Parkour: The road less traveled

Parkour: The road less traveled

A lanky but defined young man in blue sneakers caught his breath as he balanced his weight on a sidewalk next to the handicap entrance to Snell Library.

He had just landed after jumping from a parallel sidewalk nine feet away from the one on which he rested.

His straight, blonde, shoulder-length locks followed as he leaped through the air, unfolding his bent legs and swinging his arms forward.

He might have imagined a creek flowing across his hiking path and jumping would be the only way to cross it.

Regardless of what he was thinking, he lunged back and forth, from one sidewalk to the other. Jumping, resting; jumping, resting; jumping; resting. He was practicing.

The young man is Glenn Black, a sophomore electrical engineering major at Northeastern.

Black was practicing parkour, an artform and philosophy that consists of traveling from point A to point B as quickly and efficiently as possible. As someone who participates in parkour, he is known as a “traceur.”

Walking around a flower bed blocking a path would be surrendering for a traceur. Vaulting the bed would provide a more gratifying navigation.

In order to travel as efficiently as possible, traceurs hurdle rails, steps, street signs or just air.

Parkour originated in France, where the term roughly translates to “obstacle course.” The name is fitting, as traceurs view their environment as a world of obstacles, taunting them to defeat. This idea is magnified in cities, where more “obstacles” tend to stand in a traceur’s path, allowing them to link maneuvers. The result: fast-paced blurs through the air.

Some call parkour an extreme sport. Others, like Chris Levesque, who graduated from Northeastern in 2005 with a major in civil engineering, do not like the word “sport” to be associated with parkour because it’s not a competition. Instead, Levesque said, parkour fosters self-improvement.

“Once you do something that is extremely technically difficult in parkour, then sometimes a lot of other things in life seem a little bit simpler,” Levesque said.

Black was gearing up for a gathering of traceurs on the corner of Forsyth street and Huntington avenues. It was not an ad-hoc meeting.

Almost every Sunday at 10 a.m., people from all over New England – including Northeastern students – come to that corner to assemble for “jams.”

And the jams don’t only unite traceurs. Some people come to practice freerunning, a discipline that derives from parkour. Freerunners maneuver obstacles, but the discipline lacks the speed and efficiency of parkour and is instead focused on aesthetic elegance and fun.

One recent Sunday morning, Black met up with seven fellow traceurs and freerunners.

The oldest, Darren Donahoe, 25, graduated from Massasoit Community College in Brockton and specializes in freerunning tricks, like flips. Donahoe did gymnastics, breakdancing and martial arts for years, so backflips come easy for him.

The youngest, River Leonard, 13, attends the Martin Luther King Jr. School in Cambridge and is perfecting how to roll out of his jumps.

Coordinating such a meet is not simple – at least it wasn’t, until Levesque founded the website New England Parkour, www.neparkour.com, in 2005. The non-profit site helps New England traceurs and freerunners communicate and coordinate meetings through discussion boards. It also helps the uninitiated understand the disciplines through videos, articles and animated examples of moves.

Levesque relocated to Portland, Maine, after graduation, but is still involved in the local parkour community. At the meeting last Sunday, he was helping junior philosophy and history major Ian Muller start a campus club for parkour at Northeastern. (Freerunners will be welcome to join, but parkour will be the concentration.)

“We want to be recognized by Northeastern,” Levesque said. “[The campus is] a really good training ground.”

To be a traceur or freerunner also includes a unique vocabulary. Parkours and freerunners are not simply jumping over obstacles: They can lazy (turn their legs to one side), kong (keep their legs straight, plant their hands on the object and throw their lower bodies between their arms), dash (launch their feet first), pop vault (climb up the rest of a tall object after jumping as high as possible) or turn vault (turn 180 degrees while holding onto the top of the object). If those do not sound appealing, many other techniques exist.

Run faster, jump higher

Once a few people arrive at the usual meeting place, the group walked to the warm-up spot – the lounging area between Kariotis and Cargill halls.

At the meeting, after preliminary back, leg and arm stretches, Black started hopping from one four-stepped seat to the next. He went from the third step on the seat to the fourth, then from the fourth to the second.

Compared to his fellow traceurs, Black’s motions are more precise: he distributes the impact of every landing through his whole body by bending his knees and staying loose. He rarely lands on a step with the whole sole of his puffy Merrell shoes – often he gets the toes and ball of each foot on while his heel hangs off. The shoes land straight and parallel to one another, never at an angle. Like a gymnast sticking a dismount, landings are an important gauge of the quality of a traceur’s performance. When a traceur’s landings are less fluid, his overall performance looks weaker.

As Black jumped from seat to seat, Robbie Blocher, a freshman mechanical engineering major at UMass Lowell, ran 20 feet and then attempted to kong over a concrete bench with a dome on it. After a few attempts, he extended his hands and, for a moment, was horizontal.

At the same time, C.J. Carr, a freshman computer science major at Northeastern, was balancing himself as he walked on the ledge dividing the lounging area from the pit next to Cargill Hall.

Like many traceurs today, Carr found out about parkour online through videos on YouTube.com a year and a half ago. He called what he saw “really incredible” and started participating in Boston soon after.

Parkour is also a vehicle for helping others, Levesque said.

“One of the fundamentals is helping people and being useful,” he said. “You want to make your body useful so that you can become better, so that you can help other people become better. It is just a cycle of usefulness.”

Black and Donahoe use their experience to teach safe and enjoyable moves, instilling a self-improvement ethic in Carr and others new to parkour and freerunning.

When a kong-to-cat-leap-to-lazy move near Meserve Hall was challenging Blocher, Black stepped in to provide guidance.

“You’re jumping too close, that’s what it is,” Black said.

A minute later, Blocher landed the combination move with grace and ease.

From the side, the others clapped and whistled. “Nice,” Black said.

Blocher then found himself in a loop, jumping from the driveway to a rail on the handicapped entrance to another rail to the building’s lobby, then back to the driveway. He went through the loop over and over.

Though Blocher sees jams as a time to improve his skills, not everyone likes to perform. Randy O’Connor, a Northeastern middler multimedia studies major, prefers to stand to the side of the group, observing traceurs’ expressions. He likes to incorporate them into the animations he crafts for class.

O’Connor discovered freerunning through a Toyota Scion commercial.

“I saw it, and it said ‘freerunners,’ and I was kind of like, “That’s not real. What is that?'” O’Connor said. “So I looked it up and I found Urban Freeflow.” Urbanfreeflow.com is a major parkour and freerunning website.

O’Connor freeran with other Northeastern students two years ago, but work and a lack of inspiration pushed him to stop. He does not come out as often now, O’ Connor said.

Inconvenient truths

With a hint of the gravity – defying traceurs attract attention. Some passersby stare. Other reactions are not as positive.

While the group was on Forsyth Street in front of Nightingale Hall, a Northeastern University Police Department patrol car rolled by. The window went down. An officer with sunglasses stuck out his head.

“Do not do that again,” the officer said to Black after he had tic-tacked over one of the do-not-enter signs. “You are gonna fall, and I am gonna scrape you off the ground.”

“OK,” Black told the officer. “Sorry for the trouble.”

James Ferrier, associate director of public safety at Northeastern, said the officer was doing his job.

The campus is not “a skatepark,” Ferrier said. “It is not an exercise field. Therefore the officers would be obligated to ask people to refrain from participating in activities that might injure themselves or others. It is not a supervised activity.”

Sidewalks, stairways and railings are not designed for parkour and freerunning, Ferrier said. Students who participate in these activities put themselves and others at risk.

“The university would be placed in a potentially liable situation if someone got hurt,” he said.

Ferrier recommended that Northeastern students who want to do parkour and freerunning go to the Marino Center and talk to the people in charge of intramural sports.

“Intramurals would identify appropriate spaces, and it would be a managed activity, and that would be fine,” Ferrier said.

However, Beth Griffith, assistant director of intramural sports, and Steven Belowsky, coordinator for club sports, said parkour would not meet the needed qualifications to become either an intramural or club sport.

Club teams need other teams to compete with, Belowsky said, so parkour would not qualify.

To add to the infractions, Ferrier said non-Northeastern students should not be on campus in the first place, because it is private property.

Later in the day, Black defended the maneuver he was trying to pull off.

“I had spotters,” Black said. “Most kids just go out and try shit.

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