I’ve spent many years doing parkour and many years doing capoeira. As in many other disciplines I have seen in both of these activities a rift in ideologies. Some people are firmly attached to their discipline being authentic, preserved in its original form and not tainted by the need to compete and outrank one another. Others feel the need to adapt to the world and embrace growth and change so that their art won’t fade away and to make it easier for new people to be exposed to it. Capoeira is a little bit older than parkour and so it has had its time to sort of solidify those roles, but the real value of that is the fluidity and openness of people that practice either to see the value across that division.
Capoeira groups tend to be labeled as Regional or Angola. Angola is a name rooted in the slave trade that capoeira grew out of. People tended to call all africans Angolas in Brazil even though many were not from the angola region. It’s a label probably older than the word Capoeira, the etymology of which I’ll spare you from as that is worth another whole article. Regional (pronounced Hey-Jo-Nal ) is a name that was initially applied to the style regional to Bahia Brazil and more significantly it comes from one man who reinvented much of how Capoeira is played and taught, Mestre Bimba. Regional is the new school and Angola is the old school.
Mestre Bimba in the 1920’s began to formalize how capoeira should be taught. He came up with sequences of movements for students to practice and started a school to teach it in. It’s crucial to note two things about this time period. One is that capoeira was illegal. No joke, the country of Brazil, and especially its police, had had enough of bandits and thieves who were so fit and nimble that they took pride in beating up police officers. Capoeira was so closely linked with crime that it was outlawed and there were many efforts to purge it out of existence. The second thing to know about the time period is that those efforts almost worked.
When Mestre Bimba began teaching in the early 1920s Capoeira was almost gone. Only a few tough old neighborhoods in the poorest regions of the country still had anyone playing the game, maintaining the music, and teaching new generations. This was a very hard time. Bimba was able to reinvigorate the art of capoeira through his new teaching methods and his willingness to break the mold and adopt outside ideas.
A ranking system with rope belts that let people more easily compare it to asian martial arts, a renewed emphasis on fighting and being useful in combat and finally exhibitions, and competing in martial arts tournaments. Bimba went around and beat people up. His students beat people up too. Not people on the street, and not in violence but Mestre Bimba entered himself and his student in lots of competitions to prove that capoeira is legit and they won almost everything they ever entered. The newspapers wrote sensational stories about him and the government took notice.
Finally while it was still illegal to practice capoeira at all in Brazil Mestre Bimba was invited to perform for the governor of Bahia and that event led to the end of the ban on capoeira. I feel like there is no exaggeration in saying that he saved the art from disappearing. But what about the other people in capoeira? He was not the first Mestre, he certainly wasn’t the only Mestre in his own time either.
Other capoeiristas complained about Bimba taking this radical direction. Some said it was too violent. Many complained that Regional lost the ritual that made capoeira what it really is. To this day Mestres across the globe greatly differ in their definition of what is capoeira.
I was trained in the school of Nacao Capoeira which is considered Regional but the grand Mestre of the school was an Angoleiro. I’ve met people from many different groups and I’ve trained with Angolas. Some people feel like there should be no cordas (the ranking belt) and that capoeira should happen naturally. Some feel like it should be taught in schools and respect the refined quality that lessons can bring. Some focus mostly on music and ritual while others just want to brawl. Some want there to be leagues and formally ranked competitions and some wish the game to only be played traditionally where the energy of the Roda decides the winner.. And sometimes there isn’t a “win”. I’ve seen hard fighting turn into samba like ritual in an instant and come right back. It’s all in there at once and the community is all the richer for it.
What does all of that have to do with parkour? If you’ve read this far and you really are ingrained in the community of parkour I’m sure you can already see the parallels. Parkour has a lot of traditionalists. Maybe Purists is the best word to use for now. A parkour purist wants all training to be on the street. Many want people to learn naturally through trial and error in a community setting and also through long nights of running and jumping and self discovery. It is common for the purist to reject competition, commercialization and even to reject the idea of dedicated spaces for parkour. These purists are bound to be at odds with the progressive part of the parkour community.
I learned parkour on the street and I had to teach myself. I got to meet a lot of great people in that time but not too many stuck around. I found myself reluctantly taking on a leadership role that I didn’t think I deserved and that at first I didn’t think the community actually needed. Now I have a gym. I teach all the time and 95% of my training happens inside the gym. It’s totally different and the experience that new people have is nothing like what I had starting out. This is what the new wave looks like and I’ve met many other gym owners who say the same things. A generation from now there will be owners who started only in the gym space and never had to find their own way outside. That will cause a distillation of the original discipline.
We need the purists. An art, a discipline, must stay connected to its roots. We need the progressive and business minded people. If we ignore the way the world works then parkour won’t survive. To embrace both is not easy but every one of us is constantly crossing the lines. I’ve personally said in the past that “flips aren’t parkour!!1!” but also desperately wanted to learn to backflip for years (I did finally get it). The people that decry competition as evil sometimes end up competing. The leaders that create great gyms and businesses often want to run away from it all and just jump on park benches again. All of this is good.
I’m not going to invent the terminology here but we need some better words than Purist and Progressive. I feel like it’s time to make that part of our language. Maybe there are some french terms we can borrow or maybe it’s time to invent new slang, that’s all the word Parkour is after all. As we continue in the now fully mature digital age having the ability to debate endlessly across the globe about what is best for parkour, freerunning, ADD let’s recognize that in some ways everyone in the discussions we are having is right. We don’t have to perfectly agree and the conversations and arguments need to keep churning. I hope we can all appreciate our angry Angoleiros and tolerate are sometimes over eager Regional leaders.
– Jonathan McCarver
Memphis, TN. USA