The Urban Dancers: The Story of Australian Parkour (Grapeshot Magazine: Issue 1, Vol. 7, February 20
Just imagine. Instead of travelling by car or train in Sydney, you can jump from building to building like Spiderman. Far-fetched as it may seem, this is exactly what it is like the growing parkour community in Australia.
Parkour has risen in popularity in recent years, turning concetre jungles into urban playgrounds. The rise of the sport has showcased innovative ways the sport utilises its surroundings, and the ideology behind it.
Freerunning began on the outskirts of Paris during the 1980s; as the childhood games of David Belle and Sebastian Foucan, among many others. In their games they would chase each other, and clear obstacles. The activity became their main pastime during this adolescence, and this period was pivotal in the development of freerunning.
But how does parkour actually work?
I interviewed J.P. Gauntlett, co-owner of AAPES (Australian Academy of Parkour, Exercise and Self-Defence), the largest parkour sports facility in Australia, about the current status of parkour in Australia. “My closest friends I met through Parkour" Gauntlett said. "Parkour has a level of carmaraderie I've never experienced before”.
Originating from military training, parkour is the aim of moving from A to B as quickly and efficiently as possible. The purpose is not to look impressive or perform tricks, however. Formulated around movement and co-ordination, it focuses primarily on physical efficiency. Freerunning varies from parkour because it pursues beauty and style over efficiency. Sebastian Foucan, in an interview for the documentary Jump London opined that “Freerunning is always there. In older times, to hunt, to chase, you had to practise freerunning. The obstacles are always there. You just have to look, and think like a child”.
Foucan believes cities can be very constraining. “People don’t look. They go to work, go home, sleep. City life is too stressful. We see cities as a playground. When I do parkour, I feel like a dancer”. Similarly, Gauntlett feels that parkour has changed his perception of Sydney. “Parkour makes the ugly beautiful. Parkour makes every construction site, every ruined building, every crappy sculpture a playground with endless possibilities. It opens your eyes".
Beyond urban landscapes, parkour has taken on more philosophical meanings. Foucan likens the fears that exist in everyday life with the challenges of parkour. Rules, like only moving forward, can be applied to everyday life. Gauntlett also suggests parkour helps to improve self-confidence. “It's about understanding exactly what you are capable of. People who train in parkour know their exact capabilities and how to improve. There is no guess work- with self-confidence comes the ability to truly have fun with movement”.
Parkour’s rise began in the 1990s, following its representation in commercial campaigns, endorsed by corporate goliaths like Nike and Toyota, as well as the 2004 documentary Jump London, which saw Foucan and fellow freerunners perform Parkour on various London landmarks. Following its appearance in the James Bond film, Casino Royale, and use in games like Assassin’s Creed and Mirrors Edge, it developed a strong cult following.
Casino Royale played a role in influencing Gauntlett to start Sydney’s parkour movement, and he has seen its expansion. “A few years ago the word parkour was met with confusion, now we all know what it encapsulates”. Today, he sees parkour as being an accepted activity open to any culture, sexuality, gender and religion. “It's gone from a small boy’s club to a massive community. Previously, if you wanted to learn you had to teach yourself or go to small classes scattered across Sydney".
So what about the future?
The incorporation of parkour into recent blockbusters like Brick Mansions and video games like Dying Light signifies that its cultural impact is global and profound. Even Iranian women in impoverished parts of the Middle East have organised parkour communities. Many practitioners of parkour are pushing to have it recognised as an urban sport. Gauntlett's aspirations, however, are slightly different:
“All I want to do is make new friends and train. There are two sides to parkour currently; commercialised big business and the roots movement that embodies training and inclusiveness. The latter is definitely winning out. At its core parkour is about natural movement. If it's natural, anyone can do it”.
Parkour has come a long way from its small beginnings. The views of “urban dancers”, such as Gauntlett confirms that in Sydney, parkour's desire to become a major sport is subsidiary to the enjoyment and community gained from it. With today’s nine-to-five lifestyle, parkour changes people’s perception of cities. And isn’t viewing cities as a playground just a wonderfully refreshing prospect?