By: Thomas J. Gonzalez
You’ve seen it on screen before and can also see it in Old Havana: people jumping, flipping and vaulting to navigate manmade obstacles in urban spaces, such as fences, walls and buildings.
Parkour, simply put, is the art of motion.
Its origins can be traced back to the early 1900s in France, when a naval officer, George Herbert, designed a military training program, known as “the natural method,” that incorporated running, climbing and obstacle courses. He believed athletic skill must be combined with courage and altruism.
In the 1980s, it developed into a civilian hobby, when Raymond Belle, a soldier in the French Special Forces, introduced his son to the discipline. David Belle combined his father’s instruction with what he already knew about gymnastics and martial arts.
As the practice has been passed down by generations, it’s evolved. For example, a style known as “freerunning” is now popular. “Freerunning” differs from traditional parkour in that is not about getting from point A to point B in the fastest possible way, but about being as creative as possible in moving from one spot to another.
Thanks largely to practitioners sharing videos on YouTube, parkour has spread worldwide and can now be found even in small, isolated countries, such as Cuba.
In Havana, a group of boys and young men gather daily in a park near the Malecón to practice and show off their skills. A man named Alejandro is credited with popularizing parkour in the city.
“His name is Alejandro but we call him WuFC,” Pablo Rubio Madero said through a translator. “He’s the most well-known and the one who taught us. Thanks to him, we started learning moves, how to incorporate different style elements – the flips, the jumps, how to grab onto walls and hang-on.”
Unlike most sports, parkour doesn’t require a playing field or court.
“Doing this doesn’t require a specific location,” said Pablo Rubio Madero. “We can train anywhere in the universe!”
But parkour is also a dangerous sport. The day this reporter interviewed and filmed the acrobats, Alejandro was out of commission.
“[He] is not here right now because he hurt himself,” Madero explained. He added, “The easier tricks are actually those where one can fall the most. While doing the hard trick, you fall a few times, but in the end, in the least expected moments, that’s when you can really mess up.”
Injuries aren’t the only thing parkour enthusiasts worry about. Because parkour is not yet officially recognized as a sport or recreational activity, participants sometimes face harassment.
“Normally, in this country, they see us as criminals,” Madero said. “We want to fight against the negative perspective of parkour in this country.”
Despite these challenges, Madero said, “We are trying to keep it alive.”