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Equal Work, Equal Play

Written by Madina Toure

Equal Work, Equal Play

Jams, classes, and online communities bring more women into the scene.

With a determined look and a tight ponytail, a woman steps to the front of Bklyn Beast’s brand new, state-of-the-art indoor obstacle course. “Feet first. So important: feet always first,” says Caitlin Pontrella, a 24-year-old instructor and co-founder of The Movement Creative, a parkour group out of New York City.

Inside the gym, vibrant graffiti (including a giant, neon-blue monkey) covers the walls. Pontrella, whose T-shirt reads “Beast,” explains a technique. “You never dive your hands for a wall,” cautions Pontrella, “because you’ve got to try to lunge for one vault.” The woman at the front of the line takes a deep breath before sprinting across the purple gym floor toward a three-foot gray block. She pushes off with her hands, leaps over it, and executes a basic safety vault.

Each week, Pontrella teaches a class designed for novice traceuses. They come to learn quadrupedal movements, precision, striding, and how to improve their balance — all fundamentals of the discipline. Her class, and others like it, offer small sanctuaries for those who feel removed from the popular YouTube reels dominated by dudes. Women are historically underrepresented in parkour. In 2005, two women attended the country’s first national jam. Even now, women in the scene are scarce; only about 35 came to this year’s (B)East Coast Jam in Washington, D.C. out of more than 400 participants. But women’s gatherings around the world (online and in real life), give the growing female parkour community a safe place to land.

Traceuses admit to feeling intimidated by the predominantly male discipline, which presents a unique set of physical challenges to women. Men typically enjoy the greater upper-body strength required to perform difficult movements such as the kong vault and the cat pass. Some women also wrestle with a lower center of gravity produced by their fuller hips, making it harder to lift or propel their lower body forward. Refining the movements to make them more accessible to women may simply be the next evolution in parkour’s progression. “The way parkour was codified by the Yamakasi was developed around men’s movement,” says Patrick Yang, a former volunteer with Texas Parkour. “But that just means we haven’t had the chance to explore women’s movements enough to understand what parkour is for them.” Still other barriers are psychological, born out of cultural notions of what a woman should look like and do, says Pontrella. “A lot of society still rejects the image of the strong, capable woman,” she points out.

So women turn to each other, in classes and in their own jams. Last year, the second annual Northeast National Ladies Jam drew more than 45 traceuses from 15 states and three countries. Specialized women’s events give them the opportunity to bond in a supportive setting. “In a women’s jam, you’re surrounded by women who are there to help,” says Pontrella. “They want to teach as much as they want to learn, and for the first time, you get to experience that brotherhood that men feel.” Even so, Mandy Trichell, coach at Urban Movement in Texas, believes that women will achieve equal footing only if they continue to work alongside the guys. “I love to participate with them,” she says, “but I also think it’s just extremely important for us to put ourselves out there with the guys that are doing it and get as involved as we can.”

Women find each other online, too, in groups like Flight & Flow, Varkour (Parkour for Women), and PKG Women. In these forums, women discuss issues such as the role of competitions or whether there is even a need for women-specific gatherings, forums, and classes. They also use the groups to network, share videos, and advertise events.

Girlparkour, founded in 2008, is one of the longest-tenured web communities. “More than anything, we’ve always set out to be a resource for women,” says Shi Ong, an administrator for the site. “It’s kind of an umbrella for different communities in the world. At the moment, it’s really about making a difference for how women experience and train for parkour.” It’s an essential part of the scene, says Kimberly Blozie, a traceuse who trained at New York Parkour. “It’s critical that we have unique forums to explore and initiate parkour together,” she says. “If other women are doing it, then it signals it must be safe, and the increase in female presence will only encourage women.”