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March 9, 2010

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Human cannonballs and ninjas

SPIDERMEN" are monkey-vaulting, cat-grabbing, wall-hopping and precision-jumping their way across urban spaces that they consider their personal obstacle courses.

These ninjas and human cannonballs are practicing the physical discipline of parkour, sometimes called the art of moving or free running, that is catching on in China.

If graffiti could move, it would be parkour out of a graphic novel.

It's not for the faint of heart and it can be dangerous, but it is exhilarating and empowering.

Without any aids or protection, the traceurs (French slang for fast guys) throw their bodies around like stuntmen, propelling themselves forward, flying over hurdles and tackling obstacles that they see as opportunities. They aim for fluidity, strength, originality and speed. They scale walls, jump over benches and railings and even, if they're really good, leap between buildings.

Think of the opening James Bond chase scene in "Casino Royale" (2006) - it's pure parkour.

The term parkour is derived from French parcours du combattant or obstacle course used for military training. The obstacle course is widely accepted as military training method for mind and body, emphasizing flexibility, adaptability, improvisation and fast thinking, as well as physical strength.

Parkour (pao ku, literally "running stylish') is gaining fans in China, though urban attendants and security guards are not keen on young people blasting through public spaces and doing unpredictable things. It's dangerous.

Similarly wild skateboarding in public spaces and spontaneous sidewalk break dancing are not considered conducive to the spirit of a sophisticated and orderly city - but these are tame compared with extreme parkour.

Parkour is practiced more in Shanghai suburbs than downtown and it's more popular still in smaller cities.

But parkour enthusiasts do practice from time to time in public places such as People's Square, Shanghai Concert Hall, Shanghai Science and Technology Museum, Xujiahui Park and some universities. They often draw cheering spectators who block streets, so they are sometimes shooed away by urban management officials.

Parkour has received a degree of official recognition: it was featured on the CCTV Spring Festival Gala this year. Against a backdrop of nighttime scenes in a metropolis, 16 young people in colorful body suits leaped, dashed and vaulted among 10 raised platforms on a stage. It was a dance show called "Zhui Meng" ("Dream Chasing").

Parkour, which is noncompetitive, is the art of moving swiftly to overcome any obstacle in one's path by adapting movements to the environment and using the environment to propel one forward. It requires quick-thinking and demanding physical training (strength, power, coordination, balance, flexibility and breathing). It's very mind-body.

Practioners wear only light clothing and shoes with soles that grip. Some wear light gloves but others prefer bare hands because they don't want anything to interfere with their sense of touch.

Parkour involves a list of special movements that the practitioner adapts to a particular course.

Parkour first appeared in French military education and training during World Wars I and II and it captured the public imagination when its stunts were shown in the French action movie "Banlieue 13" (2004).

Some Chinese fans insist that the movements appeared earlier in kung fu movies such as those of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.

Inspired by various movies, Chinese parkour pioneers appeared in Shanghai in 2006-07. At first most imitated movements in the movies and from video clips.

QQ (instant messenger) groups are the major channels for practitioners to communicate, share experience and set up training and events.

The best-known parkour groups in Shanghai are Shanghai Parkour Union, Parkour Spider and Feiwei Parkour.

Most traceurs (there are virtually no Chinese women) range in age from their teens to their 30s.

Peng Jian, a 24-year-old taekwondo coach, is a pioneer. In 2007 he joined the Shanghai Jiyueshe Group, known as the Parkour Union.

Practicing martial arts at a young age and having two years of military training, Peng is physically fit and willing to try any sport.

But parkour wasn't as easy as it seemed at first.

"Basic movements like monkey-vault, swing, cat-balance and cat-grab in the video all looked quite simple, but when I tried them, every part of my body was uncomfortable at first," says Peng.

In parkour modern people cover terrain as their ancestors did and it requires a lot of strength, coordination, good reflexes and proper breathing, says 33-year-old Shi Feng, a martial arts coach who took up parkour in 2007.

"Achieving a balance of strength, balance, flexibility makes for perfect movement in parkour, but it's very difficult, especially for those without experience," says Shi.

"How far can I reach? What's my limit? That's what I always ask myself," says Peng. "Parkour is a way I get an answer."

With constant training, Peng mastered most basic movements within a year and became a coach in 2009.

Each flip, jump and vault in the air makes him feel omnipotent.

"That amazing feeling is only achievable through constant training," he says.

The dashing, leaping and overcoming obstacles also is liberating for many white-collar workers who toil indoors all day, sitting and working at a computer, and then playing online games at night.

Death Note (Internet name), a 23-year-old software salesman, started parkour just three months ago, and is rediscovering his energy.

"I stared at the computer all day and after work. I felt I was a death's door," says Death Note through QQ. "Parkour makes me feel alive again, practicing with my friends."

Death Note says that he loves the feeling of dashing about, only wearing light clothes in winter.

"Applause and cheers from the audiences are always encouraging," says Death Note. Indoor training areas, with padding and safety precautions, are still needed, especially for beginners, where they can practice and master a movement. Practice also helps people overcome their fear of falling.

But space is hard to come by as gym space is costly to rent and universities don't want the legal liability if someone is injured on their property.

"We can't rent space for long-enough periods and in most cases we have to leave after we just finish warming up and get ready for the difficult moves," says Peng.

He says they have to be careful about practicing outdoors since crowds often gather and streets are blocked. Then they are driven away.

Peng has demonstrated parkour movements in advertisements and hopes to use the income to set up a parkour company with friends this year. He plans to rent a stadium for long-term use and provide courses in parkour, street dance and martial arts such as tai chi.

"I hope one day parkour will be just as popular and common like street dance and kungfu in Shanghai," says Peng. About parkour, passion and perils

Joyce Zhang

Parkour, the art of moving, is the physical discipline of training to overcome any obstacle within one's path by adapting one's movements to the environment. It is a non-competitive, physical discipline of French origin in which participants run along a route, attempting to negotiate obstacles in the most efficient way possible, as if moving in an emergency situation.

Skills such as jumping and climbing, or the more specific parkour moves are employed. The object of parkour is to get from one place to another using only the human body and the objects in the environment. The obstacles can be anything in one's environment, but parkour is often seen practiced in urban areas because of the many suitable public structures available such as buildings and rails.

George Hebert, a former French naval officer, was inspired by the physical development and skills of indigenous tribes that he met during a visit to Africa. He believed that athletic skill must be combined with courage and altruism. He later combined this belief with his physical education system when he worked as a physical education tutor in college in France.

His teaching continued to expand and became the standard system of French military education and training during World War I and World War II. The 2004 movie "Banlieue 13" made the sport popular worldwide.

There are fewer predefined movements in parkour than in gymnastics, as there is no list of "moves." Each obstacle a traceur (practitioner) faces presents a unique challenge. The ability to overcome the challenge depends on multiple factors, for example, on body type, speed, angle of approach and the physical characteristics of the obstacle.

Parkour is about training the "bodymind" to react to those obstacles with a technique that is effective.

Despite this, there are many basic versatile and effective techniques that are emphasized for beginners. Most important are good jumping and landing techniques. The roll, used to limit impact after a drop and to carry one's momentum onward, is often stressed as the most important technique.

Monkey-vaults to cat-grabs

Landing: Making contact with the ground, knees bent as toes make contact. Never land flat footed; always land on toes and balls of the feet.

Monkey-vault: Diving forward over an obstacle so that the body becomes horizontal, pushing off with the hands and tucking the legs, so the body is brought back to a vertical position, ready to land.

Muscle-up: Getting from a hanging position into a position where the upper body is above the obstacle, supported by the arms. This allows for climbing onto the obstacle and continuing.

Cat-grab: Landing on the side of an obstacle in a hanging/crouched position. The hands grip the top edge, holding the body, ready to perform a muscle-up.

Roll: Rolling forward so the hands, arms and diagonal of the back contact the ground, often called break fall. It is used primarily to transfer the energy from jumps and to minimize impact.


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