Come on, Allie,” my teammate Mike called over to me. “You’ve got this!”
I was holding everyone up – which was somewhat understandable, as I was staring at a giant slab of concrete. And though the sensible thing would be to walk around it or not to be here in the first place, in a rarely used corner of the School of Dentistry courtyard, I had other plans. Encountering a wall in the sport of parkour means there’s no way to the other side but over.
As I eyed my stubbornly concrete adversary, I was praying that this time I’d be able to keep the skin on my knees. My poor legs already bore the scrapes of a dozen failed attempts to do a “lazy vault,” but my pride was chafing worst of all. Cursing under my breath and launching myself forward, I swung my hips up, and felt a rush of glee as I found my feet stumbling forward on the other side. It was the first time I had managed a vault. I swelled with pride.
For reasons unknown to me at the time, I recently took up one of the most illogical, absurd and ultimately fulfilling sports available. When questioned by my friends, concerned about my limbs’ diminishing stretches of unscathed skin, I’m faced with the near impossible task of explaining parkour without sounding nutty.
Basically, it’s turned campus into my personal obstacle course. Where you see a construction fence directing you another way, parkour practitioners see a beckoning hurdle in their quest for the shortest route possible – and they’ll use a mixture of gymnastics, break dancing, rock climbing and martial arts to achieve it.
Too often, parkour is confused with buildering, the climbing of buildings, or Yamakasi, the daredevil bastard child of parkour and movie stunts. Far from being flashy exhibitionism, the motives of parkour are rather Zen. The sport’s athletes, called traceurs, seek “flow:” an understanding of their surroundings, a oneness with their environment and freedom from physical and mental obstacles.
And the mental obstacles can be just as real.
As a new convert to the Michigan Parkour Crew, I often find myself marveling at the grace and agility of my teammates. They have the coordination to move well and the self-assurance to practice. And it takes great self-assurance. You must either have to enjoy the spotlight or be convinced of your own invisibility to comfortably parkour in public. I’m still working on that part.
But the beauty of parkour, and one of the things that keeps me kicking my own ass twice a week at the Michigan Parkour practices, is the sport’s underlying commitment to acceptance of anyone willing to give it a shot. David Belle, one of the sport’s founders, famously said, “Tell me how you move and I’ll tell you who you are.”
Anyone can offer a new form of movement. Anyone can come up with a new way of interacting with a lamppost.
Every parkour crew I’ve ever encountered has been a study in positive group dynamics. Individuals and the group grow together. There are no points, no losers, no egoists. It’s absolutely wholesome.
Unfortunately, certain authority figures see something else in what we do. And though many authority figures warm up to the sport once they understand its rationale, for others it’s easy to jump to conclusions about a group of strangely-behaving young adults in hoodies.
One day, sprinting around the corner and ducking under the pine tree, I scrambled awkwardly up a wall near University Health Services and paused for a moment, gasping for breath and trying to ignore the stares from passers-by as I looked for a way down. I was running our new timed circuit, which circled through the Dentistry building and adjacent parking complexes. Hopping down off a low ledge, I continued forward, running across benches and dashing up stairs.
I felt a rising sparkle of excitement. Before then, I hadn’t been able to complete one of the wall climbs up the parking structure, but had an idea for a new foothold to try. I furrowed my brow, and with a running start, I got my hands and arms up over the wall. I felt euphoric with the success. I felt unstoppable.
Dropping down to the floor again, I turned around and came face to face with a parking guard. Her mouth was set in a thin line. She was not pleased. Irate would be an accurate description.
“What do you think you’re doing?,” she said. “This is not a playground!”
I opened my mouth to try to actually explain what I thought I was doing, but saved my breath. With a meek apology, I hurried off to the stairs, listening to her shouts that the police were being notified.
When I arrived back at the starting point, out of breath in my haste to deliver the message, the rest of the crew laughed. Apparently, everyone running the circuit before me had received an identical warning. Our personal quests to overcome all of life’s obstacles weren’t a good reason to affront the prized walls of a parking structure.
Yet, for all of the bumps, scrapes and public chastisement, the rush of parkour has become my new drive. I’m going for the speed vault next.
-Allison Ghaman is an associate design editor for The Michigan Daily and an LSA sophomore