Jumping, Climbing and Falling: A Day in the Life of an Urban Acrobat

The Post-Communist Generation’s Rebellious Jump into Parkour

By Pilar Melendez

After studying his distance from the ground for several seconds, Thomas ‘Tomcany” Dohnal held his breath, closed his eyes, and jumped. Standing still after he jumped from one roof to the next, about 50 feet away, Dohnal collapsed onto the building and started to laugh away his fear. In athletics, fear can be destabilizing, but for a 21-year-old who has devoted his life to the urban pastime of Parkour, fear can be deadly.

Parkour, incepted in France in the 1980s, consists of running, jumping, climbing and sometimes falling from between city spaces. Death looms upon every jump. For instance, Pavel Kashin, a Russian Parkour fanatic famous for his agility, died in June 2013 after attempting to backflip off a wall adjacent to a 16-story drop.

Photo courtesy of InMotion's Facebook page

Dedication to self-improvement, freedom, and community are key components of Parkour culture. Photo courtesy of InMotion

Dohnal and his use of the sport-performance art in a post-communist landscape overrun with decrepit concrete and dissatisfaction with the capitalist dream that was to save the Eastern bloc is the epitome of the new Prague Parkour man.

“When you are scared, you have to work with the fear because in the end fear in Parkour is the friend,” Dohnal says, sitting carefully on the graffiti-filled concrete ledge of the of the Vltavska metro stop in Prague 7; its blocky communist architecture unfettered by the trendy clubs and cafes rooted here since the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

Dohnal is one of the Czech Republic’s 500 dedicated Parkour enthusiasts who spend each day improving their gymnastic-like moves. Parkour offers a chance for independence, confidence, and freedom for a generation whose parents struggled for self-expression under the watchful eye of a totalitarian regime with little tolerance for such individualist pastimes. Parkour continues to gain a following in the Czech lands thanks to Internet sites like Youtube and Parkour chat forums.

“I started watching videos of Parkour on the Internet in high school, and I instantly thought ‘this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,’” said Dohnal.

Since moving from the small town of Karlovy Vary to Prague to pursue Parkour, Dohnal spends a majority of his time at the Vtavaska metro stop, a colorful graffiti-filled two story installation of low concrete walls and steep staircases that make for ideal jumping off points.  There, he practices along with his 15-person InMotion Parkour team.

“While I hate communism for what it did to my family, it did give us great architecture to jump off of. Their Parkour-perfect buildings are the only positive aspect of communism.”

While each member performs individually, their devotion to Parkour has brought them together to shoot commercials, music videos, and create workshops in their Prague 10 warehouse-training center entitled “InMotion Academy.”

With each member’s individual skills combined together. InMotion is able to showcase and share its most challenging moves on Youtube, an effort that landed them a sponsorship deal with Big Shock, a Czech energy company. Even with all the success InMotion has attained since their establishment in 2011, they retain a gritty ghetto aesthetic.

“The only people that come here are homeless people and people that are devoted to Parkour. At this point, we can’t tell which Dohnal is since he is always here,” said Pavel Cibucka, a 22 year-old student at Palestra College of Physical Education in Prague.

The two friends are looking at the five policemen who in turn glare back at the adrenaline junkies from the entrance of the metro stop. With high-fives and encouraging shouts of ztroskotanec- or loser- Dohnal unsuccessfully attempts to perform a cat leap, falling onto the ground instead of grabbing onto the wall while perching to resemble a cat grasping onto a wall post jump.

Immediately, after a collision with the floor, Cibucka brings out a huge first-aid kit. While tending to a scrape on Dohnal’s arm, he alternates between mocking his inability to perform “a skill an infant could perform” and encouraging him “to try it again.”

InMotion depends on an egalitarian approach.

Photo courtesy of Tomas Dohnal from In Motion's Facebook page

“There is no leader in InMotion, and we love it that way,” says Dohnal. Photo courtesy of InMotion

“There is no leader in InMotion, and we love it that way,” says Dohnal. “Every person has the opportunity to put in as much effort into the team as they want. But at the end of the day, we are a family and care about each other’s needs equally.”

There is a sense of identity that Dohnal gets from his close-knit team that the rest of his generation seems to be searching for. There is no bogeyman – distrust towards the monolithic totalitarian state that united his parents’ generation together. People had much less materialism under communism than they do now, experts have noted, but they had more security and stability as their lives were prescribed and predictable.

“Once communism ended, people made up for it after so many years of having nothing. This want for everything ended up creating a false sense of stability that I think is just starting to truly settle in the Czech Republic with this generation,” said Vit Horack, a sociology professor at Charles University in Prague.

This sense of societal stability and governmental satisfaction is felt by 60% of citizens in the Czech Republic between the ages of 18-39, according to a Pew Global Attitudes survey. This satisfaction is higher than other Eastern bloc countries, where the over satisfaction in Ukraine and Hungary are 24% and 21% for citizens between the ages of 18-29, respectively.

“Before communism in the Czech Republic, my family had a lot of property, but it was quickly taken away and has never been recovered. While I hate communism for what it did to my family, it did give us great architecture to jump off of. Their Parkour-perfect buildings are the only positive aspect of communism,” Dohnal said.

While the communist architectural values supported the creation of minimalist buildings perfect for Parkour leaps, the concrete edifices act as constant reminder to Dohnal and his fellow teammates of the sanctity of Parkour’s freedom and individual growth, a personal risk their parents were never allowed. Despite this reminder, with an intention to perfect their Parkour skills, Dohnal and his teammates dedicate their time at the Vltavska metro stop to improve themselves and their other interests.

“Tomas was good at Parkour before he joined InMotion, but since joining our family he has gotten a lot better. He has really opened up into being a crucial member of the team through his Parkour, filming skills, and overall devotion to all of us,” said Jakub Hitz, a 22-year-old student at the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague.

“I think that the significant life condition of the post-communist generation was not only the situation of freedom and vast possibilities, but also of insecurity. That is something that the older generation had not experienced and was not prepared for.”

The dedication to self-improvement, freedom, and community that is encouraged in Parkour stems from the rebellious moves of French native David Belle. The basic philosophy of Parkour is harnessing inner strength to assist others in danger. But, for Dohnal, the philosophy is not the main reason for his passion, but about the ability to overcome his fear for personal freedom.

“For me, the most important thing about Parkour is about being free, and it is important to adjust Parkour for yourself and doing it for your own purpose,” said Dohnal.

Despite his personal pursuit for Parkour freedom, he cannot help to wearily watch Hitz as he starts to climb up the nearest wall, almost falling down before successfully grabbing onto the ledge and thrusting himself over the side.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Dohnal added, “I really love Parkour because it has also given me the ability to work on my other passion, film. By being able to film everyone performing their skills, I am able to further craft my own.”

After two failed attempts to gain admission to the prestigious FAMU, the Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, Dohnal still remains optimistic and continues filming videos of his InMotion teammates showcasing their dangerous moves.

“I think that the significant life condition of the post-communist generation was not only the situation of freedom and vast possibilities, but also of insecurity. That is something that the older generation had not experienced and was not prepared for,” said Horack.

Parkour

The freedom to succeed – and the freedom to fail – are aspects of Parkour that entice members of InMotion to continue the seemingly dangerous sport. Photo courtesy of InMotion

Dohnal’s parents, a carpenter and art teacher, make a point to celebrate his various passions to counter their memories of a more restrictive childhood environment. They encouraged Dohnal to move to Prague, despite his overprotective grandmother insisting Parkour “will kill him” and the uncertainty of his film education.

This is the freedom to succeed – and the freedom to fail – that his parents’ generation never experienced because there were far fewer choices when the government had so much influence over your life. There was no real unemployment, but in return for being guaranteed a job, crazy jumps off public buildings were impossible.  The fear then was not of success or failure, but of a dulling conformity and soul-crushing compliance. Parkour is one way Dohnal both counters and carries fear.

“I work with fear everyday,” he said. “Whether my personal fear with landing a jump, submitting a video, or helping my friends or family deal with their fear, it is everywhere. Parkour has taught me to deal with the fear and make it beautiful.”

 

In Motion os

The puddle 784/3

Prague 10

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Pilar Melendez is in the NYU College of Arts and Sciences Class of 2016. Her hometown is Miami, Florida.

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Categories: Culture, Spring 2014 Issue Number 3, Travel

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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