Run for it

Nonchalant, acrobatic and decidedly French, Abu Dhabi is home to a growing parkour scene. Gareth Clark meets the young traceurs making a statement

How do you define parkour? ‘Since I’ve been doing it, I look at the city in a different way,’ claims Steve, 21, one of the founders of UAE Parkour. Another voice pipes up: ‘It just gives you a rush of adrenaline when you plan a move and you pull it off.’ But what is it?

Founded by Frenchman David Belle, parkour blurs the lines between sport and art. Its unofficial motto, etré et durer (to be and to last), is a fitting epithet for an activity which has its roots in military training obstacle courses. It’s a cross between self-defence and running: just as martial arts trains you to fight, parkour is all about the flight, conquering obstacles at speed in the most efficient way through jumping, climbing and running.

It rose to prominence in 2003, after a TV documentary charted the progress of Belle and his team as they embarked on their project to ‘Jump London’, turning the UK capital into their own personal urban playground. It also spawned the term ‘freerunning’, coined by Belle cohort Sébastien Foucan, which puts a greater emphasis on tricks and flairs.

Despite its name, UAE Parkour veers more towards the latter. Steve, a qualified skydiving instructor and fitness fanatic, admits the group lacks something in stamina. He wants to start running classes and arrange for a gym space; but for the time being, a relatively enclosed section on the Corniche, opposite the Hilton Baynunah, is considered home. Veined with walls of varying heights, it provides ample space to practise moves and stunts, provided you can avoid interested pedestrians.

Ranging in age from 16 to 34, the majority of the 15-strong group are in their late teens and early twenties. It’s all very casual: ‘We tend to train throughout the week and meet up on Fridays to show what we’ve learnt,’ Steve explains. Abu Dhabi isn’t really parkour friendly; six months ago, when he started the group, together with his friend, Doug, there were few appropriate places to practise. The Corniche provided a welcome opportunity for the budding traceurs, whilst inadvertently offering gentle amusement to labourers on their day off.

Steve is a patient character and serious about his sport. Having zealously studied tapes of Belle and Foucan, he set up UAE Parkour both to teach and to learn. After some much needed stretching, he shows me a few basic moves.

First up is ‘the crane’; it involves leaping onto a waist-high wall, landing on one foot, and trailing the other leg behind to stop yourself falling. It’s simple enough, and even my uncoordinated self can manage it without too much trouble. Next come ‘wall runs’, the sort of thing you did as a kid when bored in PE. It’s a matter of bouncing up a vertical surface to reach near impossible heights (see Jackie Chan’s Rumble In The Bronx for the best ever example). Steve ascends the 10ft wall with squirrel-like agility; I have a good few inches on him, but plough into it like a jet-propelled catfish, ricocheting about 3ft backwards.

Having learnt to jump(ish), Steve shows me how to land: giving with the knees and transferring the weight to the palms of my hands. ‘We would normally roll,’ he says, alas the cement floor is hardly conducive. The last move I learn is the ‘cat leap’. A tall, gangling New Zealand youth by the name of Pete takes over, jumping and clinging to the wall, feet together, and hanging, well, catlike, by the tips of his fingers. I give it a go and manage to replicate something approximating feline grace, although ‘moggy desperation’ would be more appropriate.

Tired and achey, I filter off from the group for a breather, and to observe. Injuries are common, and a tightness in my thigh identifies my warm up as a pale imitation of the sort. As to parkour, there is something of the camaraderie (and peacockery) of skateboarding about it, mainly in the sharing of moves and group mentality, but it is fun and cheap – all you need are a good pair of trainers. Many of the all-male contingent come from a rugby background, but it really is a melting pot of nationalities.

I leave enthused. Steve is an infectious character whose desire to organise something more structured is admirable. But the spirit of parkour is subversive; it is about using the city’s landscape for something more poetic than its utilitarian design, and I hope that this spirit isn’t lost. For now, though, I leave the group to their activities, flowing over obstacles like water, and watched intently by a waddling Asian toddler. The future of UAE Parkour is clearly in good hands.

UAE Parkour meet from 4pm-7pm on the Corniche, opposite the Hilton Baynunah, every Friday. Visit for updates. Contact Steve on 050 721 8169 for details

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