By Caitlin Pontrella
Note: Please remember that these are my opinions. I am not directly attacking anyone, but merely putting forth a swath of observations I’ve made over the last three+ years actively engaged in the community.
Over the last ten years our discipline has been in a state of self definition–and continues to exist there. Without having generations of history, instruction, and training anchoring our practice, Parkour is still open to wide and varied, and potentially permanent definition by its practitioners today.
With this comes both great opportunity, and great risk.
On one hand, as practitioners, we have a lot of power. Our generation gets to be the ones who shape the driving philosophies, the dominant culture, and the public perception of Parkour. We are given the chance to study and research other movement disciplines, allowing us to freely borrow the elements we deem best while discarding the rest. We get to define the degree of competition, accessibility, and risk in our practice. We decide methodology, technique, and, most importantly, the culture that will be associated with what we do.
On the other hand, we perhaps have little power. We are open to negative influence and misrepresentation due to a lack of a unifying identity. We have no way to bestow credit to the deserving and discredit to the exploiters. Having no generation of teachers before us, we can be quick to overvalue experience and undervalue education. We have an ambiguous relationship with the authorities, the public sphere, and the media. In our globalized, internet-centric age, the reckless mistakes of one can influence and impact the public perception and active cultures halfway around the world.
II. My Parkour
I want to talk then about where I perceive us to be now in that process of self definition. I wish to applaud that which I perceive to be great progress and to call out that which I wish I could change. But, before I delve into that critique, I wish to give you a quick look at the discipline of Parkour as I wish it to be percieved. This hopefully will help recenter you, the reader, and give you an idea of where my critique originates from:
Parkour would be the discipline of personal challenge. Practitioners would use the natural capacities of their body, and the fortitude of their mind, to overcome obstacles and challenges they set for themselves. There would be an emphasis on personal artistry, technical competence, and playfulness, opposed to high athleticism, power, and manhood. AKA Practitioners would place more value on creative personal style and excellent technique over the difficulty, danger, or extremeness of maneuver.
As to the community, we would be encouraging as many people to participate as possible, and would subsequently give them space and respect to pursue their personal path. Beginners would have equal worth as long term practitioners, regardless of motive. Maturity, self-respect, respect for your environment (spaces & authorities), and humility would reign. Anything less would not be tolerated. Competition, comparison, and ego would have no place. We would be a culture removed from the pursuit of spectacle. Rather, Parkour would be highly personal, and an excellent tool for intimate communication.
So this is my Parkour. For some of you, this may resemble the Parkour you want as well. For others, not so much. But, with this being said, I would like to address the state of our discipline.
III. Public Perception & Our Role in Shaping it
It is of my opinion that the issues of credibility amongst our peers will work themselves out over time. Parkour now has groups stepping forward seeking legitimization and unification through opening gyms, working with public institutions, and issuing certifications to name a few. There are conversations held on forums, talks given on national stages, and documentaries being released. There are strong leaders, with strong communities, that now exist, that very vocally push for a community that is safe, respectful, responsible and mature. There are instructors that are now dedicating their time and efforts to having a deeper understanding of the movements themselves, through traditional education, personal study, and invention. Techniques and their respective progressions are becoming increasingly focused and defined. And, even though this has only been happening over the last 3-5 years on a larger scale, and is undoubtedly riddled with differences in approach, there are recurring and overarching themes that have emerged despite differences in practice and geography. We are moving towards some form of unified identity.
Though this has not quiet permeated all of the smaller communities, and there are definitely those that still exist in the immaturity of adolescence, I believe that our discipline is actively working to exit its teenage-pain years.
However, what we may not be able to recover from, or have very good hold of, is the influence exerted on our publicly perceived identity by the combination of the mainstream media, the internet, and the still existent immaturity.
More often then not, Parkour is represented to the public through news & information outlets as a culture dominated by the adolescent, thrill-seeking, adrenaline junky male stereotype, and all its subsequent affiliations (immaturity, egoism, impatience, lack of control, etc)–a stereotype that many wish to deny dominates but, from my experience, inevitably still has a strong foot and place. In our practice and its representation, the movements have taken the priority–and more often than not our Parkour culture has come to overvalue physical power, manhood, and those who are taking the largest, riskiest jumps. The news, the internet, and even many practitioners, tend to focus on the spectacle of our movement rather than the spirit.
This has lead to a number of ailments and the emergence of a fairly abrasive, and potentially perceived exclusive, movement culture–one far from the one I dream of.
I offer three points to support this:
1. Money, Ego, Power, and the Media: With value being increasingly placed on power and risk, so comes the growth of the ego and pursuit of the spectacle. You can see this happening with the emergence of lucrative athlete sponsorships, high-exposure competitions, and celebrity-status gyms trying to take over the world. With the rise of corporate interest and the potential to make big money (if you’re lucky), there has been an increasing focus by practitioners on being the best and proving it. Phrases like ‘Going Big’ ‘We go hard’ and ‘Go big or go home’ have become embedded in the culture. Gone are the days where videos were simple, sliced together clips of challenges and trainings in our backyard. Today videos are calculated, directed, and subjected to hours of post-production. Only the biggest, and flashiest movements are welcome. Cue dub-step, victory flips, and commentary on being manly. And, if you cant afford to get yourself a camera man, if you aren’t pursuing massive power, your video most likely will be labelled amateur and go unnoticed. Amateur–A word that has no place in our discipline. We cant be a community if everyone is trying to scramble to the top, to best their mates, to be ‘the‘ preeminent voice/face/source on Parkour.
2. Competition & Elite Athletes: With the emergence of competition and an idea of what the ‘elite athlete’ should look like, also comes a shift in how one approaches training. More frequently in class by my newer students I am asked ‘what next.’ This comes from a completely misguided focus when it comes to training. Students and practitioners come in with a checklist of movements they want to learn, and often move too quickly into advanced maneuvers before they should–before they can land quietly, control their momentum properly, build strength required for navigating mistakes, and so forth. (I am not saying that this is just a fault of the student though, for there are also some teachers at fault as well–dangerously forging ahead in order to placate their students & retain clients). While the eagerness to learn is invaluable, the lack of patience and discipline is dangerous. Practitioners more and more want to be constantly learning something cool and new, bigger and flashier, rather than focusing the hours, days, years on the conditioning and drilling required to do it well. This is why I believe there has been a rise in injuries. Competition, and fast-track training, ultimately encourages practitioners to take risks prematurely for a chance at success–money, recognition, esteem, sponsorship, commercial deals, etc. Personal safety takes a backseat to the desire to impress, and is easily sacrificed if need be. And thus practitioners ultimately end up pursuing bigger, riskier movements long before they have acquired the strength and technical refinement required to safely and consistently navigate their obstacles (and any mistakes that may come with it)—just so that they may be sooner recognized as ‘good’, and subsequently ‘accepted’ into the Parkour world.
3. Diluted Philosophy & Respect Tied to this impatience, and need to be the best/accepted, is inevitably the dilution of the philosophies embedded in Parkour. Once things like competition, ego, need for approval, and a sense of self importance begins to trickle in, once we begin defining the idea of ‘an elite practitioner’, the ‘of-value’ practitioner, it is hard to hold on to the Parkour principles of mutual respect, personal safety, moderation, the sharing of knowledge, and humility. We can not fully respect others when we are competing against them, when we are comparing their capabilities to ours, when we are judging them, even subconsciously, for their shortcomings. We hesitate to share our innovation, we are unable to find the pure joy in simple play, we think little of our movement fifty, sixty, seventy years from this day. We forget movement is a tool for personal growth and the exploration of creativity, and treat it instead as a means to an end. I think the Call to Arms from Parkour Generations delves into this more.
As stated prior, when we focus so greatly on the movement itself, when we focus on overcoming others rather than overcoming ourselves, we lose the chance to connect with others in our community–to communicate on another level, to interact and see the world through someone else, to problem solve as a team, to grow as a human being.
The media, competition and the ego, the dilution of respect & spirit, the overvaluation of power and under appreciation of effort… these things all contribute to the rise of an extremely abrasive movement culture. More than once I have had students approach me, intimidated by what they’ve read and seen online, on television, even in their parks, nervous to even think of trying.
With images of athletic men, climbing buildings, flipping at great heights, and jumping roof gaps dominating the majority of visual content in articles and research papers on Parkour, with the ‘Parkour’ Red Bull competitions and cinematic Ninja Warrior courses standing as our strongest broadcasted televised image, with practitioners still obsessively applauding the biggest, baddest videos…, we end up alienating the casual practitioner, the play-oriented practitioner, the technically inclined, the older, the weaker, the young. I won’t delve too deeply into gender issues here today, but they exist and are deep rooted. If you want to get the surface, take a look at youtube comments full of sexist backlash… comments like ‘they should make a kitchen parkour vid’ or ‘It wouldn’t have hurt her if she done all of that naked, or at least topless’. –With such an intense masculine culture and masculine language dominating the scene, we even turn off prospective female participants.
We are, without realizing it, undermining the built-in advantage of having such an accessible discipline by making it appear to be an exclusive club for high level male athletes. And, we have finally come to a place today where, if we aren’t careful, this emerging culture of power-thirsty practitioners, irresponsibility, inpatient students, competition, and adolescence will become inextricably tied to our discipline of Parkour, the same way skateboarding is inevitably tied to the stereotype of its ‘unruly, destructive, adolescent punk skaters.’ (A stereotype that many know does not hold water in many places and yet lives on due to the way the culture formed in its early public years).
IV. To A Close….
With this short entry I am not claiming these issues are universal or apparent in all communities. I am not trying to devalue the importance of taking risk. I am not crying out for uniformity in the practice of our discipline–for that would wipe out the those characteristic differences between people, their practices and geographies, which makes our movement interesting, beautiful, rich. I am not saying that we should completely move away from valuing & developing power, pushing the human limits, and so forth. I think everyone can eventually derive value from lifting weight and pushing their physical limits, from facing fear. I even think competition, with yourself that is, is healthy.
Rather, with this short entry, I am calling for a re-evaluation of what we appreciate above all else. I am calling for the development of a code of conduct. I am calling for all practitioners to step back and really take a hard and long look at how our discipline is being developed & defined. Will we be a sport of competition, recognition, and physical capacity? or, Will it be a community, for the movement, the philosophy, for life?
The great thing about life is that it is not so much where we stand but where we are moving. As a discipline, this is where we may be now, but there is no reason we cant push our community towards valuing effort over achievement. There is no reason we can’t take control of how the media represents us. We can say no to doing stunts and jumping off buildings when asked for photos by the news. We can work to educate the public, and educate our community, on our core values–to take the time to fully explain who we are and how we practice. We can take the time to educate ourselves in order to more responsibly teach & respect others. We can call out the communities who still wade deep in sexism, anti-authoritarianism, and reckless training–and call out the individuals leading those communities as well. We can opt out of competition, release videos more casually, train with those outside our comfort zone, below our movement capacity, from different age groups or movement disciplines. We can make the the choices that will result in positive growth because we, the practitioners, have it in our power yet to shape our discipline, and the way the world will see us.