Women in Parkour | How Freerunning Helps You See the City in a Whole New Light
"Architecture stays the same. What changes is your joy and appreciation of it…"
Words by Julie Angel
I’d never seen women move like superheroes until I started researching and then training Parkour. It was 2005 and I was living in London. There were very few women in the world training Parkour and I was one of them and I was rubbish at it. I was scared of everything and didn’t spend much time training. I was 35 years old and doing a practice-based PhD in Documentary filmmaking and Parkour (yes such a thing does exist). Even though I thought I was sporty, the truth was I hadn’t done any real exercise for a decade.
Nobody knew what women were capable of in Parkour as there weren’t any women who had the same level and years of training as the guys. Other sporting and athletic disciplines provided examples of how high or far women could jump, how they could climb and overcome fear, and how they combined movements together in dance and gymnastics. There was something very original in how this outdoor body-centric discipline fused them all and only time would tell how women would respond.
"Young guys had their male power fantasies lived out thanks to Spiderman, Superman and Batman but where was the female inspiration?"
Young guys had their male power fantasies lived out thanks to Spiderman, Superman and Batman but where was the female inspiration? There were many examples of men doing Parkour but I’d never had the real or imagined role models, the women on walls, until I was lucky enough to start training with them.
Our small, women-only Parkour class waited outside Latimer Road tube station in west London. None of us were sure what the next two hours would involve but we had all turned up, and sometimes that’s the hardest part.
Like me, there were several others who had spent more than a few years away from physical activity, and we were planning on taking baby steps, with no interest in jumping across rooftops. We were there to explore the environment and our relationship with it, to move and embrace challenges.
"On many occasions, we said: “No I can’t do that," (often without even trying…)
Guided by our coach, Stephane Vigroux, one of the second generation of Parkour practitioners, he constantly offered alternatives and progressions when, on many occasions, we said: “No I can’t do that," (often without even trying, I might add). That night, and the weeks and months that followed, our small steps grew, becoming higher and more dynamic. At times, our leaps of faith were more mental than physical, recognising how out of touch we had become with our abilities and realising a disconnection between body and mind. In a self-competitive culture of effort, nobody cared how big your jump was, just that you had tried. With such an inclusive and supportive mind set I kept going back for more.
Amongst the group, several women were more advanced than me. They showed me that my expectations – not just for myself but for how women could move in their environment – should not be underestimated. Katty, Tracey and Amy moved with grace, power and confidence. They were beautiful – Batgirl, Catwoman and Wonderwoman, real-world role models, products of their own imagination and not something out of DC Comics. I witnessed them traverse the tops of high brick walls, and then leap from one wall to the next. They happily tested their balance and nerve by walking on rounded rails at height before finding ways to drop down below. They ran up walls and vaulted over or crawled under obstacles in their path. Watching them move was beautiful and inspiring.
They were strong and brave and faced their fears. They tested their minds and bodies, finding out what they were capable of doing. There’s nowhere to hide in Parkour: it’s just you, your body, mind and the environment. Fancy shoes will do nothing for your jump. First you see an opportunity for movement and only then do you move. Sometimes the simple challenge of finding a way to get from point A to point B is enough of a quest to keep you going back to the same location for months, constantly working with your own emotional and physical jigsaw puzzle of where your body could move and how.
"I witnessed them traverse the tops of high brick walls, and then leap from one wall to the next."
Movements could range from being small and low to height games that test your rational mind against your fears; you know you have the physical abilities to make it but everything seems so different when it’s four metres off the ground. However, for all the talk of fear and bravery, turning the urban environment into a playground is also probably one of the most fun things an adult can do. A bench is for balancing, jumping, spinning around on, crawling over and under. A single wall offers enough training potential for a year as you can run up it, traverse the top, drop down from it or jump to it. If you are open to the possibilities, combinations involving pieces of often-ignored urban furniture can light up your training life.
Beyond the physical benefits of Parkour, it will also empower and liberate you in ways that you never expected. The city becomes yours, a personal training ground as you explore and venture into less celebrated urban spaces. Adventures in a low level urban terrain can keep you addicted for years. Where once you would have walked past railings, now you evaluate them in terms of height, stability, width at the top, and the drop on the other side. Architecture stays the same; what has changed is your joy and appreciation of it.
How we interpret and interact with the physical world around us is the result of how we think and that affects what we do. When Parkour turns the city into a playground, you start thinking: “Why isn’t everyone moving like this? Everyone should be doing Parkour!" You begin to question who gets to say what is normal and who can do what and where.
"There’s nowhere to hide in Parkour: it’s just you, your body, mind and the environment. Fancy shoes will do nothing for your jump."
How we learn to use our bodies is a way of becoming members of society. Tradition lets us know what is appropriate in terms of our status, age and gender, but tradition isn’t always good for equality or health. All of this is transmitted across generations to make these mechanisms seem ‘normal’, eventually entering the realm of ‘natural’, but they are not. Physiology meets psychology meets sociology. We copy what we see, what we are told to do, and what we have learned by example and by order.
It should be perfectly ‘normal’ to see women of all ages and abilities on walls, being brave, testing their limits and facing challenges, but it isn’t. Not yet. Parkour is a self-competitive culture of effort and, by this understanding, everyone is able. I originally thought that the few women who I saw training who moved with such grace and power were exceptional.
They were special to me through friendship and our experiences, but the more I travelled and the more women I met in the Parkour world, the more I realised they were not unique. They were no more special in their abilities than anyone else; and that was a truly beautiful and even more inspirational thing. There were no secrets to becoming good at Parkour. These women approached their training with humility, joy, dedication and hard work.
Architect and co-founder of the Movement Creative in NY Caitlin Pontrella explains: “For me, Parkour was my path towards empowerment. Through its practice I found that any obstacle I faced I could overcome with discipline, focus, and patience. I confronted my fear of failure and was able to accept it instead as a positive and necessary part of progression (rather than something that was scary and to be avoided)."
"And those important lessons that I learned through this movement I found started translating into the other aspects of my life, affecting the way I approached school, design, business, and love, all for the better.
"Architecture stays the same; what has changed is your joy and appreciation of it."
While theatre director Tara Robinson says: “Parkour to me is a way of using play to connect. Whatever age a cat is, it will still chase a thread. It will play because it wants to practice and to imagine. Playing is all about the imagination and that's integral to my relationship with Parkour. I imagine elaborate rules to govern bizarre physical challenges, and each of these serves to enhance my ability to connect in quite a primal way to two things: my environment and my body."
"Like the cat, I am connecting to my environment in a way that is about what it could be and I'm connecting to my body in a way that is about how it will move and achieve the play it will engage in (and not about how it looks or will fail)."
While women in London were making use of the abandoned Heygate estate and Latimer Road park, in New York, Central Park offered a multitude of possibilities for Melanie, Caitlin, Nikkie and more. In Sao Paulo, Isis and Mariana claimed their space within the busy districts and trained. Spain, Italy, France, Romania, Canada, Columbia, Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand and more, if you know where to look you’ll find them and think WOW! – the virus is out there: Women On Walls.