My cousin is way cooler than me on Instagram. His most recent post is his new dance reel. In it you can watch him back up a pop star in her new song and then, as the scene switches briskly, he vaults from one roof to another in Colima, the city where his mom is from on Mexico’s West coast. He lands a somersault and smiles at the camera.
Since starting Parkour at age ten and moving constantly before that, his body has rolled easily, the somersaults and turns: my cousin, tranquilo, doesn’t strain. He ripples.
1. TIC TAC
I begin to watch other people’s Parkour videos to understand what my cousin is into. Parkour is a street sport defined as moving between two points while using obstacles in between the point to increase one’s efficiency, as opposed to moving around obstacles or avoiding them. The name comes from a French Special Forces training program entitled “Parcours du combattant,” created by George Hebert. “Parcours,” meaning “the path” or “the way through” and “combattant,” “warrior.”
Hebert said he was inspired to create Parkour by watching people’s movement strategies during the evacuation of a volcano eruption in Martinique in 1902. He initially called his training “the natural method,” after a desire to train the body to move with grace through naturally occurring hindrances in environments. Hebert is said to have studied the movements of indigenous people worldwide in the hopes of learning from their movement skills.
I pause, am curious about the potential cultural appropriation here, or the exoticization of Native bodies. Any statement about something being “natural” makes me skittish, assumptions rattling about power and bodies and what they have free reign to do. It feels important to note that Parkour is now primarily practiced in cities, not Hebert’s so-called “natural” environments, and the practice vaults away from the volcano, the way a Parkour player does a Tic Tac at an angle off a tree or wall to “level up,” or uses the leverage of their own feet to get higher, abandoning the tree or wall.
So much about Parkour is about pressing on or away from things. In the first Tic Tac video I watch, “the Tapp Brothers” remind me that I can use the Tic Tac move to “spring off” when the Zombie Apocalypse comes. Until then, they tell me, I should invest in good running shoes so as to be able to press off even the roughest of sources. (My running shoes are battered and slip off the sides of my feet. My plan for any apocalypse is to stick with someone who knows what they’re doing.)
2. KONG VAULT
“He’s so physical,” my aunt would say about my cousin when I was little, and sigh heavily. It wasn’t a compliment. Even when I was 13 and he 6, I remember the contrast, the way the Cuernavaca sun fell differently on each of us: the rush in his muscles to loop over handlebars striking against my caution, squinting from behind a book.
I continue to watch in awe: I play my cousin’s dance reel on Instagram and then tap the screen to repeat it. The video on loop unwraps itself: he reaches out one arm to the air, his nimble fingers wide for a grip. In this scene he’s in Los Angeles behind his apartment, his brown skin shining in mid-day sun. My cousin has been asked more than once which farm he works on when he’s out waiting for a bus. He says he knows what people see first when they meet a native Spanish speaker living in a cheap apartment in Southern California. He shrugs, “Let them think it, and I’ll do my thing.” I admire the ease in his shrug, how he rolls it off.
“...the scapegoating or expulsion of the corporeal has always been complicit with the expulsion of a subversive alterity,” Eleni Stecopolous writes in Visceral Poetics. Corporeal: I hear it echo in my head with Spanish pronunciation: core-pore-eh-all. Of or belonging to the corp-, to the body unclaimed by any particular human. Corpus: the substance or bodily structure: how my cousin leaping up the stairs to a bus appears to other people as just another collection of brown-skinned flesh.
I am with my boss and his boss, and we are trying to pick the best pictures to use of the two firefighters in the slideshow for the fundraiser. We look at the woman’s photos first, trying to decide whether she should be smiling or not.
“When I met her for the photo, she was like, I don’t usually look this good for work, but I dressed it up today,” my boss says, and smiles at his boss over my head, “I doubt she’s usually this made up and stuff.” We flip then to the photos of the male firefighter and both of them sigh in unison.
“Aw man,” says my boss, “you can just tell by looking at him what a good-natured guy he is.” No one seems to notice the stark contrast in the comments. They leave me then for a more important meeting, and I upload the files they chose.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” my friend asks later when I tell him this story, “it would have been easy to call them out.”
“Too much work, I say, “I watched it happen and saved my energy for something else.”
When his father asks him how he plans to make money next year, or what he’ll do in the future for work if his body gives out, my cousin passes a small wave through his shoulder blades.
My uncle sighs and slaps the net on the trampoline in the center of their courtyard in Mexico City. Too many answers he doesn’t know, he says to me.
Or later: No seas tan perezoso, he shouts into my cousin’s room where he is napping after working (dancing) all night, don’t be so lazy.
Perezoso lands bizarrely on the body exhausted from movement, but my cousin’s work is opaque at this moment while he sleeps.
“Laziness is not the alternative to work, though it might be byproduct of it,” write members of the CrimethInc Workers' Collective.
The object of a Kong Vault is to use momentum to completely clean an object higher than your waist. In the videos everyone emphasizes that you have to jump high vertically first so that you don’t jump forward by accident and slam your knees into an obstacle at shoulder height. You are to jump tuck, place your hands, and then use your grip to pull yourself over the obstacle. Even though you are going to move forward over the obstacle, you have to focus away from the obstacle to keep your body pulled up enough to clear whatever’s ahead.
In one of my favorite Kong Vault videos the boy is in a black sweat suit in a parking lot, and he faces the camera to remind us that confidence is essential to landing the vault. Behind him looms a huge WELLS FARGO building, the red letters the only visible language on the screen, as if that’s the next target he’ll clear. And beyond it a blank grey sky.
3. GAP JUMP
Parkour happens outside, on urban objects chosen by the player for their set of obstacles, their playground. I remember my cousin practicing Parkour on Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza and park benches in Washington, DC as he waited for the adults to finish boring conversations about their immigration visas.
“It’s a way of looking at any environment and believing in your heart that there is no obstacle in life that cannot be overcome,” reads the World Freerunning Parkour Federation website. But as I watch the videos of Gap Jumps between high-rises and down neighboring roofs, it seems less like overcoming and more like absorbing, in the way the players’ bodies take the roofs into their frames of reference and make available environments of spaces most of us don’t consider open space. It’s the players’ relationship to these surfaces that gives them meaning.
I think of Simone Weil defining what is human: “I touch something hot and I jerk my hand back before I even know that I burned myself. Something seizes me here—it is the universe, and I recognize it by the way it treats me.” Parkour makes me think of this treating, this dependence on and responsiveness to the environment as the activity itself.
In response to a beginner’s inquiry about learning to land a gap jump, one Parkour player writes: “When you feel the impact, just tuck and roll.” With a gap jump, the player leaps over a space between two surfaces, spring-loading their body with bent knees, and landing fluidly without slamming the joints. Preparing the body to yield easily to the surface is what makes it possible to jump safely and not be hurt by the impact of, say, concrete. Parkour players often talk about “meeting the landing,” or “absorbing the landing,” by finishing a jump on the balls of their feet or tucking their bodies and rolling into a ball when they land on hard surfaces, so as to “take the absorption.”
To another beginner’s question about how athletic a person needs to be in order to succeed at the jump, another Parkour player responds: “You actually don’t have to push that hard. What’s most important is how you relate to the pavement.”
Poet Eric Sneathen: “i try so hard but what’s the best thing about your body? / it’s the cliff we’re on.” In Parkour the body is also the cliff, the edge that opens towards the gap and jumps to relate.
4. WALL RUN
In her collection Lost Parkour Ps(alms), poet Laynie Browne writes a series of psalms in part inspired by the practice of Parkour. It is a book of offerings at once intimate and opaque, addresses that move toward an unstable addressee. She writes,
Beneath the “I”
is a passage
who you are and why you are here collectively answers
Here the “I” comes with a whole set of relations and narratives that make up a collectivity. The poem continues:
Answer, meaning to embark
unknown to one alone
Embarking—that is, setting off to respond to something—here can only be done when not alone. It is the relation—the awareness of the links between objects, bodies, collectives—that makes possible the response.
“Psalms” literally, from the Greek, psalmoi, describing music made on stringed instruments and, later, the words that accompanied this music. Most commonly it refers to the book of Psalms, a book of scripture held as sacred in Jewish and Christian traditions which is made up of a collection of prayers in praise, lament or gratitude, said to have been set down not just as written poems but intended to be sung aloud. Traditionally referred to by their numbers (i.e. Psalm 23), many of the psalms also have subtitles which serve as a sort of musical- or stage- direction, instructing the reader about what instrument should accompany this psalm, or in what environment it should be played: “on wind instruments, “on the dedication of the temple,” “by choirmaster.”
In traditional Jewish practice, psalms are recited to get on G-d’s good side when one needs help or a favor. And so, when used in prayer, many psalms are both a request for something and instructions for the supplicant, because they indicate how a person should place themselves physically and what objects they should make use of in order to direct powerful force in the desired direction.
The Wiki on Parkour states that the Wall Run is “widely used in Parkour… to get over a wall too high for a vault.” In order to “land” the Wall Run, one runs from a good distance toward a wall and then, then they are one step from the wall, raises one leg in preparation for contact with the wall (or other vertical obstacle) and jumps up with the other leg. One then lands the upper foot on the wall and pushes off, gripping the wall with this foot and driving that leg downward to redirect the forward momentum from the forward run, now, upward.
In his 3-and-a-half minute video, “Tutorials | Parkour | Wall Run,” Benedict de Nobrega, a (maybe-) 12-year-old British boy, mentions that a person should be able to Wall Run at least the height of one’s own body before they need to grab on to something in order to pull themselves further upward. I’m endeared by his small body as his frame of reference, the way he demonstrates no embarrassment at all about the small amount of wall equal to his height. There’s something startlingly genuine about his relationship to his body.
“Sanctuary assumes nothing / other than itself,” writes Laynie Browne in “Parkour P(slam),” and there is a self-sufficiency to this that fits with Parkour culture, how it emphasizes that body needs no tools of its own to move about efficiently in space. Browne’s “sanctuary” sticks with me—such an evocative word these days as “sanctuary cities” attempt to protect undocumented people from Trump’s souped-up ICE. This hasn’t affected my family directly—my cousin needs no official sanctuary to stay in Los Angeles, because he was born in the US while his father was in school in Washington, DC. It was assumed we’d see them every chance we got, our family the most important unit—and so we’d make the drive down from Boston every winter break they lived in DC and walk around monuments to which we felt little relation. My cousins, aunt and uncle were often underprepared for the cold, so we’d pack with us extra- and hand-me-down jackets.
coats blankets and
sweaters We weave and
possess to keep warm
we cut and stitch and
package and ship and sell
all across the world to
keep warm Some industry
is necessary Likely none
of it will go
There’s a frankness to these lines of Weiner’s, their listing and logging followed by “Some industry / is necessary / Likely none / of it will go.” The tone implies Weiner has some melancholic desire for industry to “go,” for the selling and packaging and possessing to be less necessary for us to “keep warm.” There’s some sense here that this industry has negative impacts, or that the speaker senses the industry does not always result in good. But at the same time Weiner loops knowingly through the verbs that keep this industry “going,” witnessing their continued existence, that they are happening and will continue to do so.
Even if “none of it” does “go,” or the situation at hand does not shift in any way, Weiner’s consciousness of objects moving globally generates some sense of agency by tending attentively to the movement. In the field of the speaker’s attention, relationship occurs, and these interrelating actions and objects are seen and known. It’s unlikely that a systematic destruction of industries (cities, walls, structures) will occur soon. But in the meantime, a relationship to these objects is possible that subverts their exact use—just as Parkour subverts the use of buildings, walls, stairways. At the very least, we can learn to move with, and move between.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Leora Fridman is a writer and educator based in Oakland, CA.
This is where I go to swing on the swings as an adult, especially when I need a break from my screens. It's also the name of the neighborhood. It's also where I find my nearest Redwood trees. Not far from here is the San Andreas earthquake fault, which defines much of the shaky ground in the place I've made my home longest of late. The fault isn't visible here at the park, but all of my neighbors are making earthquake kits and getting prepared to run when needed. For now the park is on only a gentle slope.