Where All the World's a Playground

Somersaulting over a railing. Catapulting off a wall. Flipping over a space and rolling as you land on the ground.

For most of us these may seem like reckless stunts, but this is part of a new movement called Parkour. It's a word you won't find in the dictionary, but type it into an Internet search engine and you are bound to find more than 30,000 variations on video-sharing sites.

So what is Parkour? Derived from the French term for route, "parcours", it's a physical art in which one must find the quickest and most efficient way to get from point A to point B, using only the body and an awareness of its limits. Men who practice Parkour are called traceurs; females, traceuses — meaning they trace the route blazed by Parkour's creator, 34-year-old Frenchman David Belle.


It has spread worldwide from Europe to the United States, even parts of Africa, all because of jaw-dropping video clips featured on the Internet. Yet Parkour started with very humble beginnings in Lisses, France, a suburb of Paris, which is now a place of pilgrimage for many traceurs.

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Belle developed Parkour nearly a decade ago as a homage to his father, who was an acrobat and firefighter. The younger Belle was into gymnastics before realizing that he was capable of using more of his body.

"Parkour is an art that can become a sport. For me, a sport has rules, limits, timing, whereas art is something we do to blossom out, to develop ourselves. Basically it's more personal," said Belle.


Parkour is a movement that has grown up entirely on the Internet. Its community almost solely communicates online. Belle doesn't even own a computer, but he has more than 10,000 clips posted on the Web that have influenced admirers all over the world, like Mark Toorock.

Toorock is an American Parkour pioneer and owner of a Washington, D.C., gym. He says Parkour is an art, a sport and a discipline all rolled into one.

"You have to practice it. You have to study it," Toorock said. "You have to do repeated moves over and over and over until you become fluid in those movements."

Toorock also sees Parkour as a way of getting a generation used to sitting behind computers to get out and exercise — using the world as their playground.

"This is the way human beings used to move before there were buildings, before there were subways, before there were buses and taxis," Toorock said.

At Toorock's gym, it's not just teenage boys getting active. One of his students is 46-year-old Jessica Lubell, the mother of two teenage boys. She got hooked after accompanying her youngest son to a class at the gym.

"I've always been athletic and loved sports," said Lubell, an executive chef in Maryland. "I found the conditioning training of Parkour to be unique and challenging."

Although she doesn't do many of the spectacular jumps and leaps as her younger counterparts, Lubell does the basic vaulting moves. While she agrees that the daredevil aspect of Parkour is mainly seen as macho, she likes the effect it's having on her, as well as her sons.

"My sons used to be couch potatoes," she said. "Now they're active and motivated." Lubell says Parkour's biggest message is the best message of all.

"It builds stamina and endurance not just for the mind but for the body and that's a good thing for all of us."

Parkour is fast becoming more mainstream, like its distant cousin — skateboarding. It is featured in big Hollywood films such as the opening scene in "Casino Royale," "Live Free, Die Hard," "The Bourne Ultimatum" and even in Madonna's "Jump" music video. All of this attention has inspired thousands of young imitators, but causes great concern for Belle.

"It is not a sport that's just meant to impress. … People tend to feel strong because they want to impress, but that's not the point," Belle said.

Cliff Kravit, a California traceur and devoted Belle follower, agrees.

"One of the negatives is the fact that because anybody can upload a video and call it Parkour, the information is skewed," said Kravit. "People don't realize what it really is and they just see somebody doing whatever they want in a video and the philosophy gets lost, the true movement gets lost, and Parkour ends up with a bad name."

It seems like only a matter of time before Parkour becomes a big-ticket item — inspiring performance parks, clothes and athletic footwear. But Kravit believes commercializing Parkour for competitions and endorsement deals flies in the face of the movement's true philosophy.

"Nobody's against making money, but there's a proper message if you're going to promote Parkour that has to get across," he said. "Parkour is a way of living your life. There's no specific gear that you need, no specific shoe that you need. Your body is what you need."

While Toorock concedes that clothes and shoes won't make you better at Parkour, he believes Parkour's message of personal fulfillment can still be achieved in other ways.

"There's a difference between selling out and getting paid to do something," said Toorock. "I do what I love every day and it's how I make my living. I don't think you'll find a lot of people who will argue with that."