Seattle's Gas Works Park looms like an industrial Disneyland. Janine Cundy ambles toward the park's old exhauster-compressor building, and...
Seattle’s Gas Works Park looms like an industrial Disneyland. Janine Cundy ambles toward the park’s old exhauster-compressor building, and you follow along — right foot, left foot, when suddenly your brain tells your feet: Guard rails ahead. Move to the left — OK, then, move to the right — wait, what are you doing? Guard rails ahead —
Cundy keeps going, then hurdles the 3-foot-high rails with two quick, effortless hops. Before she started doing parkour, the British-born 19-year-old had no idea what her body could do. Now she looks at the park’s honeycomb machinery and sandbox jungles and sees a virtual romper room.
On weekends, she and a handful of local traceurs and traceuses — as parkour’s practitioners are called — scramble like insects onto the park’s motley mix of metal, concrete, dirt and grass. Baron Oldenburg leaps from a metal cone onto a thin concrete wall five feet away. Kellen Fujimoto considers a similar “precision jump” from one post to another 6 feet away; the surfaces are barely 18 inches square.
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Parkour is overcoming obstacles, point A to point B, in the most direct and efficient way possible. But it’s also reclaiming the joie de vivre and derring-do of childhood in playgrounds of urban architecture.
Frenchman David Belle is acknowledged as parkour’s founder. He adopted the practice from his father, who was among French soldiers in Vietnam influenced by a military philosophy of movement known as parcours du combattant. Belle and childhood pal Sebastien Foucan developed what would become parkour on and around the urban structures of Lisses, south of Paris.
Now, as it takes hold in North America, parkour has already spiced ads for Mercedes-Benz and Toyota; you’ve seen it in films such as “District B-13,” which parkour founder David Belle stars in, and the latest James Bond flick, “Casino Royale.”
Along with Gas Works, Seattle’s prime parkour hot spots include Freeway Park and the University of Washington; traceurs are scattered from Olympia to Bremerton to Bellingham, and as elsewhere, most are young men. “Guys have this thing built into them where they want to run and jump and do Tarzan-like things,” Cundy says.
Furthermore, much of parkour requires upper body strength, more common among males, and many novices first see it on video-posting sites that feature daring, acrobatic feats far removed from parkour’s philosophy. For women, it can be intimidating.
What kind of person counters the trend? How about a former 4-H horse rider who’s always pushing herself, even if it means balancing on one foot while waiting for the bus? How about someone who since the age of 12 has worked a different job every six months so she can pick up a new skill? Today Cundy is a barista, tomorrow she’s putting up sheetrock.
She’s helped make Washington state one of the world’s most advanced female parkour scenes, starting a support group for traceuses in search of ways less traveled.
What she saw the other day was sad. The stairs outside a University of Washington building had been closed for maintenance. The handicapped-access ramps were open, though, the long zigzagging path divided by nothing but guard rails, and — this is the kind of thing that blows her away now — “people walked all the way around and around, instead of just jumping over. They’re like cows.”
Efficient and controlled
A couple of years ago, Cundy went swing dancing and met sometime gymnast, skateboarder and rock climber Tyson Cecka. Afterward, he took her out and showed her parkour, and she was hooked.
Cundy began training with the men, but they could always do more than she could; it was discouraging. She had to keep reminding herself: It’s not because you’re not as good; it’s because you’re 5-foot-2.
“Women are more hesitant,” says parkour newbie Lorran Garrison, 32, a rock climber and kung-fu practitioner. “It’s inherent in our nature. We’re nurturing. We want to protect our bodies.”
And while many guys love the idea of women entering parkour, Bellingham traceur Rafe Kelley says, “they end up treating women as novelties when [women] just want to be accepted and respected in the community.” Cundy recalls a local chat board post asking why more women weren’t into parkour. “I wish there were,” went one response. “That would be hot.” Finally, when she couldn’t go to jams anymore without getting asked out, Cundy cut her hair short and came up with the idea of a women’s support group.
By 10 a.m. on those weekend mornings, anywhere from two to a half-dozen or more young women are at Cundy’s University District apartment eating blueberry pancakes, bonding, getting loose. An hour later Cundy flings open the door and they begin by walking on their hands and feet, spider style, backward up the stairs, and then it’s off to the UW campus, vaulting this and climbing that and running across this and jumping off of that.
“Sometimes, girls aren’t comfortable with guys around when they’re practicing,” says 22-year-old Jenny Cea who started doing parkour in March. “In the girls’ group, you don’t have to rush to keep up.”
As purpose behind their practice, traceurs cite situations involving quick response in imminent danger — escaping a mugger, rescuing someone from a burning building. But it could be just a missed bus or forgotten credit card.
“We’re practicing for a situation that might happen,” Cundy says. “Somewhere in your life, you will need to get somewhere fast. That’s what we’re training for.”
“What we’re trying to get to is to just be able to run and not think about every step you’re taking,” says Cecka, who co-founded the Pacific Northwest Parkour Association to aid parkour beginners. “Then, whenever a railing or a wall gets in your way, your body will instinctively react with a move that is perfectly efficient and controlled.
“Eventually, you see the sterile, urban environments others see in totally different ways, backyards of challenge and opportunity. No special equipment needed. Forget the gym or the pool — parkour can be done anytime, anywhere. On your way to work, you hurdle bike racks, vault barriers — done just right, you’re surreptitious, graceful, as unnoticed as a fly on the wall.
A mental-physical thing
Toronto boasts North America’s largest parkour scene; there are active communities in New York; Washington, D.C.; Chicago and Boulder, Colo. Around the world, parkour is blossoming in Australia, Croatia, Peru, Kuwait and in Denmark, which last week hosted the European Gathering of Streetmovement.
Seattle traceurs are older than most despite being part of a relatively young scene. Most are in their 20s, but at the monthly parkour “jams” Bellingham’s Kelley offers in the cushioned safety of a Burlington gym, “we have people in their 40s who come out,” he says.
Cundy can clear a couple of Freeway Park gaps 20 feet off the ground, but not before she first mastered the distance at ground level. “The thing with parkour is, if you do something wrong, you know it immediately,” Cundy says.
In her sessions for women, she first teaches landings and rolls. Knees are the most common injury. Then it’s the basics: running, short jumps, small vaults. She encourages them to brave the rough surfaces and to weather those blisters and rashes, those little capillaries popping under your skin. “Today I ripped part of my hand,” she says. “It bled for 20 minutes. But you get tougher.”
Because those surfaces weren’t built for such activity, authorities occasionally ask traceurs to move along.
But traceurs say their martial-arts-like discipline of overcoming physical obstacles translates into daily life. “It’s not letting things get in your way,” says Cecka, who as one of parkour’s U.S. pacesetters was signed by California shoe manufacturer K-Swiss for a soon-to-air commercial. “Once you practice these things in the physical realm, it carries over into the mental.”
At Gas Works, Cundy urges parkour novice Carol Zolnowsky to try jumping three steps from a standing start instead of two, but Zolnowsky can’t without fear of losing her balance. “My mental obstacles are outrageous,” she says.
Eventually, she does, then lands on two feet in a crouch, then … almost … straining to balance … finally falling backward and helped by Cundy as she regains her footing.
Later, they walk along a tall, curved wall on hands and feet, panther-like, then do it in reverse, and finally practice lâches, or swinging from one object to another.
It’s a day spent jumping, running, climbing, tumbling, crawling, daring — basically, acting like children — and when they hit the grass in acrobatic denouement for a game of quadrupedal elbow tag, they look all the world like kids on their first day of summer vacation.
Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or email@example.com.