I’m doing a bit of research on youtube for this paper I’m doing (and discovering in the process that deciding to ‘stop reading’, while a fabulous tool for getting the thesis done, has left me… oh, at least a few years behind the published world of academia), and have come across this neat article on M/C by Paula Geyh. Do go read it – it’s only a little thing, and does the nicest job of combining talk about bodies, urban space and D&G I’ve seen yet.
I am a massive big nerd for anything to do with bodies and dance/gymnastics/beautiful, rhythmic movement, and this stuff on parkour (which I’ve also heard referred to as urban junglism) is absolutely right up my alley.
To quote directly from wikipedia:
Parkour (IPA: [paÊ.’kuÊ], often abbreviated PK) is a physical discipline of French origin in which the participant â€” called a traceur (/tÊa.’sÅ“Ê/) â€” attempts to pass in obstacles in the fastest and most direct manner possible. The obstacles can be anything in the environment, so parkour is often practiced in urban areas because of many suitable public structures, such as buildings, rails, and walls.
And to continue with a quote from Geyh’s article,
Defined by originator David Belle as â€œan art to help you pass any obstacleâ€, the practice of â€œparkourâ€ or â€œfree runningâ€ constitutes both a mode of movement and a new way of interacting with the urban environment. Parkour was created by Belle (partly in collaboration with his childhood friend SÃ©bastien Foucan) in France in the late 1980s. As seen in the following short video â€œRush Hourâ€, a trailer for BBC One featuring Belle, parkour practitioners (known as â€œtraceursâ€), leap, spring, and vault from objects in the urban milieu that are intended to limit movement (walls, curbs, railings, fences) or that unintentionally hamper passage (lampposts, street signs, benches) through the space.
So when we watch footage of that parkour stuff, we’re watching a combination of practical (yet wonderfully imaginative and creative) urban locomotion. But the bit that catches my interest is the repeatedly quoted line from Sebastien Foucan,
“And really the whole town was there for us; there for free running. You just have to look, you just have to think, like children.” This, as he describes, is “the vision of Parkour.” (Wikipedia article)
I like that idea – thinking like a child. This is play. But it also involes a creative and unconscious approach to physical activity. One of the things I’ve noticed about swing dancers – they’re particularly keen to try new things, particularly sports, physical activities, games, tricks and ‘stunts’. I think it’s because they’ve discovered that you have to just try things (as Sugar Sullivan would shout at us in class – “If you don’t try to dance it, you will never dance it!”), throw yourself into activities, even if you’re likely to look foolish or fall over. When you know the limits of your body, you can trust yourself to do things which appear physically difficult. And when you’re used to experimenting physically, you stop worrying about looking foolish or being embarassed.
As an example, I am frequently (if not always) the only woman leading in aerials classes. I hear comments about how leads (or bases) should be physically strong, and there’s certainly a degree of posturing by some male dancers in regards to being a base. But the truth of the matter is, if you have good technique and do moves correctly, you don’t need to be ridiculously strong at all. I’m no stronger than the average woman, and certainly not as strong as most men my size, but I know that I can lift my partner up onto my shoulder and flip her over. Because I know how to use my body effectively, and work with her body. You are in greater danger of hurting yourself or your partner if you enter these activities with some grandiose idea of your own strength, or, conversely, with the idea that you’re going to get hurt. In learning aerials, the conventional ‘female = weak/vulnerable’, ‘male = strong and protective’ is rubbish. Self reliance, good communication, solid technique and using spotters are key parts of safe aerials
But back to the parkour people…
There’s lots of talk about military obstacle courses and so on in discussions of parkour, and escaping and leaping and reaching (the latter two I quite like, as ideas), but I’m really struck by the emphasis on creative responses to obstacles, yet with a practical eye. Ostentatious flips are debated – are they un-pakour because they’re aesthetic (an unnecessary) embelishments?
But the part of this that I’m really interested in, is Geyhr’s references to flow:
One might even say that the urban space is re-embodied â€” its rigid strata effectively â€œliquified.â€ In Jump London, the traceur Jerome Ben Aoues speaks of a Zen-like â€œharmony between you and the obstacle,â€ an idealization of what is sometimes described as a state of â€œflow,â€ a seemingly effortless immersion in an activity with a concomitant loss of self-consciousness. It suggests a different way of knowing the city, a knowledge of experience as opposed to abstract knowledge: parkour is, Jaclyn Law argues, â€œabout curiosity and seeing possibilities â€” looking at a lamppost or bus shelter as an extension of the sidewalkâ€
Flow is something that’s come up in swing dance discussions. I’ve mentioned it very briefly in my own work, but without using that term.
Dancers often talk about being ‘in the zone’. As with that notion of flow, the zone is the place where you stop consciously directing your body, but respond to the music, to the weight changes and posture and movements of your partner on an almost instinctive level. I think it’s important to point out that this point of flow or zone is only achievable if your body and reactions are at a particular level of ability. To make this work, you must have a degree of body awareness, a stability of core, clear lines of alignment in joints and muscles and bones, some level of fitness and a willingness to ‘give in’ or ‘surrender’ what I call ‘high brain stuff’. You have to stop planning and to just give in and move.
Needless to say, this is one of the most wonderful parts of dancing, and the point to which most dancers reach toward. It’s often the motivation for travelling internationally or interstate to attend exchanges, where the sleep deprivation and intense socialising helps bring that point of flow closer. It’s something that newer dancers don’t feel, but suddenly, at about a couple of years, suddenly do feel, and get seriously addicted.
The thing that catches my attention in the discussion of parkour is that this flow is about the relationship between body and environment. With dancers, it is about body and body and floor.
So go read that nice article, if only to check out the neat clip.
Geyh, Paula. “Urban Free Flow: A Poetics of Parkour.” M/C Journal. 9.3 (2006). 18 Jan. 2007
Photo from this site, a photo by a parkour dood, uploaded to parkour.net