Friday, November 25, 2011

2011 Watson Fellow Conference

The 2011 Watson Conference was probably one of the most amazing experiences of the trip for me.  This is for many reasons, but mainly because of the amazing people that I met there.  Although we weren’t allowed to talk or network with each other while “in the field” there was an instant bond that formed between us as soon as we met.  Due to the huge amount of “shared experience” that happened during our Watson years, friendships were forged within minutes.  After a few hours many of us felt as if we’d known each other for years and stories started to go beyond the superficial layers to talk about the less-glamorous parts of the trip that many of us had glossed over in conversations with most people on our travels.  In addition to all of the personal interactions each fellow had the opportunity to present their project to the group, although all of us struggled to relate the full scale of the project to the conference within the allotted time.

The 2010-2011 Thomas J. Watson Fellows.  Photo taken by Burleigh Morton.
The video that I made for the presentation was very well received and I even got a chance to lead a very brief training session on the grass outside the presentation hall during our break period.

The director of the Watson Foundation, Chris Kasabach, trying out parkour during some down time.  Photo Courtesy of my fellow Watsons.

Summer in the USA

While not going to grad school did free up a large amount of time in my summer schedule, this time was quickly filled up again working a variety of odd jobs and preparing my final presentation for the Watson Fellowship Conference, held at Carlton College in Minnesota. While I can’t say that I slaved over the resulting video for the entire duration of the month I spent at home, it did take up a substantial portion of it, mostly due to my lack of video-editing skills and the absence of a clear narrative when I started.

While at home I did manage to spend some “quality time” with my family and a few close friends, squeezing in quick visits to Newport, Charlotte, Raleigh, and New York City.

Passing on the knowledge to the rest of the family.  Photo courtesy of Evitt Wildlife Photography.

A nice relaxing day at the beach.  Photo courtesy of Evitt Wildlife Photography.
I also led my first solo parkour class/workshop on home soil to a local group in Boston.  While some members of the group were not nearly as willing or enthusiastic about the course as I was used to (they didn’t exactly participate voluntarily), it went well on a whole and was a good opportunity for me to try leading things entirely on my own.
Leading the warm-up on the railings.

Re-visiting childhood.

Group stretching session at the end.

Final Week in London

The last week of my Watson trip was spent in London trying to tie up many of the loose ends to the project, including a number of interviews with people that I hadn’t managed to get in front of the camera yet.  It was also good to have a sense of coming full circle and to get a chance to “break” (successfully complete) a number of jumps and challenges that had seemed impossible to me when I left in October but had mysteriously shrunk or become less intimidating over the course of 8 months.

I also used this time to finalize my plans for the coming year.  I decided at the last minute that I would not be attending the University of Virginia to pursue the masters degree in Marketing and Management that I had deferred admission to in order to go on the Watson.  While a large part of this decision was due to the cost-benefit analysis between the steep tuition costs and what I wanted to do afterwards, another part of it was because I felt that I have been given an extraordinary opportunity with the Watson and couldn’t let that go to waste by “selling my soul” to the corporate world.  This decision was an especially difficult one for me given the strength of some emotional ties at play, and while I will never know what would have happened if I’d chosen otherwise, I’m pretty sure that I made the right choice.

Monday, November 21, 2011

NUK++ and the Nord-Norge Festival

After leaving the base we headed to Harstad, where we would be working at the NUK++ kids festival which was associated with the Nord-Norje (Northern Norway) music festival.  The festival is part of the European “summer season” of festivals and the NUK++ element was added to give kids a chance to see parts of it and also to function as a sort of “summer camp” for a week.  Children are given the opportunity to sign up for one of a number of different subjects, ranging from parkour to music composition to candle-dipping.  Over the course of a week they spend most of the day working on that subject and interacting with the other children, preparing for the final talent show in which they exhibit their work to family and friends.

Harstad, Norway.

The NUK++ logo.

Our first two days in Harstad also included a workshop for a group of Norwegian dancers that had contacted Streetmovment to arrange the workshop.  Since both Martin and Mikkel were doing a demonstration for the NUK++ festival the first day, I was given the responsibility of leading the first half of the dancer’s workshop.  Despite being rather nervous about running my first official class totally solo, the class went really well and I had a ton of fun.  The dancers picked up the movements very quickly and seemed to possess a natural fluidity and grace that many traceurs take a long time to develop, if ever.  Of course their enthusiasm and interest made my job easy, as did the fact that they were used to pushing themselves physically as a group, and used their group dynamics to ensure that everyone kept up.  By the end of the class I was on a huge “teaching high”, a sensation that continued throughout the rest of the week.

A local paper's coverage of the workshop with the dancers.   Courtesy of the Intuit Dance Company.
The rest of the week passed in a blur, between spending the days teaching the students, and the nights exploring the festival nightlife with Martin and Mikkel.  As official “artists” at the festival, we were given passes that allowed us free access to all of the shows and concerts at the festival, which was a huge perk.  I found it pretty interesting that the Danes and Norwegians were able to communicate almost seamlessly while talking in their own tongues, and were even able to understand the Swedish rap group that played one night. While I didn’t find Norwegian any easier to understand than Danish, I did find that Norway, like Denmark, has such a high rate of English-speakers that communication wasn’t much of an issue.  Yes, I did feel a bit left out at times when people reverted to their native languages to “talk business”, but that is to be expected when living in a foreign country where one doesn’t speak the language. 

Being tourists (Note: it was 10pm at the time this photo was taken).  Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

Enjoying the view from our rooftop training arena our first day in Harstad.  Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe

All work and no play... or the other way around.  Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

Leave it to the hipster to be the clown.  Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.
The NUK++ workshop went really well and the kids made a huge amount of progress over the course of the week.  While some of them did have prior experience with parkour, for many of them that “experience” was limited to watching and emulating YouTube videos and most had never seen anything like the Streetmovement training method.  However, unlike many people when confronted with the hard training and conditioning that accompanies what I would call “real parkour” (as opposed to going outside and “playing ninja” on a roof for a bit), the kids really embraced the training.  Of course not everything was hard work, and we made sure to keep things fun, but the kids seemed pretty intent to get the most out of the training that they could.  When they performed at the final “talent show” at the end of the week, I couldn’t help but be really proud of them and the progress that they had made in such a short amount of time.

Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

A bit of a "warmup" on the stairs.  Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

Catching up on the blog during some free moments.  Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

Streetmovement goes abroad – Norway

All too soon my time in Denmark came to an end and I found myself in the airport yet again.  However, this time was different.  Not only because I was doing quadrepedal movement and handstands on the rolling walkways of the airport terminal, but because I was traveling with other people for the first time in ages.  Martin and Mikkel from Streetmovement had invited me to join them for two workshops that they would be doing in northern Norway.

The first workshop was with a group of Norwegian naval commandos, known as the FROGS (I don’t know why they have continued the SEALS tradition of the cute and cuddly animals).  Streetmovment had done a workshop with them the year before in which the commandos had referred to the quadrepedie workout as “dynamic yoga” so I was looking forward to meeting these guys.  Unfortunately the visit was cut short by some airplane delays, and despite arriving in the late evening, the fact that we were only about 300km from the North Pole meant that the sun made it looked like we had arrived in the mid afternoon.  By the time we had been picked up in the black unmarked van, driven to the base, turned off all electronic equipment, gotten something to eat, and gone a quick tour of the facilities, it had progressed to "late afternoon", which I was informed was as dark as it gets at that time of year.  This was somewhat disconcerting, especially as the base did not at all fit with the image I’d had in my mind of an impenetrable mountain ice fortress surrounded by polar bears.  Instead it looked more like a small village whose residents had a penchant for long, barracks-like houses, drab paint colors, and big metal boats.

While I wasn't allowed to take pictures, this picture pretty much sums up the breathtaking natural surroundings.

So the name is about as "cute and cuddly" as the FROGS get, everything else about them, including their crest, encourages one not to make too many jokes at their expense.
We were up early the next morning to eat breakfast and meet up with the guys that we would be training with that day.  I won’t be giving too many details on the rest of the day’s activities because I was kindly asked not to by the commanding officer, nor will I be supplying any photos of the training.  One of the highlights of the visit was the opportunity to try out the brand-new obstacle course that had just been built on the base.  The commander was very proud of this course, in which he had included a number of “modifications” to traditional military obstacles.  The result was pretty cool, and lots of fun to go through.  While the traceur’s path through some of the obstacles was definitely much lighter and faster than the commando’s routes, the lack of military boots, big backpack, and a weapon made our progress a lot easier.  That being said, there were a few obstacles that definitely make us hesitate for a moment or two, including a rolling log obstacle that seemed to work better when wearing boots, and the last one, which had a nickname that I don’t feel comfortable publishing on the blog.  Essentially a giant version of a “Giant’s Ladder”, it was made up of a “ladder” that had one end anchored in a pier protruding out over the fjord, and the other end that extended out over the water at an angle.  The “ladder” was about 14m tall and composed of 6 cylindrical rungs, spaced every 2 meters (6+ feet) and each about a thick as my torso.  The objective was to ascend the ladder by jumping from rung to rung and then jump from the last one to the icy depths 14m below.  And survive.

When we got to the last obstacle Mikkel generously (or foolishly) offered to go first, and as the military guys watched in amusement he made it to the top, and after a few moments of hesitation, took the 14m drop down to the water below.  After watching Mikkel fall for what seemed like a maddeningly long time, Martin and I both only went halfway up before dropping into the frigid depths below, which in reality was probably the worst part since it was paralyzing cold and swimming in shoes and sweatpants in near-freezing water was not an enjoyable experience.  After some long hot showers to restore feeling to our limbs we packed up to head over to the next workshop with a slightly less intimidating group of participants. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Construction of a park in Odense

In addition to all the parks and architectural projects in the Copenhagen, Streetmovement also does a number of projects around Denmark. My stay in Denmark just happened to coincide with the completion of one of these projects in the city of Odense, which I nicknamed the “Moonscape”.  Always willing to sling around some dirt and build something, I got a chance to help out on the final days of construction for the park, which was designed as a joint project between the Streetmovement guys and a high-level Danish climber named Jens Munk Clemmensen. The result was pretty cool and shows the desire by the Streetmovement guys to go beyond the "typical" parkour park that is becoming more and more popular around the world.

In the construction phase. Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

The view of the bay.  Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

Unique?  Definitely.  Pushing the limits of "parkour parks".   Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

The "stairs" leading up from the base of the hill to the park. Photo courtesy of Jens Munk Clemmensen.  

The completed park (the grass will grow in soon I'm told).  Photo courtesy of Jens Munk Clemmensen.

Some of the Streetmovement guys testing out the new park at its opening.  Photo courtesy of Jens Munk Clemmensen..

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Streetmovement & Streetcamp 7

Streetmovement was started in Copenhagen in by Peter Ammentorp, Martin Kallesøe, Sebastien Louis Peronard and Mikkel Thisen.  They achieved early notoriety in Denmark with the release of Kasper Astrup Schröder’s documentary “City Surfers” in 2007.  The film that highlighted the growth of the young men and the inspiration that they took from the Yamakasi founders in Paris, most notably from Yann and Laurent.

Today, both Martin and Mikkel are still with Streetmovement, which has had a huge influence on the Danish parkour scene.  The addition of Mikkel Rugaard and his architectural and performance experience to the team has also created a number of opportunities for the company, which routinely does workshops and performances throughout Denmark and Northern Europe, in addition to a large amount of work in the regions in and around Copenhagen.

My introduction to the Streetmovement style of training was really during Streetcamp 7, which coincided with my first few days at Gerlev.  “Streetcamp” is a 4-day bi-annual event that is offered to the youth of Copenhagen and gives them a glimpse at the lives they would lead as students at Gerlev (including a few days of the amazing food that Gerlev is renowned for).  The course features lots of training time with the Streetmovement instructors, as well as a guest instructor that is usually brought in from Parkour Generations.  For Streetcamp 7, this happened to be the one and only Brian Appiah Obeng, who turned out to be a huge hit with the young traceurs.

The thirty or so participants in Streetcamp 7 ranged in age from 13-18 and included a wide variety of skill levels as well.  While a few of the participants had only been training for a short time, many of them had been training and participating in earlier Streetcamps for much longer, some even for a few years.  Throughout the week I was repeatedly impressed by the levels of determination and drive that the kids showed, and their ability to maintain high energy levels throughout a weekend full of long days of intense training interspersed with lots of socializing and a bit of sleep. 

A hill workout- the "welcome" to Streetcamp.  Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

The kids getting aquainted with Brian. Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.  

Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

Building confidence with some mental challenges. Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe. 

A group warm-up on the last day. Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe. 

Tired but still pushing through the last workout. Photo courtesy of Martin Kallesøe.

The Streetmovement style of training includes a large amount of conditioning and strength training, and the Yamakasi influence is very evident.  That being said, the Streetmovement guys have combined the French founder’s tradition of “strong mind, strong body” with the advances of modern sports science to create a very intense but well-structured training program.  For me it made for an interesting combination because I had been exposed to many elements of it while training for high-level track/athletics.  During Streetcamp I was struck by the fact that not only was the Streetmovement method of training very effective for adults, but it also seemed to appeal to many of the kids, who completed workouts that would have “broken” many of the older and more experienced traceurs that I’ve trained with over the past year.  The interesting thing was that to these kids, this sort of training was hard, but not discounted as useless “overexercise”, as I have seen in a number of situations where people are faced with these daunting workouts without understanding the long-term benefits.  While I’m sure that the Streetcamp participants are a self-selective group, I think that it is also promising for the next generations of traceurs.

A highlight reel of the event made by Nicholas Bluff.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Denmark: Background on Gerlev

Before I describe the events of my time in Gerlev, I should give some background about the school.  The idea of the Folkehøjskole (translated from Danish as “folk high school”) is one that dates back to the 1800’s and is Danish by origin, although it has spread throughout most of the other Nordic countries as well as Germany and Austria.  It came initially from the ideas of Nikolaj Grundtvig, a famous Danish philosopher and writer, who took inspiration from both the English boarding school system and the changes made to the French educational system after the French Revolution.  However, instead of focusing on the traditional “formal education” that we associate with schooling today, Grundtvig focused on a more general education and enlightenment (somewhat akin to the “liberal arts” education in American colleges/universities- not learning specific facts and figures, but learning “how to think” instead).  The folk high schools are designed to teach young adults about enlightenment, morality, ethics, and democracy, but not in the way that universities or schools typically approach this instruction.  Instead, they teach these ideas through different mediums such as sport, music, writing, or art.  Because there is no degree awarded at the end of the semester, the schools have much more flexibility in their curriculums and the interactions between students and staff are more open. While I will openly admit that I have a bias for “gap-years” (I’ve done two of them now) the Danish tradition of using the folk high school as a gap year to allow high school graduates or university graduates to think about what they want to do with their lives seems to be very mature, and has also shown distinctive positive results, with students that had taken the year off having a much lower university dropout rate than students who didn’t.

Today, Denmark boasts more than 70 of these folk high schools/academies (in a country of 5 million inhabitants).  The Gerlev Idrætshøjskole (Roughy translated as the “Gerlev Physical Education and Sports Academy”) itself was founded in 1938 and is currently the only sports academy on the eastern island of Zealand.  The 125 students live in dormitories on campus from 2 to 10 months, and unlike many of the other institutions, staff members also live in houses on or near campus, which creates a very family-like atmosphere.  This is augmented by the fact that much of the daily maintenance and upkeep work around campus is performed by the students, who each serve a certain amount of time on the cooking staff and cleaning crews throughout the semester.  While it may seem like a small detail, the result is that there seems to be a much greater air of responsibility (although this may because my comparison was often with my own university experience, where we had free campus laundry, and a large cleaning staff to clean up after the more spoiled and slovenly members of the student body.)  During the summer the campus is occupied by a constant stream of summer conferences and events that pay for a large part of the school’s operating costs throughout the year, allowing the school to keep student’s tuitions low (made even lower by subsidies from the Danish government.)  After Denmark’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan, the school has also initiated a pilot project to re-integrate veterans returning from tours in Afghanistan into society by spending time at Gerlev.. 

During my stay at Gerlev I had the opportunity to interview the headmaster, Finn Berggren, who I discovered was the primary reason for Streetmovement’s presence at Gerlev.  Finn has a long history with the school, as he has been both a student and a professor there, in addition to the headmaster for the past 10 years.  His interest in Streetmovement began 6 years ago when he saw the guys competing on a TV show game show and was immediately captivated by the young men’s’ movement.  Finn has a strong gymnastic background, a sport that is already very popular in Denmark, and has coached around the world for the Danish National gymnastics team and with a number of other high-level teams.  After talking with a fellow administrator at Gerlev, he invited the SM guys to come teach a “sports class” at Gerlev.  After the success of the first semester, the classes began to grow, becoming one of the more popular classes, and eventually replacing the “gymnastics” discipline, a move that was designed to keep up with the changing times and popular interests, while keeping many of the traditional values of rigorous gymnastic training (as anyone that has trained with the SM guys can attest to).  Today, the Streetmovement course is one of the most popular one at Gerlev and attracts nearly 1/3 of the students (both men and women).

After a few years of training on buildings around the Gerlev campus, the Streetmovement guys asked Finn to build them a specialized training facility, essentially a parkour playground, something which had never been attempted at that point.  The result, after a lot of planning by Streetmovement and funding from the school, was the Gerlev Parkour Park.

Photo courtesy of the Streetmovement site.

Photo courtesy of the Streetmovement site.
The structure itself is under constant critique and renovation, and each summer the guys make an effort to add something to the structure or the surrounding area, a tradition that has ensured that the traceurs always have new challenges.

My time in Gerlev seemed to pass in a blur of amazing food, lots of new friends, and a glimpse into a way of life that is often very different from the one that I grew up with in the US.  While of course the main focus of my time at Gerlev was training with and learning from the Streetmovement instructors, the fact that I was living in the dorms with the other students meant that I got good look at life there.

The school’s primary focus is to give students the opportunity to learn and develop important leadership and social skills that are not always gained from the “typical adacemic experience”.  The result is that there is as much of an emphasis placed on the various aspects of social life at the school as on the actual curriculum.  Thus things like living arrangements, taking responsibility as a group for the cleaning and upkeep of the school, and helping prepare food for everyone are important parts of the student’s lives.  Each student is placed in a “specialty track” which they follow for the course of the semester, with 10 hours of instruction per week in either in parkour, dance, football, or adventure kayaking, beach volleyball, diving, circus arts, surfing, skiing, running, and crossfit/fitness (some subjects are only available for a specific semester).  The semester, which is 17 weeks in the spring or fall and 6 weeks in the winter, also includes 6 lessons/week in an under-study, which can be in house dance, swimming, gymnastics, street dance, windsurfing, skating, martial arts, sports pedagogy, crossfit/fitness, kayaking, dirt biking, beach volleyball, or parkour.  And as if that wasn’t enough, students also take 4 lessons/week in either philosophy, sports psychology, personal development, music, event management, theater, band, body massage, drawing or painting, or current debate.

The main grounds (Photo courtesy of Sk8Skool site.)
Of course no description of life at Gerlev would be complete without mentioning the amazing fare that is served at the school.  My first introduction to the school apparently passed like that of many others, as I was blown away by the freshness and quantity of the food, and immediately stuffed myself with three helpings of everything, realizing too late that I was about to train with the Streetmovement guys right afterwards.  What makes the food so special?  Personally, I’m convinced that it is the combination of atmosphere, presentation, source, and quantity that goes into it.  The dining area is bright and open and the four big tables at the center of the room from which the food is served, buffet style, lend a very communal feeling to the meals.  The food itself is mostly sourced from local farms and include large quantities of seasonal items, in a presentation form that is professional but not over-the-top.  And then of course, the quantity of food needed for 125 hungry and active students, plus staff, gives the image of bounty that is appealing in and of itself.  The kitchen has the serving down to a science, as it serves over 174,000 meals/year, and attracts a large number of conferences and summer events based on the fare alone. 

I know it's a stock photo but it shows the atmosphere of the kitchen. (Photo courtesy of the Gerlev site)
 After finishing a semester at Gerlev (or two), students often go on to further studies, or start working in the “real world”.  Each year a small number of the most advanced and proficient members of the parkour and street dance tracks are offered the opportunity to become members of the Gerlev performance team, a group of highly-skilled performers that showcases the school’s talent and regularly performs shows and spectacles for a variety of the events.  Although I didn’t get a chance to see a performance in person, I did train a lot with the guys and saw some of the videos of performances that they did recently during a “tour” in China and at this past summer’s European Gathering. 

The Gerlev Performance Team show at the 2010 European Gathering

The Gerlev Performance Team on tour in China