They’re into video games, role-playing, comics and superheroes. And they may be some of the most athletic kids around.
They’re “traceurs,” practitioners of a relatively new activity called parkour. They don’t just take the stairs, they leap down (or up) them. They hurdle fences, side-hop walls, walk up and over benches, and occasionally dismount from rooftops.
“Parkour is essentially training yourself to move more efficiently from Point A to Point B effectively, safely and with speed,” says 23-year-old Nick Faircloth of Raleigh, who discovered parkour when he was 16. “It’s about training hard to enjoy the freedom of play.”
A quick history: The origins of the sport are murky; most accounts tie it to French military training in Vietnam in the 1950s. In the 1990s, a group of French teens seized on the parkour philosophy, adopting it for civilian purposes. Soon, the Paris suburbs of Evry, Sarcellas, Lisses and others were filled with youths bouncing about public plazas, getting around town with a gymnastic grace and agility not typically seen in the streets.
The sport remained somewhat localized until the proliferation of smartphone cameras and GoPros capturing the French teens’ antics launched a global parkour community on Youtube.
It’s a community that traceurs say skews young and geeky.
“It’s the sport of nerds,” says Don Sportsman of Zebulon, whose 10-year-old son, Cheland, is an ardent traceur – and fan of dummies. First, he discovered puppetry, then dummies. He tracked down a local maker of the lap dolls, worked on his ventriloquist skills and now has in his collection a dummy classic, Mortimer Snerd of Red Skelton fame.
Cheland started attending parkour classes at Enso Movement when the North Raleigh parkour gym opened in April. He goes to classes about twice a week, says his dad, but “he’d go every day if he could.”
On a recent Tuesday evening, instructor Alan Tran lead a class of 10- to 16-year-olds – five boys and one girl – in a training session that lasted an hour and 15 minutes, beginning with 20 minutes of warm-up. Tran prompted the group through and over a collection of powder blue plywood platforms, walls and other obstacles in the gym’s warehouse home, stressing the importance of technique and safety.
“Let’s work on nice and quiet jumps,” he advised, reminding his pupils that a flatfooted landing is a loud and potentially painful landing.
Enso offers some home-schooler instruction during the day, but the majority of its classes are in the evening. They typically have three or four classes per night, each attracting from five to 13 students. Most are middle school to college age; one of the adult classes has a student who “is in his late 30s, he might even be 40.” (In France, classes for seniors are common.)
Parkour communities growing
Faircloth, a principal in the Enso gym, says he was typical of the aspiring traceur when he stumbled into the sport.
“I was sedentary, didn’t do a whole lot,” he recalls. Then one day he found himself in the wooded backyard of a relative’s house in Concord: he discovered a natural obstacle course in the boulders and downed trees. Shortly after, he was noodling around on the Internet and discovered these French kids doing similar moves in a more urban environment. The moves were the mortal equivalent of what the superheroes in his comics were doing. He was hooked.
That was about the same time parkour was beginning to find its way into North Carolina. Strong parkour communities developed at N.C. State University and at UNC-Charlotte, and two statewide parkour jams emerged, at which up to 80 practitioners gather.
‘It makes me feel free’
The gym sessions are akin to daily practice for team sports: paying the price to better enjoy the activity. In the case of parkour, that would be weekend gatherings at which traceurs get a chance to move more efficiently from Point A to Point B effectively, safely and with speed.
Recently, for instance, parkour was part of the eclectic Cook Street Carnival block party in Raleigh’s Idlewild neighborhood.
Faircloth says it’s no surprise that kids in particular take to parkour.
“Kids want to be active,” he says. “It’s not that kids don’t want to play, it’s just that sometimes they don’t have options. If you’re not into team sports, your options are limited.” Really, he adds, this is what kids have been doing for millennia, only with training.
Cheland Sportsman endorses that sentiment. Asked what he likes about parkour, he says, “It makes me feel free. And great.”
Joe Miller writes about health, fitness and outdoor adventure. Read his blog at GetGoingNC.com.