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One after another, along a ramped walkway, 19-year-old Matt Stewart and his three new friends grab a rickety railing with both hands, fling their legs over the three-foot-high bar and then boomerang back under it. The object, apparently, is for no one to bash his butt on the concrete before springing back up on the walkway.
The security guard seems irked about having to tell the young men they can't be monkeying around like that on mall property. But to the pair of curious 9-year-old boys watching nearby, who've been playfully jumping off and sliding down the mall's '70s-era angled walls all morning, Stewart and his crew just look like big boys horning in on their action.
"What we're doing is taken from kids playing around," the strapping 6-foot-3, 180-pound Stewart admits. "It's all about, 'Hey, this looks fun -- whee!' Jumping around. But as people grow up, they usually stop, just because they feel silly."
But there's an air of seriousness to the older boys' horseplay that keeps the little kids from joining in. For one thing, Stewart's mom, Susan, is studiously photographing the action, documenting the "jam," as Stewart calls it, to be posted later on a European Web site. There's also a lot of sports jargon being tossed about -- "How do you do that switch vault again?" one of them asks -- and the occasional use of something truly alien to these 9-year-olds' ears: French slang.
Stewart and his crew -- 22-year-old Christian Snider, C.J. Horyza, 18, and Chet Lawton, 13 -- are practicing something called "parkour," a hot new form of urban acrobatics started in the Parisian suburb of Lisses in 1988 but just now catching fire in the U.S., thanks to a string of commercials by Nike, Nissan and Toyota that featured athletic Frenchmen leaping about like cats around the urban landscape.
The Nissan Altima commercial, which closed with the tag line, "Change the way you move through the world," summed up the philosophy of the sport, which amounts to using the city landscape like an obstacle course, leapfrogging over fences, trash cans and mall escalators with the fluidity of a martial arts movie stunt man.
"I saw the Nike commercials and the [Toyota] Scion commercial," says Horyza, a curly-haired high school senior who's into martial arts and school band. "That's where I found out the name of what they were doing -- free-running -- and I did some searches on the Internet and found out it was also called parkour."
Horyza found some video clips on the Web of Stewart doing his moves and was stoked to learn this rare U.S. "traceur," as parkour practitioners are called, actually lived in Phoenix. "I was like, 'This guy's good!' So I sent him an e-mail, and here I am."
In fact, all three new members of Stewart's parkour clan, called the Moksha (after a Hindu word for liberation), hooked up through the Internet and had not met each other in person until this Saturday morning, first gathering in the courtyard of ASU West and then relocating to Metrocenter after being chased off by university security. "Funny how these things catch on," says Lawton's dad, who's driven his eighth-grader all the way from Ahwatukee today to meet with these older boys. "Chet's been reading about this parkour thing on the Internet for the last three weeks or so, found out there's other people doing it, and here we are."
Indeed, without the Internet, and its ability to link people together by their arcane hobbies and niche interests, it's likely these guys would never even know there's an actual name for their overage jungle-gym acrobatics. "When I started reading about it, I was like, 'Oh, I've been doing this for years,'" says Lawton, who admits he already misses the playgrounds that mercilessly disappear from school campuses after elementary school. "I figured, I may as well do it officially."
Stewart says he still gets weird looks from people when they see the tall Moon Valley High School graduate leaping around on wheelchair access ramps and flipping over railings.
"Whenever I'm by myself -- unless I'm doing something really cool, like a really big jump -- most of the time I know people are thinking, 'Man, what is that goofball doing? He's just jumping around, acting like a little kid.'"
Parkour, he says, lends the hobby some legitimacy, if only through giving him strength in numbers. "When there's a couple more people with you, it suddenly turns into, 'Hey, what are all those guys doing? That looks sorta cool.'"
In Europe, where parkour is already "humongous," Stewart says, thanks to a widely seen TV special called Jump London and a series of BBC One advertisements featuring parkour's originator, David Belle, leaping across rooftops and scaling walls to get home in time to watch the telly, people don't even blink when traceurs vault over them on escalators and pass them by running up the walls.