Even in our most sober moments, we all wish that we could scale walls and triple somersault between buildings like the most daredevil Hong Kong detective. A lot of the time, when lying prostrate on the couch in front of a Jackie Chan film whilst chowing down on some pizza that I’ve had conveniently Sherpa’d to my front door, I’m often left not only playing out in my head slightly unhinged fantasies of smashing up half of the Bronx in a death defying chase sequence, but also asking ‘How the &$*£ do they do that?’
Well, this week, I intend to find out, through getting out into the Shanghai streets and trying my hand at parkour, one of the most dynamic and fastest growing urban sports there is. Originally the brainchild of Frenchmen David Belle and Sebastien Foucan, Parkour in its purest sense is a training discipline which involves moving through the urban environment as quickly and efficiently as possible. Developed on the Parisian streets throughout the 90’s, Parkour gained more widespread exposure at the turn of the century through featuring in various commercials, documentaries and films. District 13, starring David Belle, is perhaps the most popular amongst these, whilst Sebastien Foucan’s turn in the chase scene at the beginning of Casino Royale brought parkour to an even wider audience. The internet helped in no small part, for all of a sudden any budding traceur (parkour practitioner) could put their stunts on youtube to be liked by viewers the world over. And some of what the top traceurs such as Belle and Foucan can do is truly incredible.
"You can always tell if you've got the technique right, because it doesn't hurt."
In the last decade parkour has snowballed into a global phenomenon, with communities springing up in cities all over Europe, America, and now, China. The Shanghai scene is relatively young at around five years, but already boasts a number of dedicated traceurs in its ranks, in a city that throws up ample opportunities for them to hone their skills. After alighting at Longhua Zhong Lu on my way to meet the guys from the Link parkour collective, my previous resolve was replaced by trepidation, not least because the effects of a few dubious whiskey and cokes the previous evening had left me feeling in a somewhat delicate state.
I’d arranged to meet Martino, one of the founders of the Link collective, and by extension the Shanghai parkour scene. As I neared the outdoor climbing wall overlooking the Huangpu River I could just about make out figures flipping off walls, busting one handed handstands and the like, and I felt that I may have gone in over my head.
Martino’s apologizing for being unable train fully due to an ankle injury did not help matters. I needn’t have worried. Despite the death-defying abilities of its most famous proponents, and indeed the impressive skills of Martino and his pals, parkour is at its heart an inclusive sport. It is non-competitive, and focused upon the individual’s journey towards physical and spiritual improvement. So whilst the more experienced traceurs were honing their backflips, there were other beginners learning the basics, not to mention a lot of folks just hanging out with a stereo blasting out hip hop tunes and enjoying the faint rays of spring sunshine. Almost inevitably, the antics of the traceurs drew baffled gazes from some of the older Shanghainese out for a stroll along the river.
‘The most important skill in parkour is learning how to land. If you don’t know how to land you won’t get far' Martino said bluntly. So my crash course in parkour began with learning the basic skills: landing, rolling, and running in the most efficient way. Believing that I had perfected the forward roll as a child in Judo class, I soon discovered that throwing oneself about on a mat, and doing the same on concrete, are two different things. Apparently,‘You can always tell if you’ve got the technique right, because it doesn’t hurt.' After numerous rolls on the concrete promenade it was clear to me that my technique still needed some work. ‘When I started parkour I practiced the basics everyday’ Martino recalled. ‘I used to clear all the furniture out of my living room and just practice rolling. After a while, it becomes second nature, but you have to train all the time.’
‘The most important skill in parkour is learning how to land. If you don’t know how to land you won’t get far.'
I realised quickly that even the most basic moves in parkour are not easy. They require co-ordination, control, and skill to pull off properly, and if they were made to look easy by Martino and his mates, that is the result of years of dedicated training. However, even for a newbie like myself, there are plenty of tricks that are easy and fun to try. As the afternoon went on I was taught the basic vaults and jumps, and even tried my hand at scaling some walls.
Somehow I managed some of the easier routes, though considerably less gracefully than the more seasoned traceurs. I felt like I was getting the hang of it, but was soon warned of the dangers of getting over-confident in this game when one of the other beginners miss-timed a jump between ledges, shaving the skin off his shins in the process. It was the end of his class, and since I felt I was riding my luck a little by this point, I too decided to call it a day.
My first taste of parkour left me eager to find out more, so a few days later I hooked up with the Link collective again, though this time at their recently opened indoor gym. From here they teach individual and group lessons every day, as well as working on new skills to take to the streets at the weekend. The classes consist of an array of calisthenic drills and exercises to build strength and endurance, whilst the instructors are on hand to give pointers on technique when executing tricks, allowing less experienced traceurs to push themselves further in a safe environment.
‘For me parkour is not just a hobby, it’s a way of life’ reflected Martino, during a much needed break in the session. ‘It makes you think differently about your environment, and the skills you learn in parkour can be applied to everyday life.’ His thoughts on parkour are echoed by traceurs across the world, and after experiencing parkour for myself I can see why it has struck a chord with so many people and become the phenomenon that it has.
So if you'll excuse me, I'll be getting back to the couch. But I won’t be sitting on it and eating pizza this time. I’m going to move it aside and start practicing some serious forward rolls...
WORDS BY ARVIN MAHANTA
IMAGES COURTESY OF LINK PARKOUR