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I walked onto the quad of Bella Vista High School on a Sunday afternoon to a sight of 20 or so men climbing walls, running like cheetahs on all fours and swinging from trees.
This was the Sacramento regional parkour practice, led by a SFparkour.com representative, Victor Lo Forte. He has been a practitioner of parkour, or traceur, French for tracer, for three and a half years and has led the Sacramento group for about two years.
"From what I understand, it's basically the discipline of training one's mind and body to prepare oneself to overcome obstacles in an environment," Lo Forte said.
Parkour is said to be rooted in early 20th century French military practices. Georges Hébert, a World War I naval officer, developed a notion of physicality that embraced use of the body and its environment for developing strength useful to society.
These principles were the foundation for his "Natural Method," which incorporated the fusion of the mental and physical to overcome obstacles via climbing, running and jumping (to name a few). His method contributed to the development of the French parcours du combattant, or military obstacle course.
As a young teen, David Belle, considered the father of parkour, picked up Natural Method ethics along with his gymnastic and martial arts training in France.
Many of the young men at the Sacramento parkour practice admire Belle and have adopted the Natural Method as part of their training.
"Parkour is training your flight response," said Sacramento State student Jake Anderson.
Lo Forte commented on one of the many purposes of parkour, to "be strong to protect your family and friends."
"We’re not trying to hurt anybody, we’re training to be strong, and that really helps the community," he said.
Though not a spectator sport, it is difficult to explain what exactly traceurs are doing to people who gather round their concrete playground.
"I usually point them to YouTube and Casino Royale," Anderson said. "I tell them parkour is the study of the most efficient way to get from point A to point B."
This efficiency calls for climbing walls, not walking around them.
"If you're in a dead-end alley, you look back and forth and don’t look up," Anderson said. "People don’t look up, they don’t look at their environments anymore."
He described parkour as a way to think of our built environment with a critical lens. "We create our environments to be quick and easy for what we’re raised as," Anderson said. "Parkour shows us that there are actually easier ways than we’re raised, things people don’t think of."
The Sacramento traceurs have tried practicing in the Downtown Sacramento area, but have found security and business owners to be hostile to the activity. "If they tell us to leave then we leave," Lo Forte said.
"I’d say ground-rules for anywhere are be respectful of the environment, don’t wreck things, don’t leave litter behind, clean up after yourselves," he said. "There is a big thing in parkour community called the leave no trace campaign. We don’t want it to look like we’ve been there. We don’t want to get kicked out of places."
Parkour training also focuses on overall health and well-being. "It might save their lives," Lo Forte said. "You never know if they might get addicted to drugs or end up in jail."
"I wanted to get in shape," said Robert King, a telecommunications technician for Sacramento County. "Since I started in January, I lost 40 pounds."
"A lot of people are sitting home and they don’t get any sensory input; they don't smell the dirt on their hands and the sun on their face," Lo Forte said.
This was the case for 15-year-old Jonah Saysourivong. "Before this I was a big-time gamer and would play Call of Duty for 42 hours straight," he said. "I definitely know other kids my age are drinking alcohol and smoking, and that’s one thing I’d never do."
The health benefits and the body's adaptation to unique movements is of great interest to Anderson as a kinesiology student. "They should talk about it in anatomy classes and in physical therapy classes. I think that doctors should know it, gymnasts, athletes," he said. He hopes to introduce parkour in his dance and martial arts classes at Sacramento State.
Lo Forte also aspires to introduce parkour skills to the police force. "These things will be helpful for them and hopefully they will realize that and hire some of us to train them in the future," he said.
In the middle of practice, a group of young men started tumbling and performing a series of flips in the air and over others lying on the ground. The freedom of movement in a creative way like this is called free-running, often associated with parkour.
"Parkour is strictly what's the most efficient way from one point to another; free-running is adding flair and flips," Anderson said.
Though there were not any females present at the practice, they are encouraged to participate as traceuse, French for female tracers.
Robert King encouraged me to try a technique to get over a 7-foot wall during practice, but I settled for swinging and balancing on rails on my own time. I found that I was using my environment rather than living around it. Though we all live in our environments, traceurs live their environments.
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Practice at Bella Vista High School, meeting Sundays and Wednesdays at 4 p.m.