Leaps and bounds

At the new Urban Evloution gym, parkour becomes a way of life

  • Urban Evolution Baltimore owner Adam McConnell demonstrates parkour at the gym.
Urban Evolution Baltimore owner Adam McConnell demonstrates… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
September 26, 2013

I

t looks like the bastardized version of a gymnast's somersault, the parkour roll, but it's the most difficult parkour technique to master. In its own deceptive way, it's also the most dangerous.

Start with the stance, a squatting position with the knee of your dominant foot pointed forward, the other knee at a perpendicular angle to the side. With back straight, turn your torso slightly away from your dominant knee, cock your head toward your other knee, and push your arms straight in front of you with elbows locked and palms facing outward. Make the tips of your middle fingers kiss. Fall forward. Your body should roll from the back of the shoulder on your dominant hand's side to the opposite hip, cradling your spine and protecting your head.

Executed properly, the roll assists parkour practitioners as they maneuver the concrete jungle of Baltimore, leaping over guard rails and bike racks, running through parking garages, and jumping down from heights of 10 feet or more. The preferred term for these running rogues is traceurs, French because of parkour's origins. In France parkour was used to train firefighters to maneuver around obstacles; it was also a military discipline. Americans might know parkour from the opening chase scene of the 2006 film "Casino Royale": a lanky man fleeing a muscled Daniel Craig glides his body through a narrow opening, whereas Craig punches himself through the drywall. The exact evolutionary history is murky, but credit to taking parkour to the streets for the first time, in the late 1980s, goes to Frenchman David Belle.

In parkour, as Belle demonstrated, you don't go around a fence; you jump over it.

And instead of coming to a dead stop after each vault or jump, you roll to salvage some of your kinetic forces and transfer them to the next vault or jump, while cushioning the blow of excessively high leaps. A somersault is no good, as a traceur will end up with bruises down the length of their spine. But a roll done improperly could leave a person with a dislocated shoulder, a bruised hip, a lacerated forearm, or a concussion from slamming the back of their head onto concrete.

Despite Adam McConnell's instruction, I'm struggling to get it right. McConnell is the 32-year-old owner of the new 15,000-square-foot Urban Evolution gym on Eastern Avenue, past the Johns Hopkins University Bayview Campus. For six years he has been a traceur, and now he's teaching locals the skills and techniques of parkour in the hopes they, too, will try taming asphalt.

During an introductory class in late August, I have the fortune of attempting this parkour roll on a padded mat. But I'm no good — I'm rolling sideways on my hip, and not diagonally across my back-and McConnell singles me out in this class of five, and makes me try several backwards rolls to see if I can feel the difference.

By the end of this two-hour class, I'll have jumped into squatting position on elevated pieces of two-by-four, rolled incorrectly about a dozen times, and speed-vaulted over trapezoidal wooden boxes over three feet high, marveling in mid-air that my left hand is powerful enough to help me clear a box more than half my height without my feet needing to touch the top of it.

For a 24-year-old I consider myself spry. Not overly athletic, but in good health: A physician in June told me I have perfect blood pressure. But after this class, I'm out of breath. My quads ache, and it's difficult to walk down steps without a rail to lean on.

"Welcome to real parkour," McConnell says, a coy reference to a tale I told of inebriated college friends jumping off benches, clicking their heels, and shouting "parkour!"

In the United States, parkour is slowly but forcefully gaining steam as a new, quasi-sport. Traceurs in Baltimore's nascent parkour community train in and around the Inner Harbor amphitheater, in front of the Maryland Science Center, and inside nearby parking garages. It's a growing scene, bolstered by college undergraduates and loosely organized by local traceurs who communicate via text and the B-more Awesome Facebook Group. At Otakon in August, a parkour jam took place, as it has the previous several Otakons, with traceurs showing off new tricks. They soar into the air by kicking off walls, hanging like cats off other walls, and flipping off of concrete barriers.

McConnell counts himself in the second generation of traceurs in the U.S., but one of its first "gym rats." His month-old gym is the fourth Urban Evolution to open, and the largest parkour gym on the East Coast, he says. It's a sprawling warehouse, the former home of a mayonnaise-production facility, filled with mobile, wooden obstacles, makeshift monkey bars, and a 750-pound tire. Graffiti covers the walls.

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