective-driven and mentally stimulating with the twist of physicality and functionality derived from various philosophies like Taoism, acrobatics (Jackie Chan movies), or even urban shamanism (wild man of Paris, Don Jean Haberey).

This, in turn, incurred the evolution of ‘big jumps’ involving a set of vaults, jumps, climbs, and rolls.

This upped the ante of the athleticism of parkour, capturing the awe and wonder of the global audience with their spectacular gravity-defying feats across tall structures and over large crevices.

Cultural Significances: Filmic Representation

The popularity of parkour also saw the rise of film influences in the form of Luc Besson’s film, Yamakasi: Les samourais des temps modernes (2001).

Enthusiasms generated from the film’s release actually led to ramifications of two accidental deaths in the imitation of these fantastical but hazardous jumps and leaps.

Consequently, this separated parkour enthusiasts into two camps: loyal practitioners of the parkour art versus the hype-train.

In objection to the portrayal of parkour in this film, the loyal practitioners decided to call themselves traceur which means ‘bullet’ in English to pay homage to David Belle’s and his contemporaries of perfecting the art of swift movement alternating over terrain obstacles to reach destinations efficiently. 

 

Despite the commercialization of the field of parkour, it’s undeniable that pop culture has propagated its popularity and purveyed interest in it on to the next generations.

Even David Belle acknowledged these merits by participating in the first BBC advert ‘Rush Hour’ by posing as a creative commuter circumventing rush hour traffic and bypassing crowds via London’s rooftops.

Subsequently, this provided material for future reiterations of parkour portrayals in popular media such as UK’s Channel four award-winning documentary ‘Jump London’ (2003) and its sequel ‘Jump Britain’ (2005) which featured more parkour navigation across the London cityscape.

This documentary compensated for the injustices plaguing parkour in the previous BBC advert portrayal because it reinforced the physical spectacle of parkour while simultaneously illuminating its neglected philosophical aspects.

This portrayal achieved relative success in dispelling ambiguity and misunderstandings pervading through parkour in the form of blind hype.

The Re-imagination of Parkour

Perhaps the merit of parkour doesn’t lie in attempting to structurally organize and categorize it, but rather in the appreciation of individual stylistic expressions of it.

Even David Belle himself refuses to disclaim a clear definition of this practice.

What constitutes a domain of parkour is broad and subjective, undergoing various cycles of re-interpretation across generations.

The debate over whether parkour is a fighting art or an acrobatic discipline is entirely vague and perhaps, is never meant to be answered. 

 

At its core, parkour has expanded to encompass all sorts of athletic disciplines beyond simply travelling from point A to point B in the most efficient manner.

Just as how freely-flowing parkour is, likewise the same principle applies to the definitions surrounding it.

Movement is movement, regardless of the label.

Parkour is fundamentally the mastery of one’s own movement through the balance of body and mind, thereby reinforcing its inherent focus on the mental and spiritual well-being of the individual.

If one’s mental health is unstable, it extends to unstable physical prowess too.

To date, there has been much revitalisation to the practice of parkour.

Regardless of whether you acquire it from grimey streets of London to the skateparks of Paris, the overarching love for the physical athleticism of it compels and unifies all parkour enthusiasts to the center stage of athletic exhibitionism.

It’s also been slowly indoctrinated into local education systems via workshops in community sports centres and inner-city schools such as Parkour For Schools Programme and Parkour Generations Academy to encourage a mainstream appreciation of it.

Gone are the days when parkour was a specialization reserved for the athletically-gifted; now it’s become increasingly accessible and viable for the common folk to practice.

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