A dash through the concrete jungle

Parkour enthusiasts use fast, fluid movements to navigate natural and man-made obstacles

September 19, 2006|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun reporter

District B13 is an action movie for the rest of us.

Moviegoers who were awed by the treetop martial arts on display in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon knew they could never attempt such feats in their own backyards. And fans of Jackie Chan appreciate his kung fu while knowing such acrobatics are beyond their ken.

But the stars of District B13 insist that their leaps, tumbles and jumps can -- for the most part -- be replicated by anyone. The film, released on DVD, introduces to filmgoers a new style of action called parkour, a French term that means using fast, fluid movements to advance through an urban terrain.

The basic idea is to think of yourself as water and to get as quickly as possible from one point to another. Just keep moving forward, no matter what gets in the way or what physical feats are required. No gear or accessories are needed.

"As long as you can walk and run, you can do parkour," David Belle, star of District B13 and the founder of modern parkour, says in an interview. He did all his own stunts in the film, many on the rooftops of blighted buildings in Romania.

Parkour, which was founded in France, can be practiced virtually anywhere and is catching on in America. On a Sunday afternoon this summer, about 20 people showed up at a gym in Rockville for what was billed as the first parkour training session in the United States.

Before attempting parkour on unforgiving concrete, they practiced jumps, landings, rolls, vaults and leaps on the soft pads of the gym. They learned how to protect their neck on rolls (tuck your head toward your armpit) and how to absorb shock on jumps. The instructor was Mark Toorock, founder of American Parkour, which promotes the sport in the United States.

"The idea of parkour is it's the mindset -- it's the way you're moving," Toorock said. He means that parkour is about overcoming obstacles, physical and mental. Its adherents say it builds confidence that carries over into other aspects of life.

Belle is not surprised that teenage boys who do parkour say it has made them less afraid of talking to girls.

"To have the courage to go out there and jump on crazy obstacles -- they'll see that talking to a girl is much less impressive," he said. "The goal in parkour is to be as complete as you can."

Belle learned parkour from his father as a teenager. He was living in the French countryside and first practiced his running, leaps and vaults on natural obstacles, such as rocks and hills. Then his family moved to Paris.

"I felt like I was suffocating," Belle said. "I felt trapped, like I couldn't go anywhere. I wanted to break those barriers."

Belle later got small roles in films and commercials, all the while refining parkour. His brother sent a video of Belle doing parkour to Luc Besson, the French film director and producer, who wrote the script for District B13 and cast Belle as the lead.

Belle plays Leito, who spends his days trying to keep order and thwart drug dealers in a lawless Paris suburb called District B13. When his sister is captured by the district's drug lord, Leito teams with a police captain trying to recover a bomb the drug lord stole.

The plot is nothing ingenious, but what sets the movie apart from other action films is how it gets from Point A to Point B -- namely, parkour. In that way, District B13 is faster, more fluid and more surprising than standard action movies.

"The message would be to move yourself and be active and go after what you want -- but force yourself to follow the path that you think is the right one," Belle said.

Parkour took off in England in 2004 when Belle was in a commercial for the BBC, leaping across London rooftops. Late in 2004 and in 2005, it crossed over to the United States. Last November, Toorock founded american parkour.com. The site has had about 500,000 unique visitors and is growing rapidly, he said.

Toorock, 35, who recently quit his job as a stockbroker to focus full time on promoting parkour in America, believes the activity will catch on in this country as a fun alternative to typical exercises.

"It's a very freeing thing," he said. "If you can bring up your physical health, you get past a lot of fear and pain right there. Who wants to get on a treadmill? Nobody. People don't want to exercise. But people do want to play, to jump, to have fun."

That's what Brian Belida and Billy Hughes were doing on a recent Tuesday night at the Silver Spring Metro station. Practicing for a jam -- a weekend gathering of 50 or so parkour enthusiasts -- they were climbing up and jumping off a concrete art installation outside the station.

"It's very natural to us now," said Belida, 22, of Rockville, adding that his girlfriend doesn't like jogging with him anymore because he can't stay on course. "You can't just go for a run," he explained.

From a standstill, Belida and Hughes leapt eight feet across from one ledge to another. They vaulted over handrails and jumped over gardens of Japanese maples, azaleas and petunias. Passers-by stopped to gawk.

"Y'all are good!" one woman said. A man asked if they were in the military.

No, said Belida. "It's called parkour, like an urban obstacle course."

And then he was off, moving swiftly through the concrete jungle.

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

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