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Although parkour is credited with being founded by David Belle and friends in the Mid 1980s, it’s roots really run much deeper.  Let’s take a look at where and how it developed by looking at how humans developed throughout history. 

Without going into the agricultural revolution and how that domesticated humans and killed the hunter-gatherer aspect of man, let’s say that in prehistory most humans knew how to move well through their environments.  It was a necessity.  Only the most agile and strong humans could catch their prey, or escape from predators.  All of the attributes we associate with parkour: strength, agility, coordination, spacial awareness, flexibility, balance, etc., our ancestors had all of these.  Even today, if we examine some of the more isolated and primitive regions, we find people shaped by their environments and survival needs.  Take some of the isolated tribes in the Amazon and other rain forests, as well as some of the tribal peoples in certain areas of Africa.  It was these people, the tribal Africans that would inspire a revolution.

George Hébert, a French physical fitness enthusiast, and military man was stationed in Africa around the turn of the 20th century.  Being so obsessed with fitness he couldn’t help but be impressed with the native Africans he encountered.  They were perfect natural specimens.  He made comment that they were as strong and agile as any classically trained gymnast.  And that they were this way without any training  was even more impressive.  Hébert travelled around the world during his military stint and found himself stationed in the town of St. Pierre in Martinique in 1902.  This would be a monumental event for Hebert and forever shape his philosophy.   That same year there was a major volcanic eruption on the outskirts of town.  The French navy watched in horror as people fled aimlessly for their lives.  Add to this that the poisonous snakes of the mountains fled into town to escape the lava, the situation was grim for the people of St. Pierre.  Hébert couldn’t sit back and watch any longer.  He coordinated an escape plan on the spot, and through his actions, saved nearly 700 people. 

Returning home to France, Hébert looked at his fellow countrymen, and wondered how they would fare if a similar emergency confronted them.  He decided they were soft and needed to get back in touch with their nature.  To go back to those hunter-gatherer days when humans were strong, capable, and able to help themselves, and most importantly, others if the need arose.  He spent a few years developing his system of physical fitness, and in 1905, Le Methode Naturelle (The Natural Method) was born.  After finding tremendous success with his Natural Method’s inaugural class, it looked as if it would become the new standard in military and rescue service training.  Then came WWI.  Since most of Hébert’s students were exceptionally capable and natural leaders they found themselves on the front lines.  Many of those familiar and training in the natural method were killed in battle.  It was a major loss for Hébert’s movement.  By the 1950s Hébert was mostly paralyzed and unable to speak.  Through dedication and hard-work, he was able to speak and walk again, but died shortly thereafter in 1957.  His work can still be found today in military obstacle course training, children’s adventure playground equipment, and fitness or “parcourse” trails.

While a lot of Hébert’s work was lost, the Natural Method never died.  Many rescue and military servicemen continued to train Hébert’s way for decades to follow.  One of those surviving students was a talented firefighter named Raymond Belle.  Belle was a celebrated hero in France, and known for his crazy antics.  He was reported to have front flipped out of a second story window landing safely on the street below, simply to show a fellow firefighter that “fear is in only the mind.”   Belle moved his family to a small suburb of Paris called Lisse in the early 1980s.  It was here that parkour was “born.”

Raymond’s son David was very much inspired by his father, and applied Raymond’s philosophy and training to his childhood play.  David and his friends would pretend they were in an emergency and try to reach a certain location as quickly and efficiently as possible.  Taking the influence of Raymond Belle, George Hébert, as well as rock climbing, gymnastics, the martial arts and the action movies they saw, they refined their movements into what would become the basis of parkour.  They figured out what worked and what didn’t.  They studied the mechanics of how the body moves, and applied it all to their environment, in this case, the city.  To them the city was one big obstacle course, or parcours in French.  Once they realized they were on to something, and that they should get the word out about it, they had to call it something.  David and a friend came up with a variation on the word parcours.  They replaced the C with a K to give it more “edge” and dropped the S giving us the word parkour (PK) that we use today.  Among David’s childhood friends, it’s important to note two other entities: Sebastien Foucan and the Yamakasi.  Originally Belle, Foucan, and the others were all The Yamakasi.  The name comes from the Lingala dialect of the Congo region in Africa and roughly translates to “strong man, or strong spirit.”  Disputes about the definition of the art as well as the business end of things led to a split.  David Belle took the name parkour and wrapped it up in a strictly purist definition, to move from one point to another as efficiently as possible.  Foucan took his Jeet-Kune Do like approach and marketed it to the world in the 2003 documentary “Jump London.”  It was decided that Americans wouldn’t get the French term parkour, so an Anglicised term “freerunning” (FR) was created.  It was meant to describe parkour to Americans, but has since become the term to describe Foucan’s own personal philosophy of movement, going where you want, moving how you want, efficiency isn’t important, but aesthetics are.  Any move that is not the most efficient way to overcome an obstacle would be considered a freerunning move, not parkour.  The Yamakasi also went their own way, apart from Belle and Foucan.  The Yamakasi has had a few lineups over the years, but the main members are Yann Hnautra, Williams Belle, Chau-Belle Dinh, and Laurent Piemontesi.  They call their way “L’art du déplacement” or ADD for short.  In many ways ADD is closer to Freerunning than it is to parkour as it allows for more freedom of movement.  The Yamakasi difference is that they are more stunt oriented than either PK or FR.  Most of the original Yamakasi have moved on to become the Majestic Force team, and they have recently opened the first ADD academy in Evry, France.

David Belle currently works as a film actor and stunt coordinator and can be seen in “District B13”,  “B13 Ultimatum”, and “Babylon A.D.”  He is “officially” retired from parkour and will no longer accept students

Sebastien Foucan found and lost sponsorshipwith K-Swiss shoes, but has found work as an actor in films like “Casino Royale”, and the documentaries “Jump London” and “Jump Britain.”  

The Yamakasi have appeared in two films, “Yamakasi” and “The Great Challenge”  A.K.A. “Yamakasi 2.”  They now focus on running their academy and spreading ADD throughout the world.

2 Comments

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