Art of parkour: Tackling obstacles

The stone posts are evenly spaced, four and a half feet apart. There are about 12 of them, each abou
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The stone posts are evenly spaced, four and a half feet apart. There are about 12 of them, each about 2 feet high. To most people, they are purely decorative.

But to Chris DelSavio, they are perfect for training.

He tells the three young men gathered before him that they will use the columns to work on precision jumps, crane jumps and one-footed jumps.

“The ultimate goal is to have such perfect control that you can run across them,” DelSavio says.

The men form a short line; DelSavio goes first, to demonstrate. He leaps from column to column, landing on both feet. The other men follow. They then move on to the crane jumps — landing on one foot and leaving the other foot to hang down over the edge before pushing off and standing on the small platform — and one-footed jumps. Then they run from column to column, skipping lightly across the hard stone surface, as if out for a jog in the park.

DelSavio, 30, is a teacher, but this is no ordinary class.

He is the Capital Region representative for American Parkour, a resource and community for people who practice the physical discipline. Parkour practitioners run, jump and climb over the objects, walls and buildings that stand in their way. As American Parkour’s local representative, DelSavio gives curious people free tutorials. Last Sunday he brought the three students from the University at Albany to Riverfront Park in Troy, a place he says is one of the area’s best spots for parkour.

In parkour, people attempt to run a route in the most efficient way possible. This often involves moving quickly and directly, as if they are in an emergency situation and need to gain as much ground as possible. The only equipment is the human body, though athletic shoes with a good grip are recommended.

Most of the action transforms urban landscapes into vast playgrounds, in which parking garages, stairwells and park benches are the only gym. In some ways, parkour is more of an art than a sport, with guiding principles that extend into everyday life. Indeed, many of the things DelSavio says sound like they were inspired by Eastern philosophy.

PUSH YOURSELF

“Parkour is the art of moving from point A to B,” said DelSavio, a Halfmoon resident. “The meat and potatoes of parkour is trying to push yourself a little more every day. You’ll find your goals later. … You take something that’s impossible, and you train so much that it’s impossible not to do it.”

“You’re almost flowing like water through the environment,” DelSavio continued. “You start to learn to look at things as obstacles to get over. When you’re standing on a handrail and going to jump to another one, you have to be very sure you can do it. You start to take that attitude into life. … You re-engage with the environment. Buildings aren’t buildings anymore. Ledges aren’t ledges. Everything is part of a route.”

Parkour practitioners — the men are called traceurs and the women traceuses — can do things that seem almost impossible to the casual observer.

They can scale walls and leap nimbly from railing to railing, landing gracefully on one or both feet. They can hang from ledges and inch across them like Spider-Man and vault over benches, walls and tables. They can jump farther than most people and from heights most people wouldn’t attempt.

Good traceurs and traceuses make these movements look seamless, but DelSavio says anyone can do parkour, as long as they work hard and practice. The discipline tends to attract people who gravitate toward intense physical sports such as rock climbing and gymnastics.

Invented in France in the mid-1990s, parkour is still fairly unknown in the United States, but in recent years it has made some inroads into popular culture.

BOND, JAMES BOND

The 2006 James Bond film “Casino Royale” contains an early chase scene that incorporates elements of parkour, while the 2006 French action film “District B13” serves as an exciting showcase for star David Belle, one of the founders of parkour. And in a recent episode of the sitcom “The Office,” Michael, Andy and Dwight decide to make their own parkour video.

Ari Akaberi, 21, is one of the students who joined DelSavio at Riverfront Park. An information science major from Long Island, he recently submitted paperwork to form a student parkour club. He said he learned about parkour from a popular documentary called “Jump London.”

“I was always into climbing trees,” Akaberi said. “I’ve done other sports — wrestling, gymnastics. But there’s no equivalent to parkour. It’s open to your interpretation. Fear is your only obstacle. Parkour is about conquering your fears.”

Akaberi met DelSavio about two week ago through Meetup.com, where DelSavio is listed as an American Parkour rep on a page for Capital Region residents interested in parkour. “The way he instructs, it’s easy to pick stuff up quickly,” Akaberi said. “That’s parkour in a big way — doing a little bit more each time.”

Julian Bouffard, 24, first learned about parkour from “District B13” and the show “Ninja Warrior.” “I thought it was something that was made up, that nobody really did,” he said. But then he discovered that parkour is a discipline that regular people can study.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Bouffard, a graduate student in physics at UAlbany. “It’s gotten easier, and I’m getting stronger.” A one-time amateur roller-blader, DelSavio learned about parkour the way many people do: from a video he saw on the Internet about a year ago.

“I knew I wanted to learn parkour,” said DelSavio, a 2001 Union College graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering; he’s currently unemployed.

He spent months conditioning, using information from the Internet for guidance. He bought a box of chalk and drew two lines, seven feet apart, on his driveway. Then he practiced jumping from one to line to the other. Gradually, he moved the lines back, until he was jumping lines that were 10 feet apart. He also built a 56-foot-long catwalk, using an old wheelchair ramp, and practiced crossing it on all fours.

“Once your body becomes capable, you can start jumping walls,” DelSavio said.

POSITIVE FOCUS

Parkour has changed DelSavio’s life in other ways.

“When I started parkour, I stopped smoking,” he said. “I started eating right.”

DelSavio said that even though parkour sometimes looks dangerous, it isn’t, and that he doesn’t injure himself nearly as much as he did roller-blading. Practitioners train and condition themselves and only do things when they are physically and mentally ready. “We almost never hurt ourselves,” DelSavio said. “We love training, and if you’re hurt, you can’t train.”

To reassure parents, American Parkour even provides a parents’ guide to parkour called “My Kid Wants to Jump Off What?”

“Despite its dynamic, spectacular image, parkour is actually a positive, safe activity for people of any age if approached appropriately,” the guide says. “First, do not let the videos scare you! Don’t judge a book by its cover. Recognize that parkour is not about tricks. Parkour is about efficient, whole-body movement and the overcoming of obstacles. … parkour is not about tricks or recklessness, but is about hard work and self-discovery.”

At Riverfront Park, DelSavio and the three University at Albany students start by warming up. They walk across the thick chain connecting two posts. DelSavio instructs them to “do whatever you need to do — it’s all about getting there. Stand on your toes — keep your feet straight.”

There are some early stumbles, but eventually the students get the hang of it. After a few trips across, DelSavio tells them to cross the chain on all fours. DelSavio navigates the chain with ease; when he briefly loses his balance he says, “Whoa,” stops and straightens himself before advancing.

Later, DelSavio takes the group to a stairwell below Troy City Hall, painted with a mural that says “Home of Uncle Sam.”

The men line up, and DelSavio tells them that they will attempt to climb up the wall to the walkway above, a distance of about 12 feet. He draws a circle on the wall with a piece of yellow chalk, and suggests that this is where they place their foot.

“Usually people try this for about two months before they get it,” he says, before running, pushing off the wall with his foot, grabbing the top of the wall with both hands, and pulling himself up.

DelSavio says he likes teaching people about parkour.

“Anyone who’s interested gets welcomed with open arms,” DelSavio said. “Then the network grows.”

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