Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Performative Behavior and It’s Impact on the Parkour Community by David Banks

From as long as I remember I’ve pursued and driven the majority of my training with the thought and desire of becoming a Superhero.
A lot of us do it, a lot of us finding ourselves wanting to do it. Humans imitate behavior and actions we see. Whether it is down to survival, fun, learning techniques, imitating movements, actions, skills, behaviors, gestures, mimics, vocalizations, sounds, speech or general necessity we will all do it hundreds of times in our lives. It’s central to our learning and development as people. As Traceurs we do this consciously when imitating or being taught a technique, we also do this subconsciously.

We have this capacity because of Mirror Neurons (1). Originally discovered using functional magnetic resonance imaging, which is similar to an MRI scan, these are found primarily in the frontal cortex and inferior parietal cortex. It’s widely believed that our human ability to imitate is so advanced compared to other species that it’s one of the fundamental reasons behind our evolution. However it’s been found that the part of our brain that allows us to do this isn’t far removed from that of the Macaque Monkey. The Macaque monkey lives in small groups of 15 to 30 monkeys (2). These groups are hierarchical with the head of the group being a female monkey that determines the hierarchy. The head monkey determines the roles of the group and the offspring of each monkey tend to replicate the job of their mother or carer (the monkeys within the tribe tend to mate freely, it’s often hard to establish the father of each monkey) – unless of course they leave the group to mate. The monkeys use their frontal cortex and inferior parietal cortex to learn the behaviors of the group and the role they are expected to take. By observing another species with similar behaviors to our own we are able to think critically and then apply the findings to ourselves. Monkey or human, how much of our behavior is learnt, influenced or the result of nurture and how much of it is performative? How is this relevant to and how does it affect our training?
First off to understand and identify what ‘performative’ action is, we must first develop our understanding of ‘performance’, it’s meaning and boundaries. Richard Schechner claims, “In business, sports and sex, “to perform” is to do something up to a standard – to succeed, to excel. In the arts, “to perform” is to put on a show, a play, a dance, a concert. In everyday life, “to perform is to show off, to go to extremes, to underline an action for those who are watching.” (3) I would expand on Schechners definition and claim that to perform in everyday life is to ‘show to’ as well as show off. What I mean by this is to behave in an irregular fashion to suit social situations. This performative state is often achieved on a subconscious level. There was an interesting study conducted at Yale that backs this theory.
In 1999, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology was published. In this journal there was a test that had collage students at Yale engage in a practical test (4). The participants were asked to describe to an interviewer 5 photos’ they were given. This test was done to 2 groups. The first group was interviewed normally and the interviewer imitated the second group. What I mean by this is, if the student leaned back so would the interviewer. This extended to a number of behaviors. None of the students noticed there behavior being imitated yet the group that was imitated had more positive feedback on how they got on with the interviewer and how they felt it went than the group that received a neutral interview.

This test was even repeated 5 years later by a Dutch team who found that 84% of imitated participants would help the researcher pick up there “accidently” dropped pen compared to 48% in the other group. This was even extended to trialing it on waiters who found they received higher levels of tips when imitating costumers. If this was the result of imitating behavior subconsciously, then what happens when we consciously imitate? What happens when we act in response, emotional and/or physically, rather than just simple imitation?

“Of course as children, we all, in all cultures and societies, learn behavior from observation, imitation, and encouragement of various kinds. So by the suggestion made, we all 'pretend' most of the time” – Mason Cooley. (5)

Have you ever walked out of a film, perhaps when you were younger or perhaps just the other day, when you found yourself imagining you were a particular character or in the world that exists within the film. 
Whether that’s you climbing about pretending to be ‘Spiderman’, trying to wallflip like Neo in ‘The Matrix or (a common one for Traceurs) you seen Jump London/Britain and wanted to be like the people in the video. These examples extend beyond film and it’s impossible for me to provide examples relevant to all. Film is the blunt example but it extends to many things. Whether you wanted to dress and act like the older kids when you were at school, or imitated your friends on a team. We as humans have a habit of imitating behavior whether it’s for our own personal needs or a desire to fit in. Monkey see monkey do.

I’ve been to lots of theatre where I sit quietly and spectate, many mixed martial arts events where I scream and shout, many football games where I chant songs, many clubs where I’ve decided to dance, I’ve been through schools being disciplined into how to behave, walked down corridors where I walk on the left hand side, stood in lifts with strangers quietly, waited in a queue, waited for the lights when I thought I could cross and so on. However, when in these venues/situations I know to do this. It’s safe, everyone’s doing it. I can never really know if that behavior is my natural reaction.

I remember my first Parkour jam and how that felt. I had really no idea what to expect, I googled Aberdeen Parkour and found myself on Craig ‘Flan’ Flanagan’s Bebo page (oh dear, remember Bebo?) and arranged to meet him and a few local Traceurs. When I went to the meet the vibe was friendly, within 5 minutes of meeting Flan and some of the others people were offering to teach me some things. Normally this would have felt uncomfortable, like I was a burden to everyone who was training but it never felt like that. Despite me being taught others around me were teaching each other all the time. I loved it and I wanted it to become part of my life, however my technical ability was nowhere near these people I had just met. I remember being very conscious at the fact that I was wearing jeans and skateboarding shoes despite everyone around me wearing XL Primark joggers, vests, and running shoes. I remember most of them eating reasonably healthy food and feeling underprepared with my fast food. A combination of this and my initial desire to simply be a part of what was happening because at the time I wouldn’t believe I could ever train at there level dictated my next few steps. Before the next meet up I had acquired my XL Primark joggers, running shoes, vest and backpack (complete with water, bananas and sandwiches). After a little while passed I my initial nerves about turning up to a jam had faded and I was as comfortable as sitting in the cinema quietly with popcorn and a juice because I understood the situation. I joined in with the trends; worked on the movements everyone else was working on and felt part of something.

The question I have now is how beneficial was this? I was subconsciously performing a situation and it might have not been ideal. Yes I was eating well and learning things, however the people I was training at the time (in fairness the community was still in its nascent stage) weren’t warming up, they weren’t conditioning and for me I only ate healthy when I was training. It could have been a lot worse but it could have also been a lot better. I was performing to my environment without realizing it. This was better than nothing so I appreciated it; it was also better than anything I had ever done before so I was definitely sticking with it.

The interesting thing about it was how I evolved from there and how I see others evolve from this situation. I began to plateau, it wasn’t good enough to eat healthy when I was training, I found out post and pre workout nutrition was also incredibly important. My precision wasn’t getting any bigger so I began to do more conditioning. I also integrated martial arts, dropped tricking a bit and began working with my original goal to be a Superhero. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t met the Traceur community and I see the same happening for others.

Yes I could have progressed to the point where I had found my way quicker if there was more of a variety.

Yes I would have progressed technically and physically faster if the training was better.

Yes I would have eaten healthier if I had been more informed.

Parkour has taught me many things outside movement, it has taught me to be free and useful in my environment. The more I train the less conventions dictate my behavior. The happier I am. The closer I am to my goals. The more friends I meet. However with the new friends that come along training if I know them or not, I am responsible for being as much help as I can. I am responsible to help them train safely, achieve there potential and allow them to find there way no matter how it contrasts from mine. As the parkour community grows we as practitioners are becoming more responsible for each other and our communities progression. As the community grows we also have less excuses not to give new practitioners opportunities to learn because of the wealth of knowledge within our communities, both in the flesh and online.


The human ability to relate on a purely physical level engages me. It moves me and in turn I find myself wanting to move.





(1) Rizzolatti G., Craighero L., The mirror-neuron system, Annual
Review of Neuroscience. 2004;27:169-9

(2) http://www.northrup.org/photos/macaque/

(3) Richard Schechner, Performance Studies – Second Edition, 2002. Page 28.

(4) 1999, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, volume 77

(5) http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/imitation_2.html

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