Understanding the obstacles women face in throwing themselves at walls in the name of Parkour
“I have this moment as I rock backwards before I jump, where the rest of the world disappears. If you make that jump it’s an amazing feeling and if you don’t, often it hurts your knees.”
Professional athlete Katie McDonnell is one of a new wave of female athletes rising up, in the previously male dominated sport of Parkour. They are the Generation Traceuse.
The sport was devised in France during the late 1980’s by a group of nine men led by David Belle and Yann Hnnutra. (Read about the history here.) The men titled their group the Yamaskai a Lingala word meaning ‘strong man, strong spirit.’ Parkour has continued to be male led whilst spreading from France across the globe.
Traceuse is the female congregation of the French word ‘Traceur’ coined by members of Yamaskai as male parkour athlete. Derived from the French verb “traceur” meaning to plot, The Traceuses are an under-represented collection of strong women breaking the notion that Parkour is a sport for men.
The internet is saturated with videos of strong males powering over urban obstacles. According to the governing body of the sport, Parkour UK, “There is a disparity in the online perception as you tend not to see women uploading many videos in comparison to the male athletes.” Despite this there are a community of women rising up in the sport and becoming the new generation of Traceuses. However, being a female athlete in a predominantly male environment does not come without challenges.
Parkour, like most action sports is male-centric and training amongst all men can be an obstacle to overcome for the beginner traceuses’. Practitioner Julie Angel recounts,
“There’s a lot of hyper masculinity in the language sometimes used around the sport, things like ‘don’t be a little bitch’.”
Angel was one of the first women introduced to Parkour in 2004 and wrote the first PhD on the sport. Professional Free Runner, Katie McDonnell has also experienced hyper masculinity comments. “I definitely get annoyed by the comments some people make. For example if a man says to another male practitioner ‘that girl can do something you can’t!’ I hate it that they make out he should be embarrassed that a girl can do something he can’t. That annoys me the most being a female in this sport.”
I began training Parkour myself last year after meeting a group of young Traceurs. The first time I showed up to a
training session a group of eight of them were leaping around the park. It was slightly overwhelming at first to be surrounded by a group of strong male athletes jumping from wall to wall. However, after overcoming my beginner’s nerves I quickly forgot I was the only female in the group. It is common for women who start training to be surrounded by mostly males. Julie Angel, who also started training with predominantly male groups after watching Rush Hour on television. “I’ve always been in very male dominated industries’ so it wasn’t an unfamiliar environment being surrounded by lots of men.” However, some women feel comfortable being around men whereas others are intimidated and feel more at ease amongst women, as was the case with me.
Since my first training session with male practitioners I have also attended an all-female class led by one of only 8% of female coaches in the UK, Vivien Mendoza. She began training with mostly men, “It made me feel uncomfortable because it was overwhelming whilst they were doing massive jumps” Julie Angel comments, “When you’re training with a group of women there’s an incredible sense of physical empathy of how our bodies work.” Katie McDonnell agrees, “With other girls if we’re scared about a jump we’ll talk about the reasons why we’re worried, whereas with men it’s a lot less emotional.” Where the males are supportive with their physical presence, females tend to be more emotionally supportive. It can be hard to find an all-female group to train with as there are more men participating in the sport. However this disproportion is not just exclusive to Parkour.
In the UK gender has a large influence on sport, more men play sport than women across the board. According to Sport England 40.5% of men play sport at least once a week in contrast to 31.9% of women. One of the main reasons being the fear a lot of women describe when approaching sport. This fear can relate to the apprehension of judgement when it comes to participation. Jennie Price of Sport England explains, “What’s stopping more women doing sport is fear of judgement: whether that’s about how they look or whether they’re any good at it.” This is only the start of the internal battle for a portion of women when approaching a new sport.
As Parkour is an explosive sport some women are also discouraged by this. Vivien who teaches both men and women says, “One reason less women train Parkour is because they are scared by what they see in the media; men jumping from building.” Katie, who has recently worked on the Assassin’s Creed film agrees, “There’s something to do with the maternal instinct that women think more about the things that could go wrong. I think it’s biological and can’t be controlled that women are generally more fearful than men.”However Angel disagrees, “Fear is relative. It depends on the person’s experience with regularly confronting fear, it’s not gender specific.”
So what is it about Parkour that has got the rising Generation Traceuses shifting social norms and throwing themselves (literally) into this explosive action sport? Connection. Angel describes,
“Parkour gives you a connection to the environment. It provokes a conversation with yourself about your own abilities, it’s an invitation and reflection at the same time. It’s an awareness, imagination, dialogue and connection that all form the outdoor magic or what happens when you do Parkour.”
The world, previously boring and mundane becomes a playground of self-expression and a deep intrinsic freedom is awakened inside.