by Cassondra Brayfield
Have you ever walked to class and noticed a gathering of barefoot people hopping around on the stones next to the JEC? Or were you heading down to Blitman only to be surprised by an assembly of young men dashing up the approach on all fours, like a horde of crazy jungle cats? These are not incidences of insanity nor are they a warning of the end of days. What you have witnessed are practitioners of free running, or as it is called in France, parkour. These traceurs that you have observed (traceuse if female) are training in a very remarkable discipline. I met with one of RPI’s top practitioners, Scott Steinmetz, to find out more about this unique sport and how it fits into the grand scheme of things at RPI.
Parkour is essentially the art of traveling from point A to point B using fluid movement without leaving any trace or evidence behind. It originated in France and was created by a 15-year-old boy named David Bellewhen his military rescue /firefighting father influenced him to learn about the philosophy of and technique behind physical education and training. RPI’s own Scott Steinmetz discovered parkour while on a high school dance team when his friend, Andy Keller (who now runs and moderates a parkour website), learned some cool-looking travel moves that he taught to his friends. Little did they know they were starting a lifelong journey in a rather intensive discipline.
Bringing It To RPI
It was Scott and his friend Brian Wilczewski who brought parkour to RPI. Both of them have taught the art to students in formal classes, but when they pitched the idea of starting a club they ran into a lot of friction. They were told that “for liability reasons the school can’t actually allow that.” Then, they talked to a Union official who told them they might be able to form the club if they had some certification. Scott went on to say, “Brian and I got a certified tour group in London (to help). They come over to the U.S. once a year in a tour called ‘American Rendezvous’. The founders of parkour,
the Yamikaze (the Frenchmen), came and we learned from them how to teach and got a level one certification–we came back and talked to the club people and it still wasn’t good enough. Basically the attorney guy said no.” There went the club idea. After all that, the school still would not allow it, but that didn’t phase our freshly-trained traceurs. They didn’t need an O.K. from RPI. They could gather on their own and that’s just what they did. From then on Scott and Brain singlehandedly trained any person who wanted to learn how to do parkour. Scott said, “Basically, we’re trying to build a self-sufficient group of guys who always meet and train together.”
The new parkour “not-club” was up and running, but it still had constant intimidation from the administration. When Scott and Brain tried to put up posters about the first free runninglessons, they were immediately told to take them down, since only clubs could post public fliers. When I asked Scott if he was frightened of the administration possibly shutting down their parkour operation, he replied, “Yeah, all the time.It’s not even really their fault, it’s just that the legal system sucks so badly for liability.” For example, if a student slips and falls while performing a parkour move, that student may try to sue the school for having slippery rails—many administrations just don’t want to deal with the court cases. “There’s a huge move in the community to keep that punk aspect away. If we want to get commercialized in any way, we have to present a really professional outlook. So, if we see a PublicSafety officer or police officer, we don’t run, and we don’t make fun of them. We’re super open; if we get asked to leave we just leave.” There are places where parkour is very much allowed because the officers know the group that is training, and that group cleans up and essentially “leaves no trace.” However, it is becoming more and more common for places to not allow parkour in fear of bodily and financial risk.
Injuries? They’re Good for You
Has anyone in the group had ever been injured during their training? Scott replies, “No, not at all. There are some chronic things not due to individual events that are over-use injuries from training too much—sort of like regular sports injuries, honestly.” Scott says he has been training for six years, since his sophomore year of high school, and has only been injured once. How can these practitioners do so many apparently dangerous moves with so few injuries? They do their research. While training, practitioners do a considerable amount of examining and exploring. They know exactly how each pair of their shoes will react with different surfaces, from stone to metal to different types of paint. Once a traceur (or traceuse) becomes confident with the training, they can simply look at a landscape and just go. “When you do parkour it changes everything about your life because you start to think about things you never thought about. If you listen to how quiet you can get yourself, it will pervade, and once you have that softness of touch, that translates into fluidity of movement.”
Parkour tests its students on so many levels. Not only do practitioners learn balance and overall grace and flow; they also learn speed, agility, and body control. They can face their fears with a newly learned confidence.But possibly the best perk about practicing parkour is that those training are also building their minds. Scott believes that training muscle strength is not enough. “If you get injured and you don’t train for three months, your muscles atrophy and you’ll keep skill, but your strength is gone. Your goal should always be a more permanent thing. If you train your mental strength–if you train your ability to overcome obstacles, and how to move fluidly—then in 40 years or 50 years when you’re old, it won’t matter, because you still have all your mental strength. Your mind will stay with you. Your body won’t.” In addition, those training under the discipline of parkour develop what is referred to as “parkour vision”. With parkour vision, people look around much more and noticethings that they never would have noticed before, from the different types paint used on the campus railings to the rooftops.
This particular art of movement forces the practitioner to learn how to take care of their bodies. “Basically the whole idea is about being silent, about being quiet, about being smooth and fluid and reducing shock on your joints. So, as you learn to be a better practitioner, you are effectively saving your body from damage.” There are people who still train in parkour even when they are in their late fifties. When we walk and move we make sounds toallow other people to know where we are—but to a traceur like Scott, this noise means a lot more. “The shock sound that you hear is impact, and that impact is not being absorbed–it is being sent bluntly through your body. This shock gets absorbed mostly in your joints, so that’s going todamage your knees, your hips, and yourankles.” Being quiet in parkour is synonymous to being graceful, fluid, and in the long term, healthy.
How Do I Join?
If you want to join, all you have to do is show up. The parkour “not-club” meets outside of Sage dining hall for about an hour every Monday at 5:00, Wednesday at 7:00 and Saturday at noon. New-comers are recommended to bring a bottle of water and to not wear sandals. When stating to train on campus, a traceur or traceuse will generally start off on an easier but varied landscape, like the newly constructed walkway between Low and the Sage dining hall.This is a good place to start because, as Scott puts it, “It has a lot of levels, and there are a lot of things to do there that look really impressive that are actually really really simple.” Those who join might learn the classic parkour move called the Kong vault, where the traceur puts his hands down on a surface and then swings his legs through the box made by his arms (much like how we use crutches). This move can be visualized as the Puma logo. With enough training, a newbie can get skilled enough to practice parkour in Scott’s personal favorite place: the Poestenkill Gorge. Located down the road past Moe’s, the Poestenkill Gorge is what Scott calls a “glorious landscape.”He explained to me that it’s the extraordinary surfaces that make the Poestenkill Gorge so ideal. If you area traceur, this landscape really makes you think. As many other practitioners have accomplished, our young traceurs expect to stay free running for as long as their years will allow.
If interested, some suggested research to check out is: americanparkour.com (run by Andy Keller), the documentary: “Jump London”, and the Book: Cine Parkour.