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.
"There, everyone knows what it is," Stewart says wistfully. "They may not all be too familiar with it, but they at least understand it more than they do here."
Stewart has become so enthralled with Europe's parkour-friendly culture that the young urban acrobat, who works nights at west Phoenix's Laser Quest arcade, has been saving his money for a backpacking trip to the U.K. and other parkour hot spots beginning later this month and stretching through the summer. "He'll be staying with people he's gotten to know through Urban Freeflow," says his supportive mom, referring to the primary Web network where parkour enthusiasts from London to Singapore to Huntsville, Alabama, exchange trick techniques, post their videos and set up local jams.
Susan Stewart has seen her son weather a few banged-up shins in the year and a half he's been into parkour -- and she confides that he's wearing a pad above his fanny today to protect him on the rolls. But she's surprisingly carefree about Matt spending his summer vacation with a bunch of leaping Englishmen he's only met online. "They all take this very seriously," she says. "I'm hoping he'll learn a lot from them."
Stewart, in fact, has become a bit of a U.S. ambassador to the tightly knit crew of U.K. originators, hopping on the trend early enough to become one of only two American Urban Freeflow representatives acknowledged on the Web site, which is still the central meeting place for the fledgling sport. "For a lot of sports, you find so many different Web sites and forums, you don't know where to begin," says Stewart. "But for PK, you just have Urban Freeflow. There are smaller sites, but the people on those are also on UF. If you go there, you meet everybody."
Stewart hopes that by the time he returns to Arizona in August, his odd little hobby will have caught on with enough statesiders to quell the disapproving stares he still gets from local mallgoers.
"When I'm doing stuff, usually when people walk by, they'll glance at me, walk away and never look back. But little kids are always, 'Hey, Mom, look at that! That's cool!'" Stewart says. "They're the ones who get it. Because it's just what kids do at that age. We're just sort of copying what they do on the playgrounds, but using our more mature bodies to be able to do more complicated techniques and stuff."
To the little guys, big dudes like Stewart are like real-life Spidermen. But he, in turn, has just as much admiration for the tykes.
"I'll be walking down the street, seeing kids doing stuff, and I'll be like, 'Hey, I wanna do that!'" he says, laughing.
"It's just fun, and it feels so good," he says, panting slightly after having just executed a cat leap up a wall that even Jackie Chan might envy. "People forget that."
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