Downtown, in the heart of the city’s gritty centre, a group of boys is at play – or is it work? Sweating from the exertion and going at it again and again, they’re in the midst of a street-level class in parkour – a fast, hip extreme sport that uses the city as an endlessly challenging urban obstacle course, with its practitioners, ‘traceurs’ and ‘traceuses’, racing across open stretches, scaling walls and vaulting street furniture and anything else in their way.
The class is being held by São Paulo parkour teacher and traceur Leonard Akira, who aside from his usual classes, has also started teaching the sport to 15 underprivileged students for three months at a time, as part of his Salto Livre (Free Jump) project.
To the rescue
The name ‘parkour’ comes from the expression ‘parcours du combattant’, referring to a rescue technique developed by French soldiers and firefighters in the first half of the 20th century. Today, the discipline is closely linked to the banlieues, the explosive, economically depressed suburbs of Paris.
In São Paulo, people in casual urban gear often have a hard time practicing parkour without being stopped by police, who sometimes mistake the traceurs for fleeing criminals. Akira’s pupils all wear the same T-shirt – a badge of unity and a sign to the police that they aren’t criminals but athletes.
But this, as is already clear, is no ordinary kind of athletics. Refusing competition and rules, traceurs prefer to set their own goals and challenges, making use of the most grim, hard-faced elements of the city and jumping and climbing through a concrete playground made of walls, railings and buildings.
A strong moral sense is a fundamental teaching of the discipline, says Akira. Traceurs learn to think of themselves as guardians, with a role to protect and help people in danger or need.
‘Most people will see a robbery, a murder, a car accident and will not call the police because of fear,’ says Akira. ‘Parkour teaches you to look out for the things that are wrong in the city and to act upon them.’ If this self-bestowed mission seems the product of a too fertile videogame/martial art imagination, the traceurs’ benevolent outlook is nevertheless refreshing in a city with streets that often feel like an inhospitable concrete jungle – and there are fewer more thrilling city sights to see than someone surging up and over a wall suddenly, or apparently flying over a precipice, then disappearing in a flash back into the jungle.
Register online at lepartanos.com to begin training in São Paulo. Classes are R$80 per month, held from 7-10pm on Wednesdays, and from 9.30am-1.30pm Saturdays. Or head to Praça da Sé on Saturday morning, and join the onlookers watching Akira and his crew practice. Metrô Sé, next to the cathedral.