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In Somerville, parkour growing by leaps and bounds

During a morning session at Somerville High School (clockwise from top left), Blake Evitt leads students up stairs; Evitt demonstrates a move; Daniel Abraham, Cristian Lopez, David Kovin, Evitt, and Rachel Kelly (from left) negotiate railings; and Kovin sprints on a wall.

Photos by Jim Davis/Globe Staff

During a morning session at Somerville High School (clockwise from top left), Blake Evitt leads students up stairs; Evitt demonstrates a move; Daniel Abraham, Cristian Lopez, David Kovin, Evitt, and Rachel Kelly (from left) negotiate railings; and Kovin sprints on a wall.

Imagine a park bench: An ordinary prop in the backdrop of the urban environment, used for quick, convenient respites or talk of the good old times by old men, something expected and constant but, more often, ignored.

But for Blake Evitt, it is a living obstacle, very much present: He might consider its dimensions, its give, structure, and location in both physical and mental space, and how to incorporate and overcome all that as he moves with it and past it.

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The Somerville native, 25, has dedicated the last several years to studying parkour, an obstacle course-like form of physical training that he’s now introducing to his hometown.

With the discipline, “everything becomes something you can interact with,” said Evitt, who began offering classes in November through Parkour Generations Americas.  

Originating in France in the 1980s, parkour is not easily defined, as difficult to fit into the parameters of words as those of space and time. Also referred to as “freerunning” or “street tumbling,” and called a sport by some, a philosophy and an art by others, it is a practice of fluid movement, requiring no equipment but the body and the mind, as much cerebral as it is physical.

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Inspired by military obstacle courses, it incorporates leaping, jumping, gymnastics, martial arts, break dancing, and other movements to move from one point to another.

“It’s running, jumping, climbing,” said Evitt, “making your way through an environment,” whether that’s the city, the suburbs, or the woods.

In November, he started out with just a couple of classes for adults and kids in Somerville. Now, he’s teaching nearly a dozen, held both inside and outside and as after-school programs, attracting an age spectrum from 5 to 63. Courses are held at various parks throughout Somerville, inside at the Cummings School on Prescott Street, in various elementary and middle schools, and at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education.  

“I think it’s explosive, plus it has the thrill factor,” said Deidre Williams, whose two sons, Ian, 8, and Dean, 11, take classes. Unlike other activities, it’s not as structured, she added, and the adventure-seeking component adds excitement.

Ian, a small blond figure dressed in black, described it simply as “fun” and “curious.” Having done soccer, football, snowboarding, and break dancing, he says it makes him feel “happy, creative, and flexible,” when he’s doing his own improvisation.

“If there’s one move you like and another move you like, you can,” he paused to clap his hands for effect, “put them together.”

To demonstrate, he ran to the padded wall of the Cummings School gym, jumping and tapping it with the fingertips of his right hand and the toes of his right foot.

His brother, meanwhile, red-faced and sweaty after a recent Tuesday night class, said, “I feel like one of those people on ‘American Ninja Warrior’ ” (a TV show that features often-perilous obstacle courses).

During his class a few minutes earlier, he certainly looked like one. Along with four other kids, he did drills in which he climbed up, over, and through a multilevel, railing-like structure (picture hopping a chain-link fence); crawled backward and forward without touching knees to the floor (as if working up and down an invisible ladder); did handstands; traversed balance beams, all wobbly and pinwheeling arms; and jumped like a frog, in one fluid movement, onto a roughly 2½-foot-tall stage.

“If you make a lot of noise, it probably means you’re doing something wrong,” a tanned and trim Evitt, dark hair pulled back, instructed as the group ran and bounced and grappled with their footholds. He added that he should only hear one sound: that of their final landing.

In another exercise, they made their way across a course of mats, cones, and the climbing structure, with the challenge to not touch the floor. Leaps carried them from mat to mat, nimble hops landed them unsteadily on the narrow bit of flat space on cones, and tangles of arms and feet shimmied across bars upside down, backward, and forward.

“I always take the complicated way!” Dean called out at one point as he swung like Tarzan.

“You really get in shape,” Vivien Shea, 11, said after class, standing with her twin brother, Cole, and older brother Jack, 14.  

“He likes to pretend he’s a ninja,” Cole said of Jack.

“I don’t pretend,” his brother quipped. “I am.”

Evitt agreed that it’s “fun, and like learning how to be a kid again,” but he stressed that parkour can be easily misconceived by extremists — do a YouTube search, for instance, and you’ll come up with literally hundreds of thousands of videos, many of young men bounding from rooftop to rooftop, scaling buildings, or doing handstands many stories above the whirl of traffic.

Although he’s done his fair share of boulder-scaling and streetscape leaping and dodging, Evitt says it’s much more than that thrill-seeking cliché. It’s literally changed his perspective, how he sees and interprets things. And it’s social but not competitive, and also is about fitness and perseverance, as well as overcoming obstacles both in the physical world and in the mind, he said.

“It’s being strong to be useful,” said Evitt, whose training also includes the Brazilian martial art capoeira, dance, and weight lifting.

An active kid involved in soccer, swimming, and tennis while growing up in Somerville, he discovered parkour as a French major at Davidson College in North Carolina. He later researched and wrote about it, and in 2010 was awarded a $25,000 grant from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation  to travel and study parkour as an “agent for positive social change.” He’s spent the last 2½ years traveling to numerous countries and training with members of the Yamakasi, the group who initially developed parkour.

Eventually, he’d like to get into performance with dance studios, circus troupes, and other acts, he said, and ultimately foster more of an exchange between the United States and Europe.

For the short-term, though, the goal is to expand classes to numerous areas beyond Somerville, and to add another instructor. Similarly, Parkour Generations Americas, a London-headquartered company, intends to begin running certification classes over the next few months, Evitt said.

“People are getting addicted faster than I expected.”

Taryn Plumb can be reached at taryn.plumb@gmail.com.
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