Friday, December 31, 2010

Parkour with the APA in Melbourne

And now for the important part. The parkour in Melbourne.

My first introduction to parkour in Melbourne was a class that was held at the Trace Facility two days after my arrival. While the journey to the Trace Facility from the city is slightly sketchy, especially when done in the semi darkness, the facility is probably one of the best indoor parkour training facilities that I’ve encountered or seen in pictures. In addition to this, it also serves as the unofficial headquarters of the Australian Parkour Association (APA).

The facility is housed in a converted auto garage that has been meticulously planned out by its owners, who were some of the first people to start training for parkour in Australia. Below are some pictures and videos of the facility, although they definitely don’t do full justice to it.



The inside of the Trace facility with a great view of the scaffolding that is currently in place.  (That's me in the yellow doing my 101 muscle-ups).  Photo courtesy of "The Fist" Photography.
   
A traceur going from the scaffolding to "the wall".  Photo courtesy of "The Fist" Photography.

From what I’ve seen and heard, the Melbourne chapter of the APA is by far the most advanced of the APA cities in terms of the classes that they offer and the jobs that they do. After observing the workings of the group over the past month and a half, I’d have to attribute a lot of that success to the experience and guidance of the leadership that has developed in Melbourne.

While the there aren’t quite as many classes offered here as with Parkour Generations in London, it’s still a pretty impressive schedule, especially given the very small number of instructors that are responsible for teaching all of the classes available (for more details, check out the APA website for Melbourne here).
 
Something that has become increasingly apparent to me over the past 6 months is that any parkour organization that wants to do any sort of significant teaching is limited by how many experienced and effective instructors that it has. Not only are insurance policies dependent on the ratios of students to instructors, but the constant grind of teaching, and normal life changes can result in a high rate of attrition. The need to keep instructors “fresh” and motivated is just as important as ensuring that there is a well-established source for the development of new instructors to cope with the expansion and change-over than occurs naturally.


Indoor Classes

The indoor classes at the Trace facility start off similar in many ways to the ones that I experienced with Parkour Generations. Most of the warm-up exercises were very similar, if not identical, to the ones that we did in London and it gave me a somewhat surreal feeling of déjà vu- same exercises, different accent, other side of the globe. While the warm-up wasn’t nearly as conditioning-intensive as some of Forrest’s (co-founder of Parkour Generations and infamous for his conditioning exercises), they got my muscles and joints ready for the rest of the training session. The rest of the class was spent working on various movements and routes, with a brief conditioning and stretching session at the end. Since the facility was much more suitable for parkour than any of the ones that I’d been to in London (not as many padded or cushy obstacles as the Westminster or Moberley sites, and a lot more stuff to work with than the Optimal Life Fitness site), the instructors were able to focus more on forming routes that mimicked an outdoor environment, both in the realness of the surfaces (hard walls, sharp corners, and unforgiving floors), and in the employment of the “fear” element. Like the classes in London, the indoor class included traceurs of a wide range of skill levels and the instructors did a good job of separating the groups so that the less experienced or less skilled members weren’t intimidated or dominated by the more experienced guys. All in all, I was pretty impressed with the indoor classes and especially with the facility. Another nice thing about having the facility “within the family” (owned by traceurs that are training) is that it can be opened to host “open sessions” in which traceurs can come by and train at their own pace at certain times throughout the week, usually on Friday and Saturday afternoons.


Outdoor Classes

The only outdoor classes officially hosted by the APA are on Sunday mornings in the center of Melbourne. While there is only one outdoor class per week, it’s pretty hard to compare it to any of the indoor classes for a number of reasons. The first difference is the size of the group. While indoor classes can range from 4 to 20+ people, the outdoor classes routinely have between 50 and 90 people participating. Every time I arrived at the “Waves” sculpture that served as the meeting place for the class I was shocked by the sheer number of people that had come out. In fact, the APA recently made the decision to have a “summer break” for the outdoor classes from early December to early February because due to the schools being in summer vacation they were getting too many people (120+) participating in the classes on Sundays and didn’t have enough instructors to safely lead the groups.
The classes start with a few announcements and the instructors issuing wristbands to all participants. The wristbands are a nice touch that the APA does partly for insurance reasons, and partly for common sense. The wristbands allow them to keep track of the number of participants, and ward off the spectators that often try to join in mid-session. The names and emergency contact details of the participant also fulfill certain insurance policy obligations while provide valuable information in an emergency situation.

After having everyone sign in and put their emergency contact details on a wristband, the group was divided into three classes. The “First Timers” class is mandatory for newcomers to APA classes, and like the indoor version, covers the basic movements and also a lot of the safety information. While it’s not the most action packed class, it works well for the APA because it ensures that everyone is on the same page for the classes and understands when the instructor tells them to do a “precision jump to the rail then a cat leap over the wall followed by a forward roll upon landing”.

The “Basics” class is probably the largest group and is made up of all different levels of experience and backgrounds. It’s usually the largest group and the goal is provide people with a working understanding of parkour and the various movements. The “Beyond Basics” class is reserved for the more experienced traceurs that can pass the “entry requirements” (See below) and the classes that I attended focused on doing things that teach traceurs to the see the “bigger picture” of how parkour can be applied in their environment while providing a pretty tough workout and conditioning session.

The entry requirements to participate in the Beyond Basics class*:
•Do a climb-up from a dead hang without using your elbows
•Run 2km in under 10 minutes
•Roll on concrete
•Speed Vault
•Dash Vault
•Lazy Vault
•Turn Vault
•Cat Pass
•Precision
•Arm Jump
•Wall run
•Tic Tac
•Forward and Reverse Underbar

*taken directly from the APA website

These entry requirements ensure that the progress of the group isn’t hampered by people lagging behind and also creates a sense of semi-elitist camaraderie among the group that often leads to additional training sessions outside of classes. After 4 months of training with Parkour Generations I was able to jump into the “Beyond Basics” and will elaborate more on that experience in the next post.

After the 2-hour class each of the groups meets back at the Waves sculpture to stretch and cool down. The instructors hold a meeting amongst themselves to debrief on their respective classes and to critique each other’s performances. I found this practice to be a really good way to develop good instructors and also to make sure that the goals and ideals of the APA were maintained. It also served as a venue for the instructors to learn and critique each other and for the more experienced guys to share their expertise and wisdom.


Instructor Training

There is also a free “Instructor Training” class is held in the early afternoon on Sundays before the main classes. Usually led by Chippa, this class is geared toward developing the next generation of instructors for the APA, something that might not sound too useful, but is in fact one of the main reasons for the APA’s success in Melbourne, since there are a lot more qualified and motivated instructors here than elsewhere in Australia. While not as “standardized” as the ADAPT course that I did in London, the Instructor Training has been a great way to develop my teaching skills and pick up tips on leading classes. One of the good things about the course is that it meets weekly, which allows for time to digest and think about things instead of having to “cram” during an intense 5-day course like ADAPT. The APA also hosts a more official and intensive “Instructor Training Course” in early February that is rumored to be similar of similar intensity to the ADAPT course but unfortunately I’ll be gone by then so I’ll just have to come back to Melbourne another year to experience that.


General Observations

It took me a while to put a finger on the reason, but from the moment that I started training with the APA I was aware that there was a different maturity level here. It wasn’t until Fizz (who is also in Melbourne for the start of her own “around the world adventure”- see October post for SOTF race for a pic), commented on the fact that there weren’t many people our age here that I realized that the age level here was very different than the one that I had become accustomed to in London. While I suspect that this has a lot to do with the fact that the classes that I attended in London were reserved for adults and the younger generations had their own classes, all of the gatherings and jams that I’ve been to here seem to have a more youthful and playful vibe. While it’s definitely been fun hanging out with high schoolers (who have some really high levels of parkour by the way), it’s also left me feeling slightly “old” at times. I’ve found that the main differences are in the energy levels and humor genres of the group. Practical jokes are common, and spontaneous wrestling and matches erupt frequently among the group whenever they aren’t training. I strongly suspect that this attitude comes partly from some of the veteran guys, who have serious and organized fronts that mask a very playful and mischievous side. This can be seen in all sorts of the activities that go on before, during, and after training sessions, but might be summed up best by some of the following videos and images.

My introduction to the game “British Bulldog”, best described as a full contact version of sharks and minnows. While not normally played as violently as in this clip, we were pretty pumped up on endorphins from a hard training session…


Video to come when I get a faster internet connection


After the last outdoor class before the summer break someone started the “sculpture climbing” challenge involving the giant “Waves” sculpture.



What starts like this....


... often escalates to this.  Photos courtesy of "The Fist" Photography.


Some of the videos made by Travis, a traceur that could easily be mistaken for 18 or 19 if it wasn’t for the fact that he’s 16…


Posing for the camera on top of the "Waves" sculpture.  Photo courtesy of "The Fist" Photography.

Video to come when I get a proper video connection

Another thing that has struck me about the APA activities in Melbourne is the lack of females training. Of course there are the usual girlfriends and groupies that seem to accompany any sort of parkour group (the parkour lifestyle usually leads to a pretty high proportion of 6-packs), but unlike London, where a lot of these women trained as well; the classes here have been noticeably lacking in estrogen. While this may be a good thing given the number of high school guys hanging around, I was still surprised to find this and it definitely creates a much more macho/testosterone-laden dynamic, that while usually helpful with training, is one that I haven’t had much of since running track.

I’ve actually been pretty surprised in general to see a distinct lack of emphasis on female sports in general in Australia. I’d assumed that it would be like the US or UK where, although women’s events are often not as well attended or popular as men’s sporting events, female athletes were still a relatively common sight and are well respected. However, I’ve been continually surprised by the unequal ratio of male to female joggers on the banks of the Yarra, of women walking around in workout attire, or of women’s professional or amateur sports in general. I suspect that the fact that the APA doesn’t have any female instructors might have something to do with it, but after talking with a number of women in London, France, and now Australia, the lack of a “Women’s Only” class might be even more important. While I don’t want to attempt to address the whole “Women in Parkour” issue in this post because it merits a lot more discussion than I’m prepared to write at the moment, the “Women’s Only Class” is steadily becoming a topic of particular interest to me. Is that really the best way to encourage more female involvement? Is there a more effective and inclusive way? Does it have a positive long term effect or does it create a false impression of the global “co-ed” parkour scene?

Another thing that has been interesting to observe here is the apparent disconnect that exists between Europe and Australia on certain aspects of the history of parkour. While I’ve found that the YouTube videos that traceurs watch are pretty much the same around the world, there are a number of elements of the “Founding of parkour” story that are different here, or are left out in general. Like I found when talking to traceurs in the USA, the Yamakasi are relatively unknown compared to David Belle and Sébastien Foucan, and a lot of the recent efforts to reunite Freerunning, ADD, and Parkour are only just now making their way to Australia, where the classic “freerunning vs. parkour” battle is in full pitch. Personally I think that this is similar to the fact that many Europeans and Americans take little interest in the happenings and geography of Oceania, and likewise a lot of the traceurs here don’t care too much about the “parkour politics” going on in Europe. That being said, there are a number of people that are VERY well informed on the state of the sport on a global scale, as I found out my first day of training in Melbourne when I met someone studying for a “doctorate in parkour” (more on this in an upcoming post).

All in all, the past month and a half in Melbourne has been a lot of fun and I’ve found that my parkour is improving steadily as I learn to combine ideas and techniques from the plethora of “mentors” and models that I’ve had. The more I travel the more I realize that these places I’m visiting each have their own “flavor” of parkour and that each brings a new perspective to a sport that is still in the adolescent stages of forming itself and determining what it wants to be when it grows up (sounds familiar…).

6 comments:

  1. Very interesting and informative post, Blake. I'm an older Melbourne dude (currently outside Oz for a bit) who only today stumbled across Parkour / Freerunning and was fascinated by what I saw. I'm surprised and impressed by your cultural comments about the Melbourne Parkour scene - as in, in the context of Parkour you have quickly seen certain larger truths about Australian male/female activity levels that many Aussies go a lifetime without seeing. Thanks for posting.

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  2. Awesome! Thanks for the peak into the APA's classes and gyms. I've always wanted to go and Chippa was a big part of the inspiration for the nonprofit we have set up over in the states. Hopefully I'll be able to show you our gym sometime :)

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  3. Thanks Tyson, I'm already thinking about a tour of parkour in the US when I get home and Seattle is up at the top of the list. Just have to find a way to fund it...

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  4. Great post Blake! My kids go to Parkour and two of them are girls - we are starting to see more girls join the kids class and there are a handful of females in the adult classes from time to time. you are absolutely right about the profile of Oz female sport - a little in the dark ages when it comes to that! Thanks for the post.

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  5. Great photos and very nice article blake

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