I soared through the air across a 13-foot gap and jutted my feet firmly in front, aiming for a concrete ledge another 10 feet off the ground. In an ideal world, I’ll land on the balls of my feet on the ledge, sticking like glue to the cement.
“Parkour is an adrenaline rush, more than anything,” said Daniel Sorbello, a traceur, another word for parkour practitioner, from Maryland. “I’ve been training a little more than four years now, and I’ve never found something that quite compares.”
Since the sport’s birth in the late 1990s, parkour has spread around the world, even finding its way to Harrisburg. Daniel and a training partner, Patrick Smith, travelled up to give the city a shot. I met with the two of them at the Capitol Complex to kick off a session in May. With its refined and elegant architecture, the complex’s unique walls and ledges make it a perfect place to put theory into practice.
“It’s based around freedom,” Patrick said. “Your freedom to move and jump just the way you like. That’s what I like so much about it. I’ve got a lot of creative energy and parkour allows me to release it all.”
The very essence of parkour—and what draws most traceurs to the sport—is the ability to break free from the conventional. Many athletes, like Patrick, have an innovative and creative style, their movement unique to themselves. The idea of something so exclusive is one of the compelling traits of parkour.
The pair spent longer than 10 minutes working on one jump. They took off from one leg to a wall, 8 feet away and 4 feet higher than the take off. A jump like this leaves potential for injury, making it necessary to focus very intently on everything that goes into it. Their dedication to the maneuver caught the attention of some government employees. Interested and astonished, they began to ask questions.
“What is it?” one asked.
“Um, that’s a tough one,” Patrick said. “It’s an expressionistic style of movement, one where you’re able to use the obstacles around you to jump and flip off from. It’s kind of like dance, almost, in an urban setting.”
Parkour is known for its showy features, such as roof gaps and unthinkable flips, which often get attention from onlookers. Thus, the sport is often misunderstood and seen as harmful. I feel a responsibility to educate people, to make them aware what we practice.
The workers’ interest grew. They asked if it was popular, and Patrick said, “Yeah. All around the world. It’s become a very widespread practice.”
So much so that Patrick and I travelled to Washington, D.C., in May for a parkour event called “Beast Coast.” There, I spoke with Mark Toorock, founder of American Parkour, a national parkour organization.
“I really, right off the bat, connected with it and thought this was going to be a thing that people really enjoy,” he said. “There are no boundaries [in parkour]. The world is so full of divisions. There is no division between us as people. Parkour is just about people wanting to move, and that’s a human trait.”
Mark began doing parkour in 2002 in London. Two years later, he created American Parkour and hosted one of the world’s largest events in 2016 with more than 650 people. Speaking with him opened my eyes to the vastness of parkour, that it helps people transcend what they once thought was impossible, both mentally and physically.
“We’re meant to explore,” he said. “We’re meant to play. We’re meant to skin our knees. That’s how we grow.”
Beauty and Wonder
A huge part of parkour circles around exploration. We, as athletes, take any opportunity given to us to venture to places we wouldn’t otherwise go. Parkour has taken me all over the East Coast and introduced me to many friends. The desire to explore is a trait that traceurs share.
Mark mentioned that some people have a negative image of the sport.
“I try to help them understand why there’s nothing wrong with parkour,” he said. “A lot of the negative perceptions come from things that aren’t actually part and parcel to parkour.”
Many in the community have dealt with people seeing them as mischief-makers who harm the environment and themselves.
After spending a couple of hours training at the Capitol Complex, Daniel, Patrick and I made a quick stop at Kunkel Plaza and finished our session at the PinnacleHealth building
on Front Street. That spot is so exposed that we attracted the attention of many passersby. After jumping for a while, a police officer pulled up.
“We got a call saying there were some kids vandalizing and loitering here,” the officer said, getting out of his car.
“We weren’t trying to vandalize anything,” Patrick said. “I understand if that’s what it looked like, but that’s the last thing we want to do.”
We mentioned parkour, and that rang a bell.
“I’ve seen that on the internet,” he said. “That’s awesome.”
We showed him a little of what we do, flipping off the walls and stairs. He appreciated our display and politely told us to find a different spot to train. We thanked him and were on our way.
“I understand it’s a liability issue,” Daniel said. “That’s why we leave when people ask us to. I don’t ever want to infringe. This kind of thing happens almost every time we train. I just like walking away knowing they understand we didn’t have any malicious intentions.”
Parkour, as a means of self-expression, has given Patrick, Daniel and me the ability to see the beauty and wonder in exploration. The sport provides a new appreciation for architecture and the simple structures in cities like Harrisburg.
“I hope to spread the knowledge of parkour with as many people as possible,” Patrick said. “I think it’s an incredible addition to society.”
Benjamin Miller will be a senior studying at the Capital Area School of the Arts Charter School (CASA).