Paul Canada spent some time training acrobats in the Ringling Brothers Circus and working with a juvenile acrobat team on Chicago's West Side.
Now Canada and his team are bringing an urban acrobatic form to kids and adults in West Suburban Forest Park. The Flipside Academy is turning Forest Park into Forest Parkour.
Parkour classes are being offered in Canada's Livfit Studio, 1525 S. Circle Ave., in Forest Park, four times a week. Kids are releasing their inner American Ninja Warrior by running, leaping over vaults, clambering over 6-foot-high walls and scaling rope ladders.
Kids learn physical strength and increased confidence in cutting-edge obstacle experiences, said Canada, who held a summer camp earlier this year that was wildly successful, he said. Twenty-five kids participated.
"He loves it!" said mother Laura Marshall of her son Zander. "We signed him up for the camp this summer and he really stuck with it."
Two Chicago Parkour athletes Stephan Roberts and Luke Albrecht help Canada train children weekly. But the instructors are not encouraging children to scale abandoned buildings and flip over walls — at least not yet.
"We are all about safety," Roberts said. "We start by teaching safety rolls so kids know how to land." Children learn to roll backwards and forwards. The floors of the gym are padded for safety.
"You tuck your head because you don't want to hit your head on cement outside," Albrecht explained.
The students learn precision jumping, which lets them stop quickly in a squat on the balls of their feet. "That absorbs impact," Roberts explains.
Roberts, who was teaching class last week with a hand in a cast ("But not broken by Parkour!"), demonstrated leaps and vaults to students. Vaulting techniques have names like "speed vault," "safety vault," as well as the "monkey" and "Kong" vault (named for a character in a video game).
Canada said there is only one other Parkour gym in Chicago, and he plans to expand to an entire "Flipside Academy of Movement," based in Forest Park, next year. He charges $50 per month for a one-hour class per week.
Helps nonprofit acrobatics program
But Canada has a "flipside" to his Forest Park classes.
Money earned teaching Parkour is helping his not-for-profit acrobatic team from Chicago's Austin neighborhood.
Canada coaches the Flipside Acrobats, 12 students who attend Circle Rock Charter School, age 9-13. He got involved with the program through Circle Urban Ministries and has been working with them for three years as they perform at schools and festivals.
"I've been doing acrobatics my whole life," Canada said. "These kids are gifted and talented at acrobatics. We want to show them they can do a lot with their gifts if they can use their gifts the right way."
The program combines performance and academic assistance, mentoring and guidance to students to show them a way to use acrobatics to go through high school and into college, said Canada, comparing his Forest Park Parkour program to the charity campaign by the Tom's Shoe Company.
"You buy one pair of shoes and another pair is donated to someone in the Third World," he said.
"With Flipside, the income earned teaching in Forest Park helps augment the programs for the Flipside Acrobats on the West Side."
Canada studied acrobatics in college. His mother worked for Ringling Brothers and he soon was coaching young acrobats. Lots of American circus acrobats are from foreign troupes, he said. But in the early 1990s, Canada got a chance to travel with and coach a bunch of acrobatic kids from Cabrini-Green in Chicago.
One of them was renowned Chicago acrobat Tim Shaw, who joined Ringling Brothers at age 13. Shaw, now 35, coaches Chicago Boyz, who recently wowed judges on America's Got Talent.
Shaw and Canada also partner to coach the Chicago Fly acrobats who perform with cheerleaders during half-time shows at Chicago Sky Women's NBA basketball games.
In Forest Park, part of the Parkour class is physical conditioning, like pushups and leg lifts.
"They're working out right now, but they don't know it," Canada laughed, as the boys and girls perform frog jumps, bear crawls and crab walks.
But the coaches reserve a special time for free play on an obstacle course they create with vaults, circus mounts, rope ladders, a climbing wall and a 6-foot-high climbing box.
Freedom and creativity are at the heart of Parkour, they say.
"Parkour is going from one point to another in the straightest possible line, no matter what's in the way," Albrecht said. "Free running is adding more individual expression and personal creativity."
It's a dream come true for kids who enjoy climbing and running. And no one's telling them to "get down off of that wall!"
For Zander, the class is one of the best parts of his week, his mother said.
"They must be really doing something encouraging here," Marshall said. "It's both fun and tiring for him."
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