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Take It Outside

Written by Gwendolyn Craig

Take It Outside

Opponents call gyms "boxes" that emphasize tricks over movement and urge practitioners to return to the discipline's origins.

At the Koffeecake Corner in downtown Manhattan, a sinewy 22-year-old with a blond buzz cut shares war stories. Elet Hall, an American Parkour-sponsored athlete and contestant on American Ninja Warrior, sits on a stool with impeccable posture as he discusses battle wounds with a friend. Hall’s worst is up his sleeve — literally. He was impaled near his armpit while practicing in rural Utah. “I ended up getting hugged by two tree branches,” he says. “There was a small stub of a tree sticking out of the one, and it just caught me there and kinda stabbed it.”

An injury like that is a freak accident, Hall says, and it hasn’t stopped him from his preferred outdoor training methods. Hall grew up hiking and rock climbing in the Appalachians, and he developed his individual style of movement in the woods — smaller and more concentrated than his peers in urban environments. In the city, he says, athletes use more power-based moves to get from place to place. “I think that’s an integral part of outdoor parkour,” Hall says. “What you do reflects your environment. It is in reaction, and you know, in action to what the environment is. And so somebody who trains in New York City all the time, when they come to my area to train, I take them to the woods where things are not flat, things are not lined up or necessarily stable.”

Parkour may have originated outside, but it moved inside in the last decade. When Mark Toorock, founder of American Parkour, opened Primal Fitness in Washington, D.C., in 2006, not everyone welcomed the world’s first parkour gym. Toorock estimates there are now 20 dedicated parkour gyms in the U.S. alone, and if you count gymnastics-oriented gyms, there are about 30. For outdoor enthusiasts, these gyms are a source of controversy. Many cringe at the phenomenon, saying gyms apply boundaries to a no-boundaries way of moving. Rather than changing movements to adapt to the environment, the environment itself is altered in a gym. “There have been people in the parkour community whose reactions have ranged from, ‘Wow, that’s the coolest thing ever,’ to ‘Wow, you’re an asshole trying to put this in a box,’” Toorock says.

Dan Edwardes, director of Parkour Generations in England, says gyms are an American phenomenon he hopes to prevent from spreading because gyms switch the emphasis from movement to tricks, and ultimately to competition. Edwardes brings his message to the U.S.  when he occasionally visits for jams. Parkour Generations also has an American branch in Columbus, Ohio, where trainers emphasize getting outside. “It doesn’t matter how cool your movement is indoors — it’s not parkour. It’s completely the opposite,” he says. “That’s one of the things Americans are facing. We try to bring some sort of authentic parkour to the States to try and save it.”

Back in England, Edwardes teaches classes, but most of them are outside. The only exception is when classes exceed 80–100 people, which, he says, would overwhelm London. But even when classes move indoors, Edwardes says they focus on practicing skills, not the discipline itself. He is careful to make that distinction. Toorock is, too. “We don’t teach people how to do parkour,” Toorock says. “We teach people quality of movement that will allow people to do parkour on their own.”

Toorock and others look at gyms as a place to hone a skill, which later can be used in moving outside, but Edwardes doubts that newcomers will understand the distinction. “A lot of people have exactly the right idea about parkour,” Edwardes says of his American counterparts. “A lot of people don’t. It’s not their fault. It’s just the way they were introduced to it.”

In Primal Fitness, Toorock and other coaches teach basic movements in what they call the “tool kit:” precision jumps, landings, vaults, rolls, and climb-ups. He considers these moves enhancements to a person’s ability to maneuver through different environments. To bring people back outside, Toorock plans to turn Garfield Park in Washington, D.C. into another space for practitioners. His goal isn’t to box the discipline in, but rather to get as many people moving as possible and to get municipal recognition and dedicated spaces. But the outdoor park is a limited area, too. It would just be another place to practice skills. Toorock says it would take any serious athlete only four seconds to go from one side of the park to the other, but he still thinks having an available space with adjustable features makes the plan worth it.

Edwardes admits that in Europe, parkour’s home continent, public officials acknowledge and accept the discipline more than in the U.S. “Our rights in the public realm are much more protected. We’re pretty much able to do it wherever we want,” he says. “It’s much easier to do it in Europe than in the States.” And while Edwardes understands that gyms and designated spaces help practitioners get around potential run-ins with city and government officials, he says that they actually hurt the community. By hiding indoors or in designated parks, traceurs avoid those educational conversations with others, and the practice remains misunderstood.

Still, gym owners like Toorock move forward with their plans. “I recognize there are pros and cons to everything,” he says. “The other side has a point, but in the end, you have to decide what’s important to you. What’s important to me is getting people more fit and more confident.”

Chris “Blane” Rowat, coaching manager with Parkour Generations and executive director of Parkour UK, thinks confidence can’t be built on cushioned floors and mats; the body has to get used to working on concrete or other hard surfaces. Rowat also questions the supposed safer environment that gyms provide. “Indoors, everything is temporary and made of wood, plastic, or structures that can move around the room,” Rowat says via email. “Just the fact that they can move adds an element of risk that increases the likelihood of injury.” And if someone practices indoors all of the time, outdoor distractions may come as a shock, too. A coach commenting on Reddit recalled one of his students, who mostly practiced indoors. When he went outside to practice vaulting, a squirrel ran almost directly underneath him. “Scared the shit out of him,” the coach wrote.

While squirrels may not be the most difficult hurdle encountered outdoors, they are one of the elements indoor training facilities just cannot prepare a person for. Those encounters, distractions, and imperfections make up the spirit of moving outside. “You kill parkour by pacifying it, by diluting it,” Edwardes says. “Our aim is to prevent that from happening. It’s very difficult to do. But, if you want to genuinely maintain something, you have to do it.”

Edwardes will maintain parkour in his way, and Toorock in another. Hall says it’s about striking a balance between the two. All want the discipline to survive and flourish. “I’m not sure I could stop doing it now,” Edwardes says. “It just gets in your blood.”