Parkour – Where Does It Come From?

The History of Parkour

In the early 1900’s, athletic skills of the indigenous tribes of Africa were seen by  French naval officer Georges Hebért.  He was amazed that the locals were able to use their bodies in such flexible, skillful, nimble ways without a tutor in gymnastics but with use of nature around them.  Hebert brought this idea to the military leading the way in physical education of the French military for soldiers to train using an obstacle course. Over the years the fitness regime Herbert developed, known as “The Natural Method”,  grew to ten fundamental groups to include walking, running, jumping quadrupedal movement, climbing , balancing, throwing, lifting, self-defence, and swimming. It also included training of courage and morality.

During World War I and World War II,  this system continued to grow and became the standard military training and education of the French. In the mid 1940’s,  Raymond Belle, born to a French physician and Vietnamese mother, learned of the military obstacle course when he became an orphan and was placed in a military orphanage in Vietnam. Raymond Belle wanted to be stronger, faster, and more flexible and would train in secret at night using the obstacle course. He did not want to be bullied and he eventually excelled at the military course while living at the military orphanage.

Father and Son Develop Parkour

Once Belle was back in France, during  the 1980’s, his son David was seeking an alternative to school and sports club exercise such as gymnastics. David learned of his father’s exploits in military obstacle courses.  When the younger Belle realized that parkour would teach him skills useful in life, and offer a way of not only surviving  but in protecting people he cared about, he too excelled in the obstacle course.  This led to the development  by the father and son, of the civilian fitness discipline known as parkour in the late 1980’s.

 Parkour Group Forms

David Belle trained on his own before seeking out out other men, including Sébastian Foucan, wishing to learn and train together.   Parkour became more than just a fitness regime.  It included social, mental, and philosophical values and principles. It was about not only overcoming physical barriers but of overcoming mental and emotional ones too.  This group challenged themselves to find physical and mental strength by enduring cold or training without food and water.  They believed in traits such as honesty, respect, humility, sacrifice and hard work.

According to the official website of Parkour,​​​​​​​ http://parkour.com/blog/learn-from-the-6-basic-parkour-movements/,there are 6 basic foundation movements.  These are

1) Balance
2) Running
3) Jumping
4) Vaulting
5) Grab/Hanging
6) Climbing.

Those that practice parkour are called ‘traceurs’ or the feminine, ‘traceuse’.   Traceurs goal is to get to from one point to another in the fastest and most efficient way and without any assistive equipment. Self confidence, control, focus and  critical thinking would bring a traceur to conquer the physical and mental obstacles.  A traceur adapts to his environment letting obstacles make one’s movement. Belle has said, “ A traceur is not a practitioner of parkour, a traceur is someone who is trying to understand parkour.”

Being in a group required strict discipline and values. No one was allowed to complain or feel superior over someone else. Repetition was key. The challenge had to completed at least 10 times in a row by a traceur without injury, in order for it to be deemed a success. Then all members had to also compete the movement. If a mistake was made by a traceur, then the whole group had to begin again.   New members could only join if they were recommended by an existing member and then pass tests that not only included physical strength in but principles too. Members could vote to kick out those who did not follow the principles and values that were established. Complete trust in the group was essential along with respect and humility.

To watch parkour, many see an influence of martial arts and think of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. David Belle did spend 3 months studying in India kung fu.The philosophy of parkour is similar to martial arts but parkour is non-combative.  The physical movement may be important and impressive to see but according to David Belle’s 2009 book  “Parkour”, a traceur’s understanding of its principles, values, and mental view is the most important aspect.  Belle also describes parkour “as an art that requires huge amounts of repetition and practice to master.” It is a discipline.

Parkour Hits the World Stage

As a stuntman, one day David Belle showed his now famous video “Speed Air Man” , to actor and director Hubert Koundé.  Koundé suggested to Belle to change  the spelling of “parcours” to “parkour”, believing it was more stronger and dynamic.

The First Video of Parkour by founder David Bells

 

According to Wikipedia, David Belle’s brother Jean-François, who was in the Paris Fire Brigade, invited the group to perform for the public in Paris.  This became the beginning of several changes to the group.  First, the group named themselves Yamakasi, (sometimes spelt Yamakazi). Belle did not like the name in that it did not reflect anything of his father’s role in the discipline.  Many members also believed that the performance did not demonstrate all aspects of their discipline such as their values and ethics.   Belle wanted to concentrate on his acting and Foucan wanted to  spend more time in training or teaching. With pictures and videos sent to French TV shows, parkour rose in popularity. And with social media sites and YouTube, parkour became more known. Belle left the original group and started to gain success in acting using parkour to star in commercials and with roles in French films and promotions.

 Freerunning

Sébastien Foucan became the subject of some documentaries in the United Kingdom in  the early 2000’s. The word “freerunning” was coined during the filming of the documentary  “Jump London”. Then in 2006, Foucan starred in the opening chase scene of the James Bond film, “Casino Royale”.   This exposure brought parkour and freerunning out of its niche to the world stage.

Freerunning by founder Sébastien Foucan

There are differences though between parkour and freerunning. According to Foucan’s website, Foucan was dissatisfied with parkour’s limited creativity and self-expression. This led him to create freerunning.  Though similar in movements,  freerunning is about innovation and expression.  Parkour differs in that there is more speed and efficiency  in getting to point A to point B. Belle and others have been critical in Foucan and freerunning. Worldwildjam.tv  says that freerunning is a mix of parkour techniques and acrobatics to serve and impress people.

David Belle attempted to trademark “Parkour” but was not successful. Therefore, many people and companies have used the name likening it to words such as “baseball”, or “soccer”. With the rise in popularity, many wanted competitions in parkour. This goes against the very philosophy of what Belle believes parkour is about.  Parkour is not a sport. Competition is rivalry for supremacy whereas parkour is about teamwork, equality, and self-development. Parkour is a holistic training discipline not just the physical aspect.  Freerunning on the other hand does not have these boundaries and one can find competitions everywhere. And because it is so closely related to parkour, and without the trademark, one can find “Parkour and Freerunning Competition” together all around the world. Either way, both disciplines require constant practice and team effort to succeed.