Caleb Pierce is teaching parkour this spring. While Caleb has been working as Facilities Coordinator and taking classes at Freehold since 2017. this will be his first time teaching here. We sat down with Caleb recently to talk about his parkour obsession.
First, can you define parkour for folks who might not know what it is?
The definition of parkour is pretty broad, depending on who you ask. The way I see it, it’s figuring out how to move in relationship to physical obstacles, like walls and tight spaces. It involves swinging, rolling, crawling, vaulting jumping, balancing–movements like that. I think the definition is less important than actually going and doing it. To me it’s about having fun and it’s a kind of freedom to move in ways that appeal to the imagination. Rather than: ”Okay, this is a sidewalk, you walk on it. This is a telephone pole, you walk past it. This is a wall, you walk along it.” You can use a telephone pole as a means to change directions, or to pop up into the air; you can go over a wall, you can balance on the edge of a wall, you can take a nap on a wall. You can use a wall as a means to put distance between you and a pursuer, if that’s how you want to look at parkour, and some people do–if you’re able to hop over a wall fast, and the other guy can’t, that’s an advantage.
There’s kind of this old-school classical definition of parkour, that it’s the easiest way to get from point A to point B, which sometimes can be the case. But often in practice it’s more about creativity and finding a combination of obstacles that you can move through in a way that’s pleasing aesthetically–in terms of your sense of what creative movement is.
How long have you been doing it?
I’ve only been doing parkour–under that name–for three or so years. But I would say I started climbing rooftops and sketchy steel structures before I was a teenager. I did tree climbing, jumping around, that kind of thing–and that’s a lot of what parkour is. I also got into gymnastics and martial arts–which is also relevant–as a teenager, and continued all the way through college. I practiced theatre movement, learning how to use my body–learning all those foundational skills that really help inform parkour.
When the pandemic hit I had a lot of time, and nothing to do. I took a parkour class and thought: “Yeah, this is pretty much up my alley.” I basically started doing it seven days a week–just taking every class I could and getting really involved with the community in Seattle. It basically became my whole life, and it was pretty great! It made me feel alive–long story short. I wouldn’t just go to classes but I’d also obsessively practice outside of class–just go to the local park and be a weirdo and walk on the rails and vault on the picnic tables. I watched a lot of videos on the internet and kind of cobbled together this rail out of an aluminum pipe and some two by fours, so I could just balance on that all day. I started climbing the house I lived in, doing pull-ups on the wooden ledge. Fun times!
I did that for a couple years, then there was a job opening to coach parkour to both children and adults, and that became–I mean, of course I still work at Freehold–but that became my other job. That was cool, and really helped me solidify the technical foundations of parkour. I could already kind of intuitively do a lot of things, and figure it out by doing, but coaching forced me to really break down the techniques into all the nuts and bolts. How does someone who’s never done this before, and isn’t used to hurtling themselves around like I was–how does someone like that learn these techniques? So that became a learning process for me.
What hooked you on parkour?
There are a lot of things that draw me to it. One of the biggest things is community. The parkour people I’ve met have been adventurous, open-minded, and down to try things.
It’s really an amazing experience to move with a group of people who are enthusiastic about movement, and to broaden your idea of what’s possible. One of the cool things about parkour is that regardless what your level is, there’s so much you can do. You can define what direction you want to challenge yourself in. A lot of parkour is just hanging out with people and looking for challenges–maybe challenging each other if you have that rapport.
The thing about challenges is that it’s really amazing to see people pushing themselves and attempting things that maybe are really athletic, or sometimes there are things that are scary–and that doesn’t mean dangerous or that you’re risking your life, scary can mean confronting your fear or nervousness or uncertainty, or maybe it’s just the sheer impossibility of a challenge. What I’ve seen in the parkour community is that people really rally around that, and when one person has a success, everybody celebrates.
The culture of parkour is–it’s not a competitive vibe. Based on how broad it is, you can kind of follow your interests and gravitate towards people who vibe with that. There’s maybe not the pressure of a more established sport where it’s like–”Everybody knows what this is. Everybody knows what a successful athlete within this sport looks like.” With parkour, a lot of people are athletes in the more traditional sense of the word, but a lot of people take it to be a more spiritual, philosophical thing, or just a lifestyle thing. Because of that, there’s an openness to what it means to you personally. And I think that’s beautiful. That’s what the word “culture” means to me. That’s what, in my mind, makes it an art, rather than just a sport.
Can you talk about how parkour relates to theatre?
Before I did parkour, a lot of my time was spent in theatre. And I was drawn to physical theatre–which is not quite the same as parkour, but I think the two go very well together.
You really want to be grounded in your body, in physical intuition. In parkour, you’re playing around on hard concrete, sharp edges, rails–we’re not going to do this day one of class! But there’s jumping from rail to rail, sometimes climbing buildings, and being in situations where you’re relying completely on your own body and mental focus to keep you alive. That level of focus and aliveness and physical presence is also very valuable–definitely in physical theatre, things like clown, but also for acting in general. I think my experience in theatre helped me tremendously in parkour, and I think Freehold students will already be bringing some of that here.
I’m also excited to incorporate some of the imaginative elements in the class, because you can move, or create movement as a mechanical process: put your hand here, point your foot like that, have your hips stacked over your knees like this–and that’s important, and I do emphasize that kind of thing. But when you can move with your whole body and mind and imagination and your breath, and connect all those things together, that’s when you get into the flow state. That’s when it becomes really cool to watch. That’s when the dope stuff happens, and you’re able to move in a way you never thought you could.
Can you describe an activity that you’ll be doing in class?
One activity is to set up a parkour line–and a parkour line is a predetermined set of obstacles–and have everyone run it a couple times and get familiar with it, and then we’d start giving prompts. So maybe: do this one like a chimpanzee, embody chimpanzee energy. And then we’d have some examples of chimp-like movements, to sort of get the juices flowing, and have people do it a few times and watch each other, and then have a discussion about that.
Chimpanzees, apes, monkeys, are kind of classical parkour-type animals. But we might try a panda. How does a panda move? What kind of movement choices might a panda make? Maybe a lot of rolling on the ground. Or what would a sloth do? This is where a lot of individuality can come out, because you might think: “What are sloth-like movements?” Really getting into it from the physical. Or you can think: “What is the energy of the sloth?” Kind of getting into it from the energy. I’m excited about the potential for different kinds of approaches there.
You obviously derive a lot of personal meaning from parkour. Can you talk about that?
Parkour is learning about your body, learning how you move, learning what you value. You’re really taking the idea of play and personal meaning really seriously. In my own life, I’ll just go to a school campus and walk on a handrail. And I’ll get serious about it, get focused. And people will walk by and be like “What’s that guy doing?” And practically speaking, why is it serious? I’m never going to make money from it–I mean besides coaching parkour. But it’s not encouraged by capitalism to go and spend your time standing on a rail. There’s not an immediate tangible benefit. But it has personal meaning, because I think it’s [very] cool–or, I don’t know if you have to edit that. It’s because I think it’s very cool. It fulfills me in a profound way to feel like: “This is what I was put on this earth to do. To move around in these crazy ways. To walk on a rail, and maybe apply that skill to walking on a tree branch.” I think this really resonates with a lot of us. When we see a movie, like Avatar, with human or humanoid beings moving in these super-cool ways through the trees, I think that really wakes something up inside us that is profound. And I think there’s a deep need in us for it. Parkour is permission to have this space to do that and to take it seriously without feeling like you have to justify it. I think it’s about taking your humanity seriously and rejecting the need to justify it.
Caleb’s Parkour class meets Sundays from 11AM-1PM at Freehold.
Follow this link to see a short, pretty incredible video, of Caleb practicing parkour.