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Gym Class Heroes

Written by James Costanzo

Gym Class Heroes

With obesity rates rising and less school time devoted to physical education, Jesse Danger and other traceurs offer a solution.

Jesse Danger balances himself on the railing of a street planter. Arms spread wide, he toes the rail like a trapeze artist, each step an exercise in calculated creativity. A traceur Moses, he presses on, guiding a group of middle schoolers through the construction zones and congested intersections of New York City. The kids trail behind him, holding hands, chatting about zombies and video games, sweating. The group arrives at Clement Clarke Moore Park on the corner of 10th Ave. and W. 22nd St., and Danger begins the day’s lesson plan — stretching, jogging, rail balancing, and precision jumping. A tall boy in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt does his best to keep up with Danger throughout the exercises. Some lag behind, but all are moving. After 45 minutes of group work, he shepherds them together, holding two bright-colored foam balls in each hand. The dozen sixth, seventh, and eighth graders stir noisily around him as he explains the next activity: a relay race in which they must vault over two hand railings and a concrete barrier to retrieve the balls he has thrown, making sure to touch a nearby bench on their return trip.

“I want to see bench touches every time, or we’re going to hold you back,” he says, motioning to the wooden bench in front of him. “Another thing is,” he pauses for emphasis, “there is little people here, like babies, walking around. So I don’t want anybody knocking over a baby. That’s much more important than winning a relay race.” For the past two years, Danger has been taking kids from the Quest to Learn school in Lower Manhattan to local parks, teaching them how to vault, balance, jump, and crawl. Teaching them how to move, creatively. Teaching them parkour. “Ready?” he asks, getting them to line up. “Go!”

Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, almost half of school administrators admit to cutting physical education classes in favor of increased reading and mathematics time, according to a 2013 report by the Institute of Medicine. Yet increased gym time has been proven to reduce the risk of obesity, especially in young boys. This dichotomy forces school administrators to choose between standardized test requirements and the children’s physical well-being. American gym classes are also notorious for disengagement and competitive sports-based activities that can ostracize the not-so-athletic. Add it all up, and you’re left with a skyrocketing obesity rate among children (which is projected to reach over 44 percent nationwide by 2030), school districts caught between health and grades, and a segment of the population that increasingly is turned off by exercise.

Meanwhile, Danger speaks of a different type of classroom experience. He tells stories about kids whose teachers say they are much better behaved after doing parkour. Stories like a 13-year-old boy with a speech impediment, who is now not only the best in his age group but has enough confidence to speak out loud. Parkour, Danger believes, translates well to physical education because it’s both inclusive and challenging. “If you go outside, you have very real challenges,” he says. “You can’t push two ledges closer together. They are as far as they are, and you have to deal with that.”

When he was in high school, Danger was 5 feet tall and weighed 90 pounds. “I was definitely picked last for tons of things,” he says, reminiscing. Today, he is tall and lean, with black chin-strap facial hair and a tattoo on his left forearm that reads, “This is as young as you’ll ever be.” Danger changed his name at the age of 12 just for the hell of it. He wanted to see how long it would take for people to stop calling him John Rosenberg. Now he’s just Danger. Jesse Danger. It’s less of a scene name and more, like anything else he does — be it a simple walk down the street or a cat jump over a park bench — an impulse of creativity. “If I were to go to that bank across the street,” he says, pointing to the Bank of America building a couple blocks from the kids’ school, “there’s a handrail between us and that. It would be damaging to my soul to walk around that when it’s just so much easier to go over it.”

Thanks to the launch of his company, the Movement Creative, in January, and with the money he makes from Quest to Learn, Danger has found a way to make a living doing what he loves: teaching parkour. “One of the most important things is to show kids at this crucial time in their life that you don’t have to hate exercising,” Danger says. “You don’t have to go get a gym membership. You can go outside and find fun things to do, create your own challenges. Parkour is free. All you need is an open mind.”

Emphasis on free. If parkour required anything more than a decent pair of sneakers, it almost certainly wouldn’t be creeping its way into schools. But as educators remain hamstrung by budget concerns and academic mandates, parkour emerges as a realistic option.

Parkour’s flexibility attracts schools that are trying to do something “new and bold” for their students, Basilio Montilla, a traceur and teacher, says. Montilla, 26, grew up in the Bronx and has been teaching parkour at the Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School for two years. Three times a week, he trains with 15–19 middle schoolers, often right in their classroom, vaulting over desks and chairs. “I’ve used a classroom setting, an auditorium setting, a cafeteria setting,” he says. “I also use an outside setting. There’s a park behind the school. I use the benches, swing sets, slides. I do what I can in terms of the obstacle, whether it be splitting them up into groups for techniques using benches or having them all work together to perform conditioning exercises. There are a wide variety of options.”

Quest to Learn, the school that partnered with Danger and his company, is one of the few schools in the country to include parkour in its curriculum. Danger originally was recruited by Quest to Learn to teach a weeklong workshop called “Boss Level” as a way for kids to get outside, be more active, and learn about the city. After experiencing success, however, Danger stayed on to teach weekly classes.

Built by the Institute of Play, Quest to Learn is a public school that offers these parkour lessons for free. Their philosophy is game based and focuses on engagement and collaboration rather than a traditional classroom experience. Quest to Learn’s experimental attitude is rare but could be the perfect environment for parkour to flourish. Ever since their first “Boss Level” workshop with Danger, Cameron Brown, Quest’s athletic director, says he has seen students engaged who never would have been otherwise. “The stereotype of parkour is that you’re flipping over cars and jumping off of buildings, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Brown says. “You’re not doing it to show off to someone, you’re doing [it] to be effective in moving through the spaces.”

Stereotypes, however, are hard to overcome. And although parkour is gaining acceptance in the P.E. community, there are still boundaries to be established. “The parkour would definitely need to be very basic,” says Andrew Mead, a former physical education teacher and the program manager at the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance. He believes parkour could be beneficial in a school setting but, like any physical activity, it would need to be carefully monitored. “Some of the basic actions of parkour can help develop agility, balance, coordination, power, and speed,” Mead says. “But schools would need to be careful. I can imagine a kid going, ‘Oh, I saw this in school’ and then he breaks his neck jumping from one building to another.”

Parkour first popped up in P.E. classes around eight years ago when Dan Edwardes, founding member and director of Parkour Generations, began his academy classes in the U.K. At the time, they were the first official parkour classes in the world, and local schools were eager to contact him about the possibility of getting involved. Since then, the British have been wildly successful, teaching parkour in 200–300 school programs. They’ve even witnessed a reduction in the crime rate among young parkour participants in Westminster, as documented in the short film Jump Westminster. Parkour Generations recently began school programs in Southeast Asia and on the East and West coasts of the U.S., including 10–15 ongoing programs in Boston, but things are still very new. It’s because of the U.K.’s success, says Edwardes, that parkour has begun its transition to the U.S. “In the U.K., it had never been done before. It had never been done anywhere in the world, so it took some visionary people in government to see that it could be done,” he says. “Now, that precedent has been firmly established.”

For now, parkour continues to grow in increments, starting in schools like Quest to Learn with parkour instructors like Danger. “The main motivating factor is watching people improve,” says Danger. “One of the coolest things is being able to teach somebody in a month what it took you eight years to learn.”

It’s about an hour before the start of class, and Danger stops off at a local coffee shop a couple of blocks from Quest to Learn. He’s wearing black sweatpants and carrying a plastic box full of multicolored street chalk for the day’s lesson. “Hi, Jesse!” a small voice shouts from the crowd. It’s a young boy in a white polo and black fitted cap, a graduate of Danger’s first “Boss Level” workshop. “Hey!” Jesse responds, stepping in to grab an iced coffee. “He was one of my most dedicated students,” Danger says, settling into a table. “Parkour is definitely something that anyone can do and anyone can improve.”