Parkour, the inconvenient truth…

Interviewer: Julie Angel:  Interviewee: Kate Miller, American Parkour

The idea of what parkour can be and the current reality of what parkour is are not the same as far as who participates. The issue of gender can’t be ignored in parkour. You hear a lot based around the idea of ‘parkour is for everyone!’, well theoretically yes, but if all you really see is young guys then if you are not a ‘young guy’, it may not occur to you that it could also be for you. Parkour as an activity is not alone in this.

 Kate Miller is a high school physics teacher and parkour enthusiast. Like many women her route into parkour came through a male friend, her boyfriend. Like many she fell in love with parkour. Like many she asked the same question “why aren’t more females enjoying parkour too?”. Then she did something about it.

 J- Kate, as a physicist statistically you work in a male dominated field. What parallels have you seen with parkour that you have seen with gender bias and how people are introduced to physics?

 K- I love being a physicist and I love being a traceuse. I consider both to be a major part of my identity, but this has not always been my attitude. Thinking back to my days as an undergraduate student, I wasn’t always sure that I could make it as a physics major. As I sat in my physics classes I couldn’t help but look around and notice that I was in the gender minority. My classmates didn’t look like me, my professors didn’t look like me, and I had no strong, female role model to help me envision my own future as a physicist. I felt like I didn’t fit. I felt like all eyes were on me to see if I could keep up. At times I was explicitly told “you can’t do physics – you’re a girl.” It was exhausting, discouraging, and made me second guess if physics was for me. With time, I began to find that there was a female physics community. I joined the Society of Women in Physics and began to feel that I did belong, that I could keep up, and that I was just as good as my male counterparts. In the end, I graduated alongside 5 females classmates in a class of 35 physicists.

When I started in parkour, I felt a similar sense of self-doubt. Was I strong enough to do parkour? Could I relate to the traceurs around me? Could I keep up? I do not blame the men in the parkour community for these feelings; in fact, my male friends were some of my biggest supporters! Nonetheless, I yearned for a space where I didn’t have to worry about my lack of bulging muscles. As I became more involved with the parkour community, I began to connect with local traceuses. Just like when I joined the Society of Women in Physics, finding female friends in the parkour community made me feel like belonged. We trained together, acknowledging our strengths and shortcomings, always working towards our personal goals. My feelings of self-doubt turned into determination and passion. I was hooked.

I now teach high school physics, serving as a female role model for the next generation of hopeful physicists. I also run Women’s Meetups in Washington DC, creating a comfortable space for women to come together and train with other women. In each case, I hope that I can play a small part in overcoming our perception of the typical physicist or parkour practitioner.

 

J- What happened after you started training? What did you do about it?

 K-When I started training parkour, I noticed that there were few females in the community. “Why?” I asked myself. I loved the physical and mental challenges of parkour and surely other women would too! I feared that parkour looked too intimidating for the average woman. After all, the general public’s impression of parkour tends to come from watching youtube videos of traceurs jumping between buildings. While this is quite impressive, it can also be quite alienating if you yourself don’t want to jump between buildings. I wanted to show that parkour didn’t have to be big and scary. I wanted to get more women out here trying it. I wanted to strengthen the parkour community as a whole by bringing more women into the mix.

Along with Melanie Hunt and Adrienne Toumayan, and with the support of American Parkour, we started monthly, womens-only “Meetups” in the Washington DC area. The idea was to create a safe space for women to try parkour – a space where they didn’t have to worry about looking silly. As one of our participants said,  “As much as I love hanging out with guys, I enjoy learning new exercises and skills with just women around – I’m personally more comfortable not having to compare myself to guys as I pick up new skills.” DC Women’s Meetups have now been running for over a year now here, with Women’s Meetups spreading to the Twin Cities and New York!

 

J-Maybe it’s stating the obvious but who has benefited from the sessions?

 K- We have a variety of women who attend our Meetups, from first-timers to seasoned traceuses. We try to structure the Meetups to meet everyone’s needs.

For the women who are trying parkour for the first time, we start with the basics. We hope to give them a broad introduction to parkour while emphasizing creativity in movement, exploration of the environment, and safety in working through progressions at your own pace. So far we’ve had approximately 75 women try parkour through our Meetups who may have otherwise not given it a shot.

For the women who have been training for longer, we place more emphasis on linking skills together into a smooth course. One of our participants commented, “Love, love, love these activities! This is a great way for any woman to be introduced to the very basics of parkour–or for those with more experience to continue improving their skills. It’s truly an all-skill-level meetup!” We hope that more experienced traceuses not only enjoy training themselves, but begin to help incoming traceuses explore parkour too.

It is our intention to have these Women’s Meetups benefit the larger co-ed parkour community too. We do not intend to create an exclusive “girls-only” club, but rather to give women the opportunity to explore parkour in an environment that is comfortable for them, with the objective that they ultimately join and contribute to the larger parkour community.

 

J-After being introduced to parkour in the female only sessions did many of the women extend their training to mixed sessions?

K- Yes! We’re thrilled that women who attend our Women’s Meetups do go on to become involved in the larger parkour community. We’ve had many women attend weekly (co-ed) jams on a consistent basis! Women from the Women’s Meetups also go on to take parkour classes at American Parkour Academy. It’s been an incredible shift in our clientele – oftentimes when I’m in class I look around and see that there are more females than males training!

What reactions have you had to the project?

K- We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response to Women’s Meetups. Most of our participants return each month, expressing how much they enjoy training in this female-only space. One participant says, “It’s nice to work with a group of people whose bodies resemble your own – I can see other women do something and think, hey, I can do that too.” There’s a sense of empowerment, accomplishment, and motivation to continue training that I think each of us feels after a Meetup.

We’ve also gotten some push-back from the larger parkour community. Some men and women do not agree with single-sex training and find it to be contradictory to the goal of uniting all parkour practionners.

 

J-Why do you think it upsets people to provide an environment where women feel comfortable to try parkour?

K- We’ve definitely gotten some push back for creating this female-only space. The main concern (usually voiced by male members of the community) is that single-sex training only separates the community when our goal ought to be to bring everyone together. This is a completely legitimate concern because, at first glance, single-sex training does appear to be more exclusive than inclusive. After all, if we want females and males to be equal, why not train in an equally accessible setting?

I think what’s important to remember here is that we all have the same goal: get more people trying and falling in love with parkour. We’ve all felt that amazing sense of accomplishment when you overcome a fear, and we want others to have the chance to feel that too.

Women’s Meetups were created to serve as an access point for women who would not otherwise try parkour. It is an environment which some women need in order to take that first step. Other women may not need a women’s-only space and that is perfectly fine as well. Either way, what’s important is that more people are trying parkour, even if they took different paths to get there.

 

J-Do you think there is much awareness of how parkour is an intimidating environment for many women?

K- In the education field we talk a great deal about how to create a safe space in the classroom. It’s tricky – because a safe space for one person could feel very unsafe for another. On top of that, if you’ve never felt what it’s like to be in an unsafe space, you just don’t fully understand how uncomfortable and disconcerting it can be.

In a male-majority discipline such as parkour there are lots of situations that could feel uncomfortable to the minority of women present. Seeing guys (and girls) throwing big skills in and of itself is intimidating to most newbies regardless of gender. Add the fact that men and women build strength differently, and therefore may need to approach certain skills differently, the whole situation becomes a little overwhelming to tackle all at once.

All of the men I have discussed this with have stated expressly that they never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. Most traceurs are horrified to learn that a traceuse has felt intimidated just by being around them.

What we can all do is recognize that parkour can be intimidating to some people in some situations. Being conscious of this fact and taking steps to include everyone in the space is a perfect first step.

 

J- If the guys are so upset about a female only session, did any of them say what they were doing to actively engage with women otherwise or was the fact that ‘they are welcome’ seen as being enough?

K- First, to be clear, not every guy is upset about a female-only training space. In my personal experience and from what I’ve seen in the online communities, at least half of the guys are supportive of our methods of introducing women to parkour.

However, there are some men who don’t see our point of view. Some are doing really great things to enhance the community and see our Meetups as opposing their goals of expanding the parkour community. Unfortunately, the majority of these opposing men who I’ve spoken with tend to be all talk – they want a stronger, larger parkour community but aren’t making conscious decisions and taking actionable steps to support their methods of growing the parkour community.

The men who feel there is no need for women’s-only environments keep saying “all are welcome” as if this is enough. This is like telling someone who can’t do a pull up to “just do a pull up!” it doesn’t help and it doesn’t change their situation. You need to give them a different entry point that works for their current situation. It’s time we try something new.

 

J- If the women were upset, did any of them say what they were doing to actively engage with women otherwise?

K- Just as some men do not agree with single-sex training spaces, some women also see Women’s Meetups as being contradictory to the goal of growing the larger community.

Some of these women are doing really great things to build the community. To these women, I would like to say thank you! You’re helping with the same goal I’m working toward. We’re just doing so in different ways and that’s okay.

I think it’s important to recognize that not all women want or need a female-only training space. Perhaps they don’t feel intimated in the typical parkour environment. That’s great! However, other women may not feel comfortable jumping right in to the co-ed environment. We offer Women’s Meetups for these women as an access point. In providing the platform that we do, we don’t take away from any other platform; just because there’s a women’s-only event doesn’t mean that women can’t continue to go to other events too! In the end, what works for one woman might not work for the next – it’s all about finding your own path.