There’s a spontaneous side of Washington that isn’t always evident to the casual observer. As architecturally laced up as the District can appear, its many ramps, columns, steps and other features make for a sort of playground, too.
That’s how local parkour enthusiasts see their surroundings, anyway.
“You look at everything as an opportunity for training, for play, and the boundaries just melt,” said Mark Toorock, 43, who founded Washington’s American Parkour Academy.
Parkour involves interacting in new ways with familiar fixtures in public spaces. Practitioners perch on handrails, jump between park benches, scramble up walls and attempt any number of similar moves. The sport began in France as a form of military training so soldiers could get from one place to the other as quickly as possible. Today, parkour practitioners work on honing a blend of physical intensity and mindfulness required to make their bodies do things they once thought not possible.
Toorock says American Parkour was the first parkour gym in the world when he opened it seven years ago in a bright 19th-century firehouse on M Street. He now offers CrossFit classes there, too, but parkour is surging in popularity. People go to the gym to practice tumbling, jumping, flipping and conditioning with expert parkour trainers.
“It really doesn’t matter how far you can jump, how high you can jump,” Toorock said. “It matters how well you can jump. And through repetition, the other things will come. Nobody except you can give you true confidence. It comes from accomplishing something that was difficult.”
American Parkour offers a range of classes to people of all skill levels and ages, including kids. In a favorite session of his, Toorock says he remembers teaching a 4-year-old girl and her 74-year-old grandmother the same moves. Most class prices range from about $60 to $120 per month.
Toorock also finds plenty of opportunities to get parkour enthusiasts outside and on the streets, which is where the sport originated. In addition to regular get-togethers outside, American Parkour is gearing up for its annual Memorial Day Jam. He expects about 500 people to turn out to Gateway Park in Rosslyn for the open event.
Toorock says the local parkour scene has strong female representation, including about 60 percent of the regulars at his gym. It’s a statistic that makes him proud, especially given what he sees as unfair pressure on young women and girls to behave certain ways.
“When we’re younger, we’re told not to play,” Toorock said. “You hear, ‘Get down from there.’ ‘Don’t climb that.’ ‘Don’t jump on that.’ ‘Don’t hang on that.’ Over and over, we spend so much time telling kids — especially with girls — not to do that. Why is that?”
But even grown-up parkour practitioners sometimes hear the word “no,” especially in Washington. The large number of big government buildings comes with a certain set of challenges for people who like to lunge, leap, and otherwise interact with their surroundings in unusual ways.
“D.C. is actually a kind of tough place for parkour because there is amazing architecture, but they also have security that doesn’t want you to jump around on them,” Toorock said. “Parkour is a discipline that works in harmony with our environment and so we don’t want to be perceived as vandals and trespassing. But public space, we should be able to use it to exercise. If someone jogs by the Capitol building, if someone did pushups on the steps of the Capitol, no one would say anything. All of the sudden you balance on the wall and now you’ve violated some kind of international law.”
Toorock says that’s why he feels it’s important to help people understand what parkour is all about. The bottom line is that the sport can become what any individual practitioner wants it to be. That’s an attitude echoed by Travis Graves, 26, the head trainer at American Parkour.
“Different people are drawn to different aspects of it and emphasize those in their training,” Graves said. “There are some people who are much more into the creative aspect of it, who like to add their own sort of flair whether it’s acrobatic movements or other creative movements. Some days it might look like martial arts. Some days it might look like dance. Some days it might look like military training. It just all depends on what you want to emphasize.”
Graves says D.C. is a “really interesting” city for parkour, and that the local scene is robust, especially for people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Graves has been practicing parkour for about eight years, and says it only gets more interesting with time.
“There is no end to what your body is capable of,” he said. “And at some point, it becomes so much more mental and so much less physical because so much of it is getting your body to do the things that your brain doesn’t necessarily want to let you do. A lot of it is learning how to deal with your own sort of arbitrary limitations. That opens up a whole new aspect of training.”