(Updated with Slideshow) Parkour: We Try to Become Our Very Own Leaping, Spinning, Pipe-Grabbing, Pedestrian-Avoiding Jason Bourne
Parkour hits Houston, as people seek a new workout.
Photo by Derrek Barlow
Check out our slideshow of parkour training in Houston.
If you ever take a ride on one of Houston's downtown Segway tours, there's a point near the Wortham Center, trailing along the bayou, that the guides will always indicate. Flitting between the feet-high brick walls, scampering along the thin lines of the lower waterfall, there's a group of people -- maybe a half-dozen, maybe more -- that don't seem to pay attention to the passers-by, wheeling and otherwise.
They're swinging their bodies underneath branches. They're slapping their hands on the worn cement underneath the walkways. They look like a cross between a simian and a spider. They look as if they're running from something, or to something, but there's no way to tell, because they're looping back and over and around again, never quite linear, never quite concerned that this railing and that underhang aren't meant for the feet and hands that bounce these men and women through.
Parkour. You may have heard of it -- you've likely seen it, whether in Bond or Bourne or any of the drunken nights that had you and your friends trying to swing across the scaffolding or leap the too-full garbage bags, only to clip your toe and land chin-first on the cement. You may think it's something that allows you to rankle as many security guards and confuse as many onlookers as possible. You may think it's pointless. You're wrong.
It might not be obvious on its face; after all, parkour seems simply about attacking whatever object is in your way and forgoing the sidewalks and pathways that the rest of the henchmen and passers-by so generally use. But...it's not. It's not just moving from A to B. It's about something bigger.
"It's a philosophy -- it has both a physical component and a psychological aspect," says Wes Hamner, the 31-year-old co-founder of Urban Movement, a group that helps sweep students across the low-lying and high-hanging barriers scattered across Houston. "Etre et durer. To be and to last. You're conditioning yourself because of all the physicality of it, but you're also looking to the long term."
It's that longevity -- that appreciation of your body and your community and your surroundings -- that brings these dozens of customers to Urban Movement every week. Founded in 2011, the organization sought to add a bit of structure to something that had been, per parkour's reputation, a free-flow free-for-all. While shades of a parkour community had formed in Houston -- the French sport's rise has boomed following Hollywood's recent offerings -- it was too amorphous to offer both those committed and the larger community all that it could.
"We all realized we were having these thoughts at the same time," Cameron Pratto, one of the group's co-founders, told Hair Balls. "And so we took what we knew about Parkour Generations and [Art du Déplacement] Academy, and we decided to put a framework on what we were doing out here."
The program remains dedicated more to the pursuit of the spirit rather than to the pitch of the bottom line. The classes, five days a week, stay small, and the instructors remain as patient and encouraging with those on a first try as they do with the non-amateurs who regularly come to enjoy the afternoons and evenings. Still the only structured parkour organization in Houston, Urban Movement has finally begun expanding, hiring a fourth instructor -- a 24-year-old teacher named, simply, Ra -- and, per the Segway highlights, has finally begun making a mark on the downtown spaces they hoop through for most of the week.
Of course, it's one thing to read about the physiological benefits of scrambling through a well-tended city block; it's another altogether to actually put those words into practice. Saturday morning provided just such an opportunity for Hair Balls to test the claims that using a curb as a balance beam was useful beyond escaping Jason Bourne.
Gathering in the shadows of the Wortham Center, patchy clouds hanging above, the Urban Movement instructors greeted their patrons with a clear voice. "You'll have to train through the pain," Pratto told the dozen of us circled up. "If you're just starting off, you'll probably bang your knee and smash your shin -- we all have -- but we're here to try to keep that to a minimum. And if you think that you're just going to sprint through all of this -- you won't."
And he was right. Even if you wanted to sprint through the subsequent course -- even if, like Parisian Cathy Marais, you've been parkour-ing for months -- Pratto and Hamner make sure you have no energy left to approach anything near a sprint.
The waivers signed beforehand alert those unaware that, yes, there's a bit of danger involved in the practice of parkour. It's physical exertion, writ across a city. It's going to hurt. However, the class listings, now available on GroupOn, don't let on that the most physically demanding aspect of the day's activities center is not the hand-springs and sweep-legs but rather the most stringent, sweatified warm-up you'll ever experience.
Sprints through stairs. Push-ups at pace. Crawling sideways, leap-frogging straight-legged back and forth. Tenderizing your palms on the cobbled rock. Heating your triceps and straining your quads until they're quivering and nearly empty. Only after you find the sweat rolling down your nose, only when your hips are locked in exhaustion -- only after Wes informs us that anyone caught leaning or sitting will be subjected to more push-ups -- are we ready to reach for the walls over which we'll spend the morning leaping.
Indeed, the actual parkour aspect of the class is the easiest part of the entire course. It's paced slowly, full of reminder and encouragement and rote repetition, and confidence builds as your body recovers. The initial focus on exhaustion and heart rate, instead of simply getting yourself warmed, is carried within parkour's philosophy.
"If you come at it fresh, you're going to land the first few jumps, and you're going to build up a false confidence about your abilities, especially when you then get tired," Hamner says. "And so we want you to be already tired when we're teaching you -- if you can accomplish this when you have no energy now, you can do it again in the future. And you can do this with whatever mental hurdles you have outside of parkour."
The three-foot wall we spend the morning near was no match for our later swing-throughs: Placing a pair of hands to your side, you jump your opposite leg out and bring your other leg through the empty triangle between body and brick. Backward, forward. Over and over. Touch the ground, lightly. Keep your palms flat for traction. Move to a slightly higher wall. Do it again.
A small crowd gathered nearby, watching our sweaty mass acrobat from across the Wortham's walls. Some shouted encouragement. Some children couldn't quite place us. We moved along a circular route -- more walls, a switched landing, lighter footwork. Landing that first reverse twist -- easily the most difficult maneuver of the day -- built up the confidence of which Hamner warned, which is promptly deflated when your toe slaps the wall too low, sending your nearly tumbling into your instructor's arms. Slower next time. More sure. More controlled.
Thirty minutes of this -- or maybe longer? Parkour has a funny sense of eliminating a sense of time and schedule -- and it's time for the cooling stretches. One of the toddlers watching us joins in. And it's funny, actually, that these kids passing by did take such an interest. Certainly made us laugh a few times. But it makes sense, because, after all, we're just doing what they're doing. We're just jumping around, because it's a beautiful day, and because we can, and because it's as much fun as it is focus. We're just exploring a playground most of us simply pass through.
"I've never really done parkour before -- a couple of these classes, but that's it," said Jonathan Kung, a 24-year-old participant. "But I was a kid, right? So I've done this. It's been awhile, but I've done this."
And you're wiped at the end, but you're wired. You suddenly start seeing these routes popping up from the piping and scaffolding and bayou canals surrounding you. You suddenly realize you don't have to wait for the light, or for the sidewalk to turn. You can cut this way. You can skip that line. You aren't stuck in whatever grid or route or way.
Yeah, it can help whenever you need to close the gap between you and the thief with the stolen blueprints. And it can also be used to piss off the security guards who've let their power run to their head. But that's not what parkour's for. It's for being, and for lasting. It's for a philosophy. It's for allowing in a new framework -- even when there's no framework to speak of.
"It's an adventure, sure," says Hamner. "But this adventure's long-term. And that's why it's about lasting. That's why it's a philosophy. That's why we do parkour."