Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Sapphire Ng | Boston Women’s Parkour Workshop, by Parkour Generations Americas (1/2)

Writer: Sapphire Ng

Saturday, May 6th 2017, 9am-1pm
Location: Josiah Quincy School
Lead Coach: Natalia Boltukhova
Coach: Isabel Andrews

This was an incredible experience. This well-designed 4-hour women’s parkour workshop might just be the ideal avenue for my very first experience with parkour. In hindsight, it might have been a little too ambitious for me to attempt parkour for the very first time in a rather intense 4-hour workshop session, but it turned out to be the perfect experience for me, and at the right time in my life.

It was of remarkable significance to me that parkour instructors of the female gender will conduct this workshop that will introduce me to, and leave me with first impressions of this enthralling sport. Both instructors were very professional and friendly, and exceptionally encouraging and helpful to me.

I absolutely loved this session, and even more so because I was actively seeking a challenge. This workshop was physically demanding, and I got what I sought, possibly even beyond what I expected or imagined. There were 3 other students who attended this workshop, all of whom had prior experience in parkour. I was delighted to learn that one of them, Mara, is a mother who decided to pick up parkour after watching her own children do parkour. I myself might be graduating from music school this Summer and heading to law school in the Fall, but parkour sure sounds like the right sport for me at this point in my life.

I shall recount the activities of the workshop chronologically, and as accurately as my memory would allow. One exercise in particular during the warm-up session stood out—we had to “walk” with our hands in a circle in the standard plank and reverse plank position, with our feet remaining at the same spot throughout as a pivot point. We “walked” around ⅓ of the circle in a standard plank position, flipped over and then walked another ⅓ of the circle in reverse plank position, and then completed the last ⅓ of the circle in the standard plank position. A takeaway was that I ought to give my palms—yes, palms—more, and even regular, workouts in the outdoors and in natural terrain in order to build up tolerance toward the rough textures and grounds that will be inevitably encountered in the actual practice of parkour.

As a beginner, I have much to work on for the quadrupedal movement and its coordination. Doing the movement backwards on flat ground was enough to command my utmost focus. On the other hand, I was familiar with the front kicks, back kicks and fan kicks—movements that are rather routine in dance training—that we did for the warm-up. We were given 3 waiting positions that we should assume as we wait for others to finish a particular drill—one can choose to “wait” in the standard plank position, the basic squat position, or hold the v-sit starting position.

We were then led to do basic drills incorporating some man-made obstacles present on location, starting with jumps over the concrete benches. From my point of view as a newbie, the outdoor space of the Josiah Quincy School certainly looked like it was designed for the sport of parkour. For the jumps, we were supposed to make 2 jumps at each of the 3 benches, the first jump from the left side of the bench to the right side, and vice versa for the second jump. The instructors demonstrated that we would place one hand on each side of the benches to assist the jump, to launch one leg up into the air first with the other leg closely following, and to have one leg landing after the other. The basic idea is to not land on both legs at the same time.

The instructors gave a really useful tip that helped to bridge the movement especially for someone such as me attempting to jump over benches for the very first time. One can try first to lightly touch and bounce off with both feet on the surface of the bench itself as an intermediary and additional movement before landing on either side of the bench, eliminating the movement thereafter once one might feel confident enough to do the jump. I was also really happy that I successfully attempted the quadrupedal movement along the length of the narrow top surface of a wall for the very first time, even though the effort required extra reassurance from my instructors that I will not fall off the wall.

We were still at the preamble of our workshop when I encountered my first physical hurdle. I learned that a sizable number of squats ought to be incorporated into my regular workout routine should I want to establish a solid foundation for parkour. My thigh muscles increasingly ceased to respond as we had to do an incremental number of squats for each step we jumped onto as we descended 2 flights of stairs. I struggled especially with balancing as we immediately ascended another 2 flights of stairs where we were supposed to land on the steps only on the balls of our feet, and lowering our heels at each step. I finally made it but felt like I was passing out; I certainly should have had breakfast before the workshop.

The final exercise we did before our first 5-min water break proved to be a rather daunting physical challenge for me as well. Immediately following jumps over 3 benches, we had to go into a cat hang position on an adjacent wall (a railing is present at the top of the wall which we can hold onto with our arms, and our feet should be firmly planted on the wall.) That is certainly not all, we had to do a cat hang shimmy—a move that requires a tremendous amount of arm strength—and shimmy along the entire length of the wall in the cat hang position. I could barely move myself along the wall in the position, not to mention that I could also barely maintain the cat hang position by itself. It was nevertheless an exciting experience of firsts where I was discovering the various possibilities that my body could be trained to attain.

Next was a really fun session conducted by Natalia. Moving us over to a different section of the outdoor area with broad steps, Natalia asked us for the 3 physicalities of parkour. They are jumping, climbing and running, and we are to build on our parkour vocabulary targeting these 3 categories of physicalities.

Our first drill was related to jumping. Natalia had each of us stand on any of the brightly-colored geometric shapes painted on the ground parallel to the broad steps, marking the starting point of our jumps. We then had to jump and land on the balls of our feet on the first broad step. As it was my first time, Natalia allowed me to start closer to the step, and I chose to position myself at around ¾ of the original distance. I was pretty certain that for the first jump I made and landed on the edge of the first step, I wobbled almost comically and even melodramatically trying to balance and steady myself. With further advice to lean forward, to stabilize myself in a squat, with my gaze at eye-level, and with my feet not too far apart, I was certainly sensing progress. We could choose to work with running and then jumping onto the step, or to simply jump from a stationary position. One thing we were reminded to work on is precision in landing.

In a perfect reminder that creativity can come in all shapes and sizes, and be applied in almost any context that warrants it, Natalia had us conduct an exercise in creative thinking—to think of anything remotely creative that could be used to embellish our jumps and landings. For example, we could choose to land facing sideways on the step, to land on 1 leg, to land after an 180 degree turn, and more. We were even encouraged to observe others and pick up any movements that we could personally use.

In a continuation of the creative process, we were asked to come up with a way to get from the lowest step of the concrete block we were working at to that of another adjacent block. I ran up several steps and clumsily—but absolutely having fun—tried to enact an elegant drop using the railing at the top of the first concrete block before jumping onto the next block.

Our next activity was to climb railings, and we were first individually tasked to find 3 different ways of climbing or moving across the railings and then making our way back to where we started. Following this individual experimentation, we were put into 2 groups—I was paired with a girl named Emelie, and the other group consisted of 2 other students, Mara and Angelina along with one of our instructors, Isabel. Within our groups, we had to teach each other or one another a move we just did. Emelie smoothly swung herself onto the railings, one leg immediately following the other, and swiftly landed in a sitting position on the 3rd railing from the ground (which is above our hip level). I tried but struggled with this move, realizing that I probably lacked the arm and upper body strength to fling myself up onto the railing in this fashion.

Our 2 groups were then gathered together, and we had to teach the other group our sequence. I announced that the other group would first show us their move, and Isabel promptly went into a kind of upside-down ninja position that looked almost impossible to me. Facing the railing, I was to lift my body up and then tilt my body downwards on the other side of the railing so that my legs would be dangling high up in the air, and then to have my body further tilted into the space between the railings to lower my legs thereafter. To make everything more exciting and even higher stakes, the rain was pouring heavily, everyone was soaked to the bone, our instructor was cautioning us that the railings could get slippery, and still we were attempting “stunts” integrating the rounded and smooth railings.

Shortly after I learned the most basic vault in parkour, the safety vault, and I attempted part of it to get across from the outside of the railing to the inside. It was slightly scary at first especially in the pouring rain, balancing at the top of the 4-rung railing (which was in turn situated at the top of the concrete block of around 5 to 6 steps) with my right leg on the highest rung and left hand grabbing the railing to the left of my body, as I attempted to move my left leg to the front from behind the railing in order to jump off to the ground. Another quick tip I learned was that by crisscrossing our arms and grabbing the top rung of the railing around 2 to 3 fists apart, right palm to the left facing upwards and left palm to the right facing downwards, we could smoothly move or pull ourselves into the space of the railing between the highest and the second highest rung. What follows next would be left to creativity.

The final part of this sequence involved scaling a wall that appeared almost double my height. Feverishly excited, I ran head-on toward the wall thinking I could execute a wall run and climb up the wall to a cat hang position. Hahaha I mostly didn’t have the right technique for a wall run and when I did manage to place my hands on the top of the wall, my arms could barely support my body weight for even 1 second. At this point Natalia would remind me that I could use the railing next to the wall to assist in the climb, no wall run necessary. It is certainly my goal to be able to eventually ditch the need for the railing or any other form of support in the scaling of a high wall. But of course, that might just be everyone else’s goal too.

As of now, I inevitably needed the help of the adjacent railing to get to the top of the wall. Once up there, I had to shift my body to the other side of the wall, laid my tummy on the top surface of the wall, and then jumped. The impact of the landing felt surprisingly immense despite the seemingly short distance of the drop (there was less height at the other side of the wall due to steps leading up to the wall), and I distinctly remember telling myself that it felt as though my entire body weight was crushing down on my legs. Natalia responded to my concerns by pointing out that I should work on my landing, to focus on landing on the balls of my feet with control in my knees, and especially to avoid landing on the heels or on the entire feet. This advice though simple was actually rather difficult for me to execute as I scaled the wall and jumped from it multiple more times. The mere act of jumping from the wall, having the courage to jump off the wall, and actually landing on my feet was enough of a challenge for me.

On another note, Natalia also mentioned that I should lean slightly forward in the jump from the wall to avoid falling backwards upon landing on the ground to prevent hurting my wrists or even forearms as my arms reach out instinctively to break the fall. With repeated attempts at this activity, we were encouraged to actively focus on polishing up our movements for flow and even to incorporate any additional creative ideas we might want to do as we reach the top of the wall.

These separate drills were then combined into a single sequence. Starting with the jumps from the steps of the first concrete block to those of the second concrete block, we would then make our way up the rest of the steps to reach the railing, complete several maneuvers at the railing and then scale the adjacent wall and jump off the wall. It was incredibly fun, and even more so when the 6 of us did our last run-through of the entire sequence all at the same time; the need to accommodate more than one person at any one time at any of the “activity stations” implied the need for improvisation and even the possibility for interaction.

To be continued…

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