He makes cat-like leaps across, and does devil-may-care backflips from dizzying heights; uses walls to gain momentum; ascends a vertical obstacle course without breaking into a sweat and makes graceful landings, appearing as if he is exempt from the laws of gravity. All this plays out in a 1997 video titled 'Speed Air Man' whose agile protagonist is Frenchman David Belle.
The practitioners, or traceurs, of parkour, the art of displacement, use the environment and their own momentum to get from one point to another in the most efficient way possible, be it by climbing, vaulting, jumping, rolling, swinging or crawling. And no account of its origin can excludes the contributions of Belle, who is regarded as its founder. In fact, the word parkour is from parcours du combattant, a rigorous form of military training that was familiar to Belle's father Raymond, a soldier and fire fighter.
Made popular in films such as 2006's Casino Royale, in which Sébastien Foucan of the Yamakasi group — one of the first traceurs — made an appearance, the discipline has now taken the world by storm.
Asked about it, Belle simply says this is so because it's wonderful. "It's a good visual sight and it is such that people all over the world like it." Belle, a part of the group that became Yamakasi, himself went on become an actor and stuntman, his most recent film being Brick Mansions, a English-language remake of his explosive 2004 French film District 13.
In India, parkour has been around for at least 7-8 years. Some of the oldest current teams are Parkour Mumbai and Chennai Parkour. "Chennai has possibly the largest community of practitioners, with possibly over 250 people who have trained in parkour over the last 7 years. There is an active community of over 100 current practitioners. It also boasts the largest parkour school in India, with around 80 students currently," says Susheel Chandradhas, speaking on behalf of Parkour India, a federation of parkour communities.
One such community in Mumbai is Free Souls to which traceur Giles D'Souza, 24, belongs. He always had an affinity for ninjas and it all began with a documentary he chanced upon. "Ever since I was young I always liked ninjas and doing all the cool things they did. Whenever I played hide and seek, I used to climb up somewhere where people couldn't see me. I was one day watching TV and this documentary Jump London was on. It was amazing because all those things I seen my favourite characters do was happening in real life and being done by real people."
D'Souza is now a trainer as he felt it was the natural thing to do. However, like many other traceurs who look at the discipline as a philosophy in addition to a form of exercise, his passion transcends flashy moves. "The discipline revolves around the aspect of overcoming obstacles. It doesn't only mean the physical or obstacles that you see or can touch. It even looks at ones problems, failures etc, as obstacles and helps one train their mind on how to overcome that obstacle just as one would with a really high wall."
His advice to all the traceurs and freerunners out there to condition hard. "Parkour is not about all those big jumps... I'm not saying big jumps are not good, what many people have is a monkey-see, monkey-do attitude. They see people doing big jumps and drops and copy them without seeing all the their conditioning and the building up of their body amour that they have done prior to that jump or drop. Doing parkour doesn't mean doing insane, big things for 5 years; it means being able to strengthen oneself to do those things and even train for 40, maybe 50 years after," he says.
What of the dangers that one would come to naturally associate with such an intense physical activity? D'Souza advocates awareness about risk-taking. "The safety precaution I take for my students and myself is "stay in your place". Risk is good but taking a risk without training, or even preparing your mind before it, will injure you. You're only lucky if it hasn't yet".
Belle has these words of advice to offer to beginners: "As with every sport, you should have a good body and make efforts to learn it. You have to go slow and learn from experienced people and don't go to big heights initially. As for the risks — dangers are everywhere, and even when walking on the road, one could get into an accident.