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The dance craze that has us in a spin

Anne Madden went along to try an art form that has people swinging from scaffolding, hanging onto girders and clambering all over cars, mixed with a little street dancing

Have you felt frustrated by the obstacle course that Belfast city centre has turned into? The redevelopment of the streetscape has been the biggest cause of complaints by tourists to the city in recent years.

But watch out for the French tourists in particular for they have found a solution to traversing the urban jungle and, what’s more, they’ve turned it into an art form.

Parkour or Free-Running was first practised in the Parisian suburbs and is essentially a form of movement through the built environment. It came into the spotlight some years ago as an adrenalin-junkie sport, characterised by people jumping across rooftops.

It then became the epitome of cool when it featured in a number of TV commercials and music videos. But that’s only the extreme side of it.

There are in fact thousands of people worldwide who have been practising Parkour as a physical activity and indeed a philosophy for decades. Art form, philosophy? Surely it’s just plain mad? In all honesty, I was a bit of a sceptic until I watched a workshop this week in Belfast’s newest urban space — St Anne’s Square in the Cathedral Quarter — where Parkour practitioners from France and England were introducing it to local young people.

In the middle of the concrete square they had set up a small platform of scaffolding around a white van.

My first thoughts were: “Ah, so this is what inspired the idiot who ran across the roof of my car last week and dented the bonnet”.

But I was later informed that this was not Parkour which teaches practitioners to respect people’s property.

“I only run over my own car,” said Alister O’Loughlin, who has been practising Parkour for five years. I laugh, thinking he’s joking but he’s not.

There is an intensity about the 36-year-old and the other Parkour practitioners. To them it is not just a physical activity but a hybrid of art, sport and philosophy.

Alister, who is a trained actor and martial arts teacher, sums it up: “Definitively it is about overcoming physical obstacles with movement which is safe, efficient and fluid.”

Why, I ask, and am slightly astonished by his answer: “In order to be useful so that, in the words of one great old master, you will be able to help. If you encounter danger you won’t be stuck or unable to help someone.

“If someone is in danger you will be able to reach them by physically getting past any barrier. That is why when people mix Parkour up with gymnastics. It isn’t the pure form because back-flips are rarely a good way of reaching someone.”

However, Alister’s group, the Urban Playground Team from Brighton, have in fact mixed Parkour up — using dance. Fellow practitioner Miranda Henderson (37) said: “We do both. We teach and practice pure Parkour and then we do performance Parkour. In a sense we are an environmental dance company.”

Urban Playground has teamed up with the French founders of the movement, Gravity Style, to showcase Parkour using contemporary and hip-hop dance.

They have put together a spectacular collaboration called The Next Level which they will perform tomorrow at 4.30pm in St Anne’s Square. They are also holding an open workshop prior to the performance at 2pm which is open to anyone interested in having a go at Parkour.

And it’s not just young people who have a go. Urban Playground has had an 83-year-old woman enjoy their workshop and a 76-year-old man — although he was a yoga expert. Alister and Miranda seem less interested in performing Parkour than introducing it to more people and ensuring they grasp the basic skills and philosophy behind it.

“It is very anti-elite,” said Alister. “It is less a performance to show off our skills but more a physical invitation of what you (the audience) can do. That is why we do the workshops to break down barriers. It is a celebration of movement.”

The pair, together with members of Gravity Style, had spent the afternoon working with young people from cross-community group the Belfast Computer Clubhouse showing them Parkour techniques.

Few of the young people had done Parkour before — at least not knowingly — but they all seemed exhilarated by the experience.

The group of girls and boys from the Shankill and Falls area of the city gave a performance at the end of the afternoon. I was half expecting them to leap from the roof of the van or tight-rope walk across the scaffolding.

However, they put on a much tamer performance, which was impressive as a piece of well-choreographed dance. Working as a disciplined group they moved and twisted their bodies around the steel bars of the scaffolding in a graceful way, which seemed to defy the hard urban setting. Afterwards, Alister congratulated them and left them with some ground rules.

“Remember everytime you do Parkour you are representing the whole discipline,” he said. “The general golden rule is you always give way. You never tell someone to get out of your way.”

I ask Miranda if the movement is a bit of a cult. She replied: “If it is positive then why not, but if it is negative then that is against the spirit of Parkour. I would say it is more of a phenomenon.”

Given that the majority of the world’s population now live in cities, Parkour seems a natural phenomenon that has taken hold as a way of people expressing themselves in confined urban spaces.

So I let go of the sceptic in me, grabbed hold of the bars and hoisted myself on to the platform. Before I knew it I was jumping around like a child on the monkey bars in a playground.

And maybe deep down that’s what it’s all about — just losing yourself in our clutter-filled world.

The Next Level event forms part of The MAC’s transition programme and is supported by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Department for Social Development and Belfast Harbour. For details: www.buildingthemac.com

‘You can go through bars or hang off them’

Paula Tomaszko (15) from Belfast. She says:

It seemed very scary at the start but once you get into it, it’s easy. You can go through the bars or hang off them and all the time you are thinking about dancing. As long as you remember to reduce the risk — instead of jumping off a pole, you can go underneath it.”

Do you think Parkour will take off in Northern Ireland?

I think it could. If I didn’t tell my neighbours what I was doing they might be annoyed but I think if I told them they would allow me to practice. I used to do Irish dancing and contemporary dance. If you’re out on the street and you’re bored you can do Parkour.

‘It’s just like gymnastics, but done in the streets’

Michael Leathem (20) from Belfast. He says:

I used to do Parkour but then a friend had a bit of an accident but he was doing extreme Parkour. He just thought he could follow the really experienced people who do Parkour. We learned a lot today about putting safety first. I also learned how to work with a group. I used to do a lot of dance, Michael Jackson-style. I think Parkour is kind of like gymnastics in the street.”

Do you think Parkour will take off in Belfast?

It could take off once people are shown how it is done properly. There are some disciplines to it, mostly about safety. It is also good to do in a group.

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