When David Belle is invited to a barbecue on a roof terrace, a switch will flip in his head. He will divert his attention away from the smell of steaks, the other guests’ small talk, the admiring glances at his physique. Instead, his brain will be scanning the support column leading to the scaffolding leading to the lorry-loading bay leading to the pavement.
As the host offers ketchup, he’s working out the way to get everyone to safety should the barbecue burst into flames. If a three-year-old clambers onto the fire escape on the sixth storey of the building opposite, he will take a matter of seconds to stop the kid falling. He thinks the way that he thinks because he invented parkour.
It’s thanks to Belle that, in cities around the world, you see people in trainers and tracksuits practising for hours at a time trying to perfect a jump over a handrail or working out how to get over a wall. Parkour is the art of efficient motion in urban space. The aim is to find the fastest, most efficient and most elegant way from A to B on foot, without means of transport.
But for many of those who do it, parkour is more than that. Getting over obstacles, mastering challenges and taming fears makes parkour a school of life which to the rest of us looks like a really cool thing to do. “Everything that I am today,” says Belle, “I am because of parkour.”
SPREADING IN LEAPS AND BOUNDS
The capital of the parkour world is Lisses, a small town with a population of 7,000 situated 30km south of Paris. This is where 41-year-old Belle lives and where, 17 years ago, he and his Yamakasi Crew, which took its name from a word meaning ‘strong men’ in the Congolese language of Lingala, began with a couple of acrobatic moves that grew into a globally recognised subculture. A good portion of that fame comes from the movies.
In 2001, seven of the crew’s nine founding members starred in the action film Yamakasi: Les Samourais Des Temps Modernes. The two Yamakasi missing from the cast list had already left the group to pursue their own careers in cinema. Sébastien Foucan developed the acrobatic art of freerunning – a parkour variant that promotes flair and worries less about the rule concerning most efficient movement – which he showcased in an incredible chase sequence for the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale. Belle, too, had a solo career, which began in earnest in 2004 with the action drama District 13, written by Luc Besson and directed by Pierre Morel (Taken). He was also getting work as a stuntman in films, such as Crimson Rivers 2: Angels Of The Apocalypse and Transporter 2, and refining the parameters of parkour. Being able to move efficiently was not an end in itself, he began telling an ever-increasing number of fans and students. Parkour is about être fort pour être utile, being strong to be useful, being ready for when others might need help.
For young, potential traceurs, as the practitioners of parkour are known, Belle became an idol. Millions would click on his YouTube videos and watch in awe as he jumped with ease from one block of flats onto another, a distance of 6-7m with a drop of 40m below.
But Belle, 41, with the musculature of a boxer and the sleek grace of a panther, doesn’t care much for personal fame and recognition. His burning desire is to have the whole world go mad for parkour. “Parkour’s potential has barely been tapped,” he says, “because anyone, anywhere, can learn it and they don’t need any equipment.”
ARTISTS OF SURVIVAL
This year could be the most important year in the history of parkour since 1997, when the Yamakasi Crew formed. Belle wants to start a foundation to make the parkour scene more interconnected and promote up-and-coming talent. He hopes to publish a book on the history of parkour with Yamakasi member Charles Perrière. And he wants to help parkour break out from its Western roots. First stop will be China, where he aims to spend the next few months building parkour training areas and holding workshops for up-and-coming traceurs with the help of local promoters.
“Parkour’s future is in China and Russia,” says Belle. “People there are growing up in a society that demands a lot of discipline and hard work of them, but they still yearn for some freedom and self fulfilment. With parkour they can combine the two.”
Belle knows what he’s talking about here. He is the son of a soldier who served with the French army in Vietnam, and his own childhood was one where self-development and discipline were equally important educational goals. He is still inspired by his father, Raymond, who died in 1999. “‘You can do anything you want,’ he told me, ‘as long as you do it with complete commitment.’”
The younger Belle knew exactly what it was that he wanted to do. He wanted to pick up on an idea of his father’s and fine-tune it. Raymond turned the Méthode Naturelle – the French army’s standard training practice – into a system of attack and escape for the jungle. Raymond had even come up with a name for his obstacle-course training, which involved negotiating ditches and fallen trees under a hail of bullets: le parcours.
‘FEAR IS YOUR FRIEND’
Belle is now a father figure, both to the guys from the Parkour Origin crew, whom he trains for up to eight hours at a time, and to the hundreds of traceurs from all over the world who descend on Lisses every year to get a glimpse of his tricks and learn from them. The fact that the neighbours don’t complain comes down to another parkour core value: respect. Any urban space used for training purposes has to be left as it was found. Traceurs repair any obstacle they damage.
With its open stairwells, railings and low walls, Belle’s housing estate, the Résidence du Mail de l’Ile-de-France, is the perfect place to try out some of the basic moves of parkour. You can practise passements, the vaults over obstacles, as well as your saut de precision, or precision jump, and the tic tac, launching off an obstacle.
“The most important thing to remember is that you build up very gradually,” says Charles Perrière. The 39-year-old heads a parkour school, Culture Parkour, in Paris and he knows how to give his pupils the confidence they need to succeed. “You have to work with your fear,” he tells them. “If you don’t know yourself well, you’re a slave to your fear. Use fear to warn you of danger and it becomes your friend.”
Perrière is a master of one of parkour’s most spectacular moves, the saut de fond, a drop jump from a great height. First, he visualises every phase of the move in his mind’s eye: “The more experience you have, the more detailed your imagination becomes.” Then he jumps neatly – “you have to jump, not fall” – straightens himself out, keeps his eye on the ground, lands with knees slightly bent and cushions the impact with his whole body. “If you’ve got room, you can add a roll. If you jump from a height of anything above about 1m 70cm, you have to.”
Using this technique, Belle has mastered drop jumps from heights up to 8m. To him, the basics that every parkour beginner has to internalise until they become second nature, and which enable him to do what he does, are nothing unusual and within the grasp of everyone who does or wants to do parkour. “You start training for parkour with balance exercises,” explains Belle. “If you can keep your balance, everything else will come naturally.”
Evocative comparisons come thick and fast when Belle talks about parkour. The mind of a traceur is a knight, he explains, and his body his horse. A traceur, he says, is like a samurai: calm on the outside but always ready for action on the inside. Or they’re like pianists because their brains make the right decisions without them thinking. Belle is so convincing in conveying parkour’s emboldening and inspirational guiding principles because he is their own most eager follower.
“I was a shy kid. I was wary and solitary,” he says. “And I was impatient, too. If I didn’t get something straight away, I’d forget about it.” Belle reinvented himself thanks to parkour. He says that every successful move increased his self-confidence. Training with other traceurs on a daily basis did away with his antisocial behaviour. Repeating the same exercise hundreds of times over and over again, he says, taught him discipline and patience.
“Hmm, OK,” he says, rethinking, with a smile. “Maybe not so much patience.”
A PARKOUR BLOCKBUSTER
Last summer, Belle underwent a serious test of self-discipline and his ability to rise to a challenge. He had let his training slide over the previous winter, was 10kg overweight and had been feeling unhappy with his life. Then the phone rang. It was Luc Besson.
“David,” he said, “you still remember that film project we talked about a couple of years ago, don’t you?”
“You mean the Hollywood remake of District 13?”
“Exactly,” said Besson. “We start shooting in two months.”
Brick Mansions, in cinemas worldwide now, has every chance of giving parkour its biggest boost in awareness since Casino Royale. Belle stars as an ex-con who teams up with a cop, played by the late Fast & Furious star Paul Walker, to take down a criminal gang in a dystopian future Detroit housing project.
“I studied English for four hours a day and trained for the stunts with Paul for three hours,” says Belle, who also devised the choreography for the fights and the chases. In the opening scene, he leaps through a closed window and into another one. During another pursuit, he shows off a combined drop jump and gap jump (saut de détente), leaping from a height of almost 5m over a chasm 7m wide.
“My fear,” says Belle, “told me exactly how far I could go.”